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Making Friends with the GNOME Desktop

Making Friends with the GNOME Desktop

In my last article I showed you some of the basics of the KDE desktop environment. The primary challenger to KDE is the GNOME desktop environment.

The GNU Network Object Model Environment project began, in part, in a political dispute in the free software community. KDE is based on Trolltech's Qt libraries. These development libraries were originally released under something other than the GNU General Public License (GPL). Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation issued a call to create a new desktop environment based on GPL'ed libraries.

While the political dispute was resolved by Trolltech releasing Qt under the GPL, the GNOME project remains healthy and viable. By default, GNOME (pronounced guh-nome, by the way) is the primary desktop environment of Red Hat Linux, Debian and several other prominent distributions. Currently at version 1.4; the next version is due later this year.

In this article, I'll walk you through the GNOME desktop and the two GNOME file managers: Nautilus and Midnight Commander. You'll learn about some of the neater tools that come with GNOME, and how to customize your desktop in the GNOME Control Center.

Desktop Basics
The GNOME desktop is organized a little bit differently from both KDE and Windows. Besides the standard Taskbar-like Panel at the bottom of the screen, by default you also have a toolbar across the top. This toolbar gives you drop-down menus for program access, a listing (which you must create) of Favorites, access to the GNOME Control Center and desktop settings. On the right end of the toolbar is the GNOME Calendar: a configurable clock at minimum, a Palm-accessible personal organizer if you want it to be. You can also click an icon to log on to the GNOME Web site (www.gnome.org).

One click on the GNOME Panel along the bottom of the screen gives you access to the (quite useful) Help Index, the XTerminal command line shell, the Control Center and Netscape. For the time junkies among us, there's another clock with date and time available. You can lock the screen in place with a password-protected screensaver and logout as well from the Panel.

Finally, the GNOME logo (a stylized gnomish footprint) is the equivalent of the Windows Start Menu. Here you can run programs, add system monitors to your Panel, logout and perform assorted and sundry desktop-related tasks.

In the middle of the Panel is the Pager: a list of currently running programs. Click any of the Pager buttons to switch from one application to another. Switch from one desktop to another by clicking on the screen to the right of the Pager.

Everything is configurable and icons can be replaced with ease. Use the Applets menu from the Start button or drag a program icon for a quick addition. For more extensive customization, right-click anywhere on the Panel and choose options from the Panel menu. You can also create new Panels that can float on the desktop or dock anywhere you want them to.

One weakness in GNOME 1.4 is that there is no intuitive way to move apps from one desktop to another. This may be dependent on the window manager you choose to run over the top of GNOME. More about that later.

Managing Files: Midnight Commander v. Nautilus
In GNOME 1.4, the default GUI file manager is based on the venerable Unix manager Midnight Commander. This version of GNOME also featured the debut of Nautilus, the user-friendly file manager developed by the Apple-trained interface wizards from Eazel. Let's have a look at both of them.

Click on the Home directory icon on your desktop, and the GNOME File Manager (that is, GNOME Midnight Commander, GMC) opens on the screen. Veterans used to Windows Explorer will certainly find GMC familiar. You get the standard toolbar buttons at the top, a tree pane and file pane. Want to copy or move files from one window to another? Choose Create New Window from the File menu, position the new window properly, and drag and drop away!

By default, you just see file icons with names. You can also easily choose (from the toolbar) the Brief view (just the names), Detailed view (Name, Size in bytes, and Last Modified Date) and a Custom View with as much information as you want. Click on a column heading to sort by a Detail. You can Find Files from the Command menu.

Midnight Commander will connect to FTP sites if you type in the URL on the location bar. Unlike the KDE Konqueror, it does not contain a web browser, so typing in an http:// link will get you nowhere.

One warning: The GNOME desktop is built as an extension of the file manager (GMC). When you're done with your file management tasks, choose the Close Window option from the File menu. There is an Exit command available from the Commands menu, but this will close GNOME altogether (not just the file manager).

Nautilus 1.0.4 is still a work in progress, even if its founding developers have gone into dead-company mode. It has default preferences set based on user type (though I suggest it might be hard to actually do much managing of files in Beginner Mode). Once you bash it into shape, however, it's a pretty nifty file manager.

You can see the Tree pane by default in the Nautilus window, but there are other things that you can put in this window. The Notes feature lets you write comments on the contents of a folder or file. The History view tells you where you've been recently. You can access the Help system with a tab here, too.

Nautilus has a number of Internet features not found in Midnight Commander. In addition to the FTP access, Nautilus lets connected users search the Web via Google or your favorite search engine. A customizable News column in the Tree window gives you the latest Linux and world news from a variety of Web sites. Finally, check the Bookmarks menu for a set of Linux hardware, software and news sites to connect to.

Customizing GNOME
Linux has a reputation of being a programmer's plaything. If you are a born tinkerer who loves to tweak every aspect of your computing experience, you may indulge yourself in customizing GNOME almost to your heart's content. Much of that tweaking happens in the GNOME Control Center.

The Desktop section is where you select your background image, screensaver, and/or a unified theme for both. Tweak your Panel thoroughly, and select a window manager. Window managers are the original method the X Windows System used to display a GUI desktop. KDE manages the various windows directly; GNOME piggybacks on top. There are dozens of window managers available on your distribution CD and downloadable from the Internet. The Control Panel also has additional options if you use the Sawfish window manager.

The Document Handlers section lets you select a default text editor, set file associations and tweak how the built-in HTML viewer works. The URL Handlers select an application to display Help, Info and Main pages as well as what launches when you click an Internet URL. The Help is good, but Nautilus needs work as the Help browser. It will sometimes display the raw HTML text of a Help topic instead of the rendered page.

The Look and Feel section handles how dialogs and application menus display. The multimedia section defines what sounds play for system events. Peripherals manage the Calendar, keyboard and mouse behavior. Unlike KDE, it does not have a print manager. Finally the Session section is where you can turn off the helpful hints that open your session.

While you're tweaking, click the Try button to see how your changes affect the system. Don't like it? Choose Revert to go back to the defaults.

Final Thoughts
GNOME is not quite as mature as KDE. You'll find that some things do not follow your orders. And stability is still sometimes an issue (though the system rarely breaks down altogether).

These two desktop environments are not mutually exclusive. All GNOME applets work in KDE and vice versa. Most distributions install both environments by default. So you have the luxury of picking a different one every day, and tweak them till you're happy. Of course, you won't get any work done in the process!

As with KDE, the best way to get familiar with the interface is by poking around and trying things. Use the right-click context menu to see what choices you have. Investigate what buttons do. Tweak away! It's Linux!

More Stories By Mike McCallister

Mike McCallister is a freelance Linux writer based in Milwaukee and is constantly on the lookout for interesting documentation projects. Mike is the author of Computer Certification Handbook (2000, Arco Press).

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