Ask LH: How Do I Get Cool Desktop Effects In Linux?

Dear Lifehacker, I’m loving Linux, but I keep seeing screenshots and videos of these tricked-out, super-customised interfaces with things like the desktop cube and I’m not sure where to find them in the settings. How can I customise my Linux desktop like this? Sincerely, Confused Customiser

Dear Confused,

Like many things Linux, the solution is not always as obvious as it would seem. Many of the things you see — like that fancy desktop cube — come from the Compiz window manager and its advanced settings panel, which doesn’t come installed by default. Here’s how to get that stuff installed and how to enable some of our favourite cool effects.

Note: Many of these effects can be pretty graphics intensive, so you’ll need a decent video card to handle some of them. Make sure you’re running a somewhat newer machine, and that your graphics card’s drivers are properly installed before continuing.

Installing The Compiz Settings Manager

To get most of these effects, you need to be using the Compiz window manager. We’ve talked a bit about what a window manager is before, so I won’t get too deep into it here, but what you need to know is that, by default, Ubuntu Unity uses Compiz as its window manager. This means all you have to install is the configuration program. Other distros and desktop environments may vary; we’ll just focus on Ubuntu today.

If you’re using the new default Ubuntu desktop, Unity (which has the big dock on the left side of the screen), just head into the Ubuntu Software centre and search for ccsm. You should see the Advanced Desktop Effects Settings Manager pop up. Install that, and then search for it from the Ubuntu launcher in the upper left-hand corner of the screen. You should see a window like the one to the right, if all has gone well.

Some of Our Favourite Effects

The world is pretty much your oyster at this point, and Compiz has a ton of different settings and effects you can use — both on the eye candy side of the spectrum and the more useful. Here are some of our favourites.

The Desktop Cube: The fabled desktop cube, pictured above, has a few issues in Unity, but with the correct procedure, you can get it working easily. If you aren’t using Unity, just check the “Desktop Cube” pane — that’s all you need. Also, under General in CCSM, go to General Options and increase the “Horizontal Virtual Size” to 4 or more if it isn’t already that high. This will decide how many sides your “cube” has (if it’s more than 4, it’s not really a cube anymore, but a large 3D polygon).

If you’re using Unity, set the Horizontal Virtual Size as described above, but don’t enable the cube just yet. We need to do a few things that are going to disable Unity, and it’s hard to get back, so I recommend having a good backup of all your data before continuing, just in case something goes wrong. When you’re ready, head into CCSM, go down to Desktop, and deselect Unity and Desktop Wall. Unity will disappear, but we’re going to re-enable it in a second. Select Desktop Cube and Viewport Switcher (I also selected Rotate Cube).

Next, reselect the Ubuntu Unity Plugin. When asked about Reveal Mode, keyboard-focus, and executing commands, choose “Set Anyway” (the leftmost option) for all three. When you’re done, Unity should be back up, and by hitting Ctrl+Alt and clicking the left mouse button, you should be able to move the cube around! Dig around in the Cube and Rotate Cube panes for more settings on customising the cube, and you’re on your way. Thanks to weblog Reformed Musings for these instructions.

Grid: This one’s enabled by default, but gives you Divvy-like organisation of your windows, which is great if you need to see more than one at a time. Just assign different keyboard shortcuts to different portions of a “grid” on your screen, and you can move windows to a specific position with just a few keystrokes.

Application Switcher: If you want a nicer Alt+Tab experience, you can disable Static Application Switcher pane under Window Management and enable the Application Switcher. It’s a very similar Alt+Tab window, but with some pretty sliding animations.

Scale: If you’ve always been jealous of Mac OS X’s Exposé feature, you’ll love Compiz’s Scale pane. Just enable it and set a keyboard shortcut for it under Bindings, and you’ll be able to see all your open windows at a glance.

Commands: In the General section, you’ll find the Commands pane, which isn’t exactly eye candy, but is super useful for binding certain keyboard shortcuts, mouse buttons, and screen corners to different commands. Just type in up to 16 commands on the Commands tab, then assign them shortcuts on the Key, Button, and/or Edge binding tabs.

Those are just a few of my personal favourites, but you should find some pretty awesome settings in the Compiz Configuration Manager. Poke around and see what you can find. I always recommend having a good, easily restorable backup, though, because messing with your window manager can really muck things up sometimes in an irreversible way. Have fun and good luck!


P.S. Got any of your own favourite Compiz settings, or cool tweaks you’ve found in the settings manager? Let us know about them in the comments.

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