Monthly Archives: October 2011

An Overview Of Ubuntu Desktop Environments


With the release of Ubuntu Oneiric Ocelot 11.10, Unity and its less resource intensive version, Unity 2D, have become the default desktop environments for Ubuntu. Most probably, your first thought upon seeing either one of them in action was: ”That’s cool!… now how do I get rid of it?”

While it is true that Unity is pretty, it is hardly functional in the way gnome 2 (the previous Ubuntu desktop environment) was. The vertical launch thing on the side isn’t a real substitute for the good ol’ bottom and top bar configuration many of us have grown to know and love.

Don’t get me wrong, the switch to Unity is fantastic for the mac-type crowd – the non-tech part of the user population that wants a pretty OS that they can use to check email and facebook in, occasionally do something in Office, and to generally just have a system that works and doesn’t ask too many questions. And I have to admit the new design has its good sides and is way more visually appealing than gnome 2 is. However, power users typically have more demands than that and they value power and function before design and visuals.

Luckily, Ubuntu makes it incredibly easy to install alternative desktop environments. You just run a single command (found at the end of each DE description further down in the text). When you install it, you log out, select the cog icon next to your user name and select the new DE you would like to use. That’s it. Not even a reboot needed. With that said, I present you with 4 alternative desktop environments for Ubuntu:

1.) KDE 4 Plasma Desktop


This one has an interesting history. When it first came out in 2008, massive amounts of hate were thrown its way by the Linux community. The current version back then, KDE 3, was an established polished product, and the new KDE 4.0 was a half-baked unstable beta. However, in the meantime, it has grown to be a solid DE. By default, it has a very windows-y UI, with a traditional bar on the bottom of the screen. Its main feature are containments. Think of them something like widgets or rainmeter plugins. KDE 4 is also an eye-candy dispenser, with rotating desktop cubes and exploding windows (actually), all powered by KWin.

However, having tons of features comes at a price: it is the “heaviest” desktop environment of the ones described here.

To install in Ubuntu, run:

sudo apt-get install kubuntu-desktop

2.) LXDE


If you have an old computer, you will most grateful LXDE exists. It makes a point of being extremely fast and resource efficient, however it is not very customizable or incredibly pretty. It just does its job and does it well. I like it and use it on my old-ish core 2 duo desktop computer. No flying cubes, but whatever you click simply happens in a flash.

To install in Ubuntu, run:

sudo apt-get install lubuntu-desktop

3.) Xfce


A bit heavier DE than LXDE, but a lot more configurable. Should run on everything and anything as far as computers are concerned. It has some some default effects, most of them along the lines of making the terminal semi-transparent. However its strength is combining the best of two worlds, being lightweight like LXDE, but at the same time, being a modern, comfortable to work with desktop environment.

To install in Ubuntu, run:

sudo apt-get install xubuntu-desktop

4.) Gnome 3 / Gnome Shell

Gnome 3

Yep, I kept this one till the end. So, the reason why we have Unity by default now is because gnome 3 was a horrible mess early in its development. It was so bad it prompted Linus Torvalds to call it crap and promptly switch to Xfce (however he did something similar when KDE 4 came out and he switched to Gnome 2). However…

Gnome 3 didn’t turn out to be all that bad. I’d even say that it is the Unity desktop the way it was supposed to be, well designed and yet a good platform to get some work done. I should just warn you of one thing: you should get used to ctrl+alt+arrow to switch workspaces, the meta key to show windows, and other keyboard shortcuts, because it will speed up your work exponentially. If you try using your mouse you will soon grow to loathe gnome 3 because of a lack of things like minimize and maximize buttons, or a clearcut bar with open programs. But using the keyboard and the built-in launcher is surprisingly comfortable and efficient, especially with multiple desktops (whose number gnome 3 manages dynamically – a cool feature you get used to very quickly). As an added plus, it is less sluggish than Unity. As an added minus, it is quite difficult to customize beyond the essential stuff.

To install in Ubuntu, run:

sudo apt-get install gnome-shell

So, which desktop environment do you use? What are your views on the ones outlined here? Please share in the comment section below.

Setting Priorities and Planning

The Tuesday post was about why you won’t survive university unless you have solid time-management skills. List, prioritize and plan are the 3 basic steps behind every time-management method under the sun. Through them, you will get all outstanding tasks and plans handed to you in a neatly organized format through which you know exactly what to do and when – which is a way better option than always having an intimidating ambiguous pile of ”stuff-to-do” hanging over your head. Instead of fretting about everything, you can just go out and get things done.

2.) Set Your Priorities

There are several different methods you can use prioritize your tasks, but the idea behind all of them is the same: You take your to-do list, and divide the tasks into groups according to various criteria. Some of these methods are complicated and expect you to behave as if you were running a company (e.g. the POSEC method – a convoluted way to over-manage every aspect of your life), and some are very simple and effective, including my personal favorite: the Eisenhower box.

Eisenhower Box

Different tasks on your list are going to have to be sorted according to importance and urgency. However, I cannot stress enough that urgent and important are not the same thing. If you check out the graphic of an Eisenhower box on the right, you will see that not everything that is urgent is important (e.g. the phone ringing – you need to devote attention to it right now if you don’t want the caller to hang up), and that not everything that is important is urgent (e.g. choosing a major for university, plan to take over the world etc.). So you do the following:

Group your tasks in 4 categories like in the graphic. Do not use the examples already inside as a guide, they are exaggerated as an illustration (I don’t think anyone would be so busy to put “extinguish fire” on a to-do list with the goal of doing it later). The guideline for “urgent and important” is anything that will have negative consequences if you do not start working on it soon, e.g. if you don’t start studying for that big exam scheduled in 3 days, you will most likely get a poor grade. The benchmark for “not urgent and important” is any big decision or long-term plan, like finding a place to live on campus next year. The “not urgent and not important” and “urgent but not important” categories are pretty self-explanatory.

After you have everything from your list in little groups like that, first cross out #4 (“not urgent/not important”). If you judged a task is neither urgent nor important, it is probably not worth worrying about and doing. Group #3 (“urgent/not important”) mostly consists of small annoyances, and this group is usually empty, because such things get dealt with as soon as they occur, so they don’t even get written down. You are left with the 2 “important groups”. For these, you proceed as follows:

3.) Plan

Get a planer and write the urgent/important stuff into timeslots closer to today and put the not urgent/important stuff in timeslots after those. That is the basic idea.

Having a planner is important because as a student you always have a lot of stuff going on, like tests, labs, assignments, a job or two… It can be overwhelming to keep track of all that in your head. You become stressed out of your mind because so much is going on. However, when you write it down, everything stops looking so scary. Why?

a) Your tasks don’t seem that big (because you have a clear overview)

b) You can start doing your tasks instead of just panicking about them (because you can plan out a way to solve them in the same planer)

As for myself, I first tried using my phone as a planner, but it didn’t work out because I was too lazy to type stuff into it. Next I tried a bound paper planer, but stopped using it after a semester because it is structured either per day (with hour slots), or per week (with day slots), and I needed both views at the same time.

Finally, I ended up using my timetable as a planner. I just made a table with 30 minute divisions for the entire week, and inserted my classes, labs etc. into it. What I got is all of my scheduled commitments in clear view, and empty slots for when I’m not going to school. Print a bunch of copies, fill the empty slots with whatever needs to be done, and that’s it.

Although this type of planner worked best for me, you should try everything until you find out what fits you best, because as I said in the previous post: everyone is different and different things work for different people. Maybe you will like using your smartphone best, because it is convenient (you always have it with you), or maybe because you can sync it to your computer. As long as you have a clear overview of what’s coming in the following week(s) and can prepare accordingly, it will do as a planner.

This three step approach to organization simply works because there is no complicated procedure: you write down stuff that needs to get done and then you sort and go do it. Give these tips a try, and be sure to comment on how they worked for you in the comments section below.