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Feature: Desktop Software

Building an attractive, usable desktop on a budget laptop

By Jake Tolbert on February 08, 2008 (7:00:00 PM)

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Creating a light, attractive desktop environment on a new low-end laptop using Openbox in Ubuntu is simple and offers you most of the features you need for everyday computing without much of the load that comes with GNOME or KDE.

Despite the myth that Linux runs on anything, Ubuntu often doesn't perform well on $500 laptop hardware out of the box. Opening the main menu can take several seconds. Running a system update can bog down the system, and the GNOME icons and menus clearly weren't designed for low resolutions and 15.4-inch screens. Enabling Compiz desktop effects may result in errors, grindingly slow performance, or even a blank screen until you pull the power and reboot.

Some Linux distributions will run well on just about any hardware. However, distros designed for older or low-performance hardware may skimp on font rendering and other eye candy. Too, they often don't provide the full range of features that a desktop environment like GNOME does, leaving you with a machine that works well for basic tasks but is too ugly to show off.

Openbox is a light, fast, and highly configurable window manager in the Blackbox family. It comes well configured from the Ubuntu repositories with several useful hotkeys already set up. Installing Openbox, along with a few other tools, provides most of the features you need for basic computing and leaves enough resources left over for eye candy. You can leave the default GNOME desktop installed so you can use GNOME's features if you want to, making configuration even easier.

To begin, install the necessary programs with apt-get:

sudo apt-get install openbox pypanel xcompmgr openbox-themes obconf

After installation, start an Openbox session by logging out of GNOME, then at the login screen, press F10 to select Openbox from the session menu. When you log in, you'll be faced with a blank screen almost immediately; Openbox is running.

You can open Openbox's minimal default menu by right-clicking on the desktop. Information about configuring the menu by hand and automagically is available online, but we'll rarely use the menu, so we won't spend time now configuring it.

Open obconf, the Openbox configuration program, from the menu and choose the bbstyle theme, which will save some screen space. Several other themes are similarly small and would also do just fine, including anything in the simple-* family.

Change the fonts on the next tab, reducing font sizes as much as possible. This further reduces the window title size, again, saving you valuable screen space. On my laptop anything smaller than 7 or 8 points becomes unreadable.

Set the Desktops tab to use as few virtual desktops (and thus resources) as you need. Reducing desktops affects performance minimally, so set this according to your usage.

Next, choose which programs to start on login. When it starts, Openbox runs ~/.config/openbox/autostart.sh. Start programs by adding lines to this file. Here's a sample. Lines that begin with # are comments:

# Basic GNOME and KDE support . $GLOBALAUTOSTART #Other programs #applet for network connectivity nm-applet --nb-disabled & #support for automounting CDs, DVDs, USB drives gnome-volume-manager & #taskbar pypanel & #compositing - drop shadows xcompmgr -cC -r4 -o.65 -l-4 -t-4 & #program launcher gnome-do -quiet & #IM pidgin &

A couple of programs in this list might be unfamiliar to you. Xcompmgr is an undemanding compositing manager that allows you to add drop shadows and transparency to your windows despite mediocre hardware. Xcompmgr isn't nearly as configurable as Compiz, nor does it make anything flame, spin, or explode. We don't want it to -- we just want subtle drop shadows on each window without bogging things down. Deleting this line would conserve resources even further.

Gnome Do provides Alt-F2-style functionality and allows you to do simple file browsing without opening another program, killing several birds, including our menu problem, with one stone. Ubuntu installs the similar Deskbar by default, but Openbox and Deskbar don't play nice together, resulting in strange windows and poor keyboard support.

You can start other programs by adding them in place of, or after, Pidgin. Be sure to give each program its own line and end each line with "&".

Taskbar: Pypanel

Openbox doesn't come with a taskbar. Installing PyPanel gives us a clock and system tray and allows us to see what programs are running. Several programs provide similar functionality -- see the sidebar for some of them.

PyPanel uses few resources and is easy to configure, making it a good starting place. Its only down side is that it doesn't provide notification. If someone IMs you while another window has focus, PyPanel won't notify you by flashing the window's icon like other panels do.

Configure PyPanel by opening ~/.pypanelrc in a text editor. Change colors by adjusting the hex values if you like, then set the width and height. Try the following:

P_LOCATION = 1 P_WIDTH = 0 P_START = 0 P_SPACER = 6 P_HEIGHT = 14 I_HEIGHT = 10 I_WIDTH = 10 APPL_I_HEIGHT = 14 APPL_I_WIDTH = 14 TRAY_I_HEIGHT = 14 TRAY_I_WIDTH = 0

Reducing the font size to 6 points helps, but pushes the limits of readability:

FONT = "bitstream vera sans-6"

Other options are easily configurable. Read the comments, back up the default, and experiment. Restart PyPanel to see your changes. When you're finished, restart Pidgin and nm-applet, the network manager; PyPanel takes applications in the tray down with it when it closes.

Summary

With a handful of programs installed and minimal tweaking, we now have an almost fully featured desktop. We gave up a few things in order to streamline the process:

  • desktop icons
  • automatic updates
  • other GNOME applets

We could install other lightweight ways to pick these features up. Or, when you need them, you can boot back into GNOME, since leaving GNOME installed allows you pick the tools you need for the work you plan on doing.

In return we picked up several things:

  • more usable screen space
  • eye candy despite cheap hardware
  • much faster booting

In short, we created an attractive, usable desktop, making the most of a budget laptop without a lot of tweaking.

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Comments

on Building an attractive, usable desktop on a budget laptop

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Building an attractive, usable desktop on a budget laptop

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 87.223.232.152] on February 08, 2008 08:11 PM
Useless article if we can't see at least one screenshot.

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Re: Building an attractive, usable desktop on a budget laptop

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 131.95.203.212] on February 08, 2008 09:10 PM
/agree

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There is no need

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 91.45.198.64] on February 08, 2008 09:36 PM
You don't need a screenshot. Just take your time to install the described packages. The result will be far better than any screenshot.

Dennis

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Building an attractive, usable desktop on a budget laptop

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 193.166.94.185] on February 08, 2008 09:30 PM
I also wanted to see a screenshot. Still, I found the article interesting because I've been using openbox with pypanel in Debian for over a year now and I like this setup a lot. It's easy on the system resources -- probably even more easy in Debian than it is in Ubuntu, since Ubuntu has some unnecessary services running on the background. There's also a remastered version of Ubuntu that defaults to openbox & pypanel, called CrunchBang Linux. http://crunchbang.org/projects/linux/

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Building an attractive, usable desktop on a budget laptop

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 82.50.115.175] on February 08, 2008 09:51 PM

Building an attractive, usable desktop on a budget laptop

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 204.137.64.112] on February 08, 2008 09:53 PM
Isn't there already a Ubuntu distro that uses Fluxbox?

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Re: Building an attractive, usable desktop on a budget laptop

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 60.234.208.56] on February 09, 2008 02:40 AM
silly to build distros for every other wm

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Building an attractive, usable desktop on a budget laptop

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 24.20.9.183] on February 09, 2008 01:20 AM
"Despite the myth that Linux runs on anything, Ubuntu often doesn't perform well on $500 laptop hardware out of the box."

The myth here is the notion that you can point to any one install and say, "that's Linux". Without being pedantic and pointing out that Linux is just the kernel, it's important to remember that "Linux" is a lot of things, Ubuntu being only one example. Linux *will* run on pretty much anything (within reason), but that doesn't mean that Ubuntu is the right distribution for all (or even most) systems.

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Re: Building an attractive, usable desktop on a budget laptop

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 99.229.198.156] on February 09, 2008 02:48 AM
I agree but still say Linux will run on any existing PC computer hardware. Linux doesn't reason, it just works. If not a distro with a DE than simply as a command line terminal it will still run and well.

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Building an attractive, usable desktop on a budget laptop

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 71.236.253.88] on February 09, 2008 03:01 AM
I dissagree. I was running Ubuntu on a 1 ghz P3 with 512 GB of ram and an NVidia Geforce 4 with excellent speed. A 500 dollar laptop is better hardware than that

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Umm...

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 24.179.153.199] on February 09, 2008 03:12 AM
I have a $500 laptop running Fedora 8 (with GNOME) and Compiz-Fusion (with quite a few bells and whistles enabled). I also run virtual machines and OpenOffice.org and Firefox at the same time. Everything runs smooth. This article is better suited for a $200-300 laptop. $500 gets you a dual-core, 1GB RAM, and an NVIDIA graphics chip nowadays.

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Building an attractive, usable desktop on a budget laptop

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 87.235.201.162] on February 09, 2008 03:23 AM
I absolutely don't know what this is all about. I'm running plain standard Ubuntu on a PII @ 333 MHz with 256 MB RAM and it's perfectly usable. I simply do not believe you can't run it fine on a modern Celeron 420 and 1 GB RAM (that's what you get for $500 these days) without issues.

Anyway, don't you think you should say what exact changes a user will experience when switching from whatever Ubuntu has as default (I don't even recall) to this setup? You know, ordinary people also read Linux.com... :-)

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Building an attractive, usable desktop on a budget laptop

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 74.244.89.24] on February 09, 2008 03:33 AM
I run Kubuntu on an oldish P4, and a friend of mine runs it on a P2 with 128MB of RAM. Using OpenBox for a $500 laptop (which is about what this year old Dell is- AMD Turion 64 X2 and 1GB of RAM) is craziness.

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Building an attractive, usable desktop on a budget laptop

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 87.235.201.162] on February 09, 2008 03:52 AM
(I'm the one with the old P2 laptop). I just installed Openbox, for the fun of it. Besides being greeted with a blank screen (hey, that' really user friendly... LOL), it makes so little difference that I'm not sacrificing any of the beautiful respect Gnome pays to me. Useless article.

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Building an attractive, usable desktop on a budget laptop

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 203.127.72.10] on February 09, 2008 04:36 AM
Some thing that is not so useful to somebody may be very usefull to others. that is why we all use linux. Every system is different..

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Building an attractive, usable desktop on a budget laptop

Posted by: Colin Dean on February 09, 2008 05:15 AM
It should be noted that gnome-do is not available in the regular repositories, at least in Xubuntu. I followed the instructions below and it was working.

https://wiki.ubuntu.com/GnomeDo/Installation

I also had to install mono and tomboy since Xubuntu doesn't include them.

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Building an attractive, usable desktop on a budget laptop

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 78.100.2.4] on February 09, 2008 10:45 AM
Nice article :)
Seems Openbox is getting popular.

I also found Crunchbang Linux two weeks ago, and the livecd runs fast and flawlessly on my PIII RAM256MB old laptop. Since then, I installed openbox on top of Ubuntu and I really like it. It's simple, neat and easy to customise.

For those who want to try openbox on Ubuntu just try Crunchbang Linux, it is very nice:
http://crunchbang.org/projects/linux/

Also, as the article said, this website has excellent guide about openbox:
http://urukrama.wordpress.com/openbox-guide/

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Linux DOES run on anything

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 71.50.18.232] on February 09, 2008 12:22 PM
You've just got to (oh dear God!!) configure a couple things. Ubuntu is great, however it's not the best suited distro for all needs.

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Building an attractive, usable desktop on a budget laptop

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 87.223.232.152] on February 09, 2008 12:25 PM
I bought a $500 laptop last month:

HP Compaq -> Celeron M420 1.6Ghz, 2GB RAM, Intel X3100 GPU. It that's slow...

My trusty old Thinkpad (P3 1Ghz + 640MB RAM) runs Ubuntu 6.06LTS flawlessly

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Re: Building an attractive, usable desktop on a budget laptop

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 193.239.231.133] on February 09, 2008 02:08 PM
Hi. I just received as a gift an old HP Omnibook 4150 notebook with a PII at 300Mhz, a 64MB ram and a 6GB of HDD. I couldn't believed my eyes when i saw the configuration and I was thinking what OS can run on that machine. Well I tried a few Linux OS, like Mandriva and Ubuntu and none of them doesn't performed well at all giving a hard time and a lot of problems. The Ubuntu doesn't even started giving me a message that the BIOS is older then the year 2000 and thats all. I am thinking now if I must install the Win 98 OS, and that is a pure nightmare. And that was my gift and my experience with Linux operating on low price and very low performence machines.

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Re(1): Building an attractive, usable desktop on a budget laptop

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 193.108.203.150] on February 11, 2008 03:49 PM
The Ubuntu Live CD requires at least 192MB if I'm not mistaken. You should try the Ubuntu server install CD, which installs just the base system. After that go here and install the rest you need:
https://help.ubuntu.com/community/Installation/LowMemorySystems

Other alternatives are DSL (Damn Small Linux)

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Re(1): Building an attractive, usable desktop on a budget laptop

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 164.165.173.60] on February 13, 2008 02:43 PM
I have one of those as well, and successfully installed damn small linux on it.

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Building an attractive, usable desktop on a budget laptop

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 85.221.155.157] on February 09, 2008 02:01 PM
Useless article.
Primo: $500 laptop gives you enough juice to run anything.
Secundo: There is already Xubuntu targeted at older hardware.
Tertio: Openbox, unlike xfce is very poor in terms of productivity, backend integration and configurability.
Waste of breath.

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Building an attractive, usable desktop on a budget laptop

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 71.166.0.28] on February 09, 2008 05:09 PM
I can see running Openbox on a laptop not so much for speed, as for screen real estate. I have a 12.1 inch screen, and I use Fluxbox because it can be set up to maximize applications under the tool bar (if you keep the tool bar on the top layer). I don't know that Openbox can be set up that way with something like pypanel. I've tried, but ended up with less real estate, not more. Openbox does seem snappier than Fluxbox, however. So it's a toss-up. On the other hand, Ubuntu is not a great choice for a less-than-powerful machine anyway. My laptop is a 1.6 Ghz Pentium M with the Intel i810 video, and I can definitely see a difference between Fluxbox on Ubuntu and Fluxbox on Zenwalk, which is what normally use (I'm testing Arch on there at the moment).

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Building an attractive, usable desktop on a budget laptop

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 69.81.118.3] on February 09, 2008 07:03 PM
I have KDE 4.0.x running well on my Pentium II at 333 MHz, with 160 MB of RAM. There's no reason I should have to install Openbox on better hardware for acceptable performance. Are you impatient or something?

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Building an attractive, usable desktop on a budget laptop

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 65.166.110.253] on February 09, 2008 08:03 PM
Hey guys, no need to argue. Whenever you talk about something new, it is natural to want to SEE it if its is unfamiliar. Yet your instructions are very good and well thought out and the article is otherwise very good. The screenshots is just something we geeks like when we can. No harm, no foul.

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Building an attractive, usable desktop on a budget laptop

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 78.156.200.245] on February 09, 2008 11:07 PM
i'm sure www.google.com provides tons of them
aren't "geeks" supposed to know?

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Building an attractive, usable desktop on a budget laptop

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 76.5.115.60] on February 10, 2008 02:58 AM
What does the eye candy get you? Concentrate on the purpose for which you are actually wanting to use the laptop. Unless you are presenting something to a customer/supervisor, eye candy is for your own personal pleasure entirely. Puppy Linux or DSL will both operate with many of the basic applications very quickly in that used Pentium II with 64M RAM and fractional 1G HDD, as long as you can connect up a CD-ROM to install. These are both GUI based and have functionality at least equal to Win95.

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Building an attractive, usable desktop on a budget laptop

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 213.198.237.33] on February 10, 2008 04:25 PM
Yeah, those of you who say you are running KDE or GNOME just fine on PII's can take those stories to the kindergarten, maybe, just maybe, they'll believe you there :-D ... What do you consider to be running fine ? I couldn't stand GNOME'S sluggishness on a 1200MHz PIII..... BTW I'm using Openbox/Fluxbox on my 1.7 GHz dual core + 2 GB RAM laptop, because I like it.

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Screenshot Up

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 74.135.143.64] on February 10, 2008 09:41 PM
Here's a screenshot from the author...nothing to write home about: http://jaketolbert.com/linux

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