Adventures in desktops

Volume 9, Issue 68; 13 Jul 2006; last modified 08 Oct 2010

From Gnome to KDE and back again: a tale of Linux desktops and the (mostly) pleasant experience of installing everyone's favorite distribution-du-jour, Ubuntu.

Yeah, we could do that, but it would open Pandora's can of worms.

Terry Allen

I've used Gnome for quite a while now, years at least. Gnome's philosophy, as I understand it, is to make things as simple as possible. Practically, this means choosing reasonable defaults and providing relatively little in the way of configuration options.

I guess I can understand that, but it definitely grates against my hacker nature sometimes. I like having knobs to turn and levers to pull. I'm idiosyncratic and I want the machine to suit my idiosyncrasies, not vice versa. Sometimes changing things requires a trip into the registrygconf-editor (I want Emacs keybindings in Gnome. I don't need Nautilus on my desktop, thank you very much). Sometimes it just isn't possible.

Goodbye Gnome

Well, a few weeks ago, I threw a hissy fit. I'm not proud, but that's what I did. I wanted to change the Gnome screen saver so that it would use some of my own images in a slide show. In particular, I wanted to use these images `find /share/Backup/flickr -type f -name "*_o.jpg" -print`. Now, I admit, that's a little unusual, but I figured it couldn't be that hard. What I discovered was that the Gnome slide show screen saver requires all images to be in a single directory (not even a subtree, but a single, flat directory), and that that directory must be named~/Pictures”!

That just pushes one of my buttons. Somehow I don't mind the Unix convention of “dot files” in the home directory for configuration files, so I accept that I'm not entirely rational about this. But “~/Pictures”, like the Windows convention of “My This” and “My That” just makes my blood boil. It's my directory, they're my files, I get to decide what names I want to use for them!

So I thumbed my nose at Gnome and installed KDE.

Hello KDE

KDE is nice. Very configurable. There are lots of options and it's easy to establish a personal setup. The screen saver wouldn't actually do what I wanted, exactly, but it got a little closer. I could specify any directory I wanted and it would look recursively through that directory and it's descendants for images.

So I used KDE for a while.

Then I did some low-level hacking. It's hard to break Linux, but it's not impossible. Between an attempt to install some alpha video drivers so that I could get Google Earth to work and hacking about with IrDA, I mangled something. The ACPI functions stopped working. The machine ran, but I couldn't suspend.

I lived without it for a while, even through a road trip, but eventually decided I couldn't go on. That meant a complete re-install.

And when the time came, I went back to Gnome.

Sorry KDE fans (not that it's any skin off your nose, of course).

At the end of the day, I just didn't see a whole lot to choose between them so it was basically an aesthetic choice. I like the look of GTK apps better than Qt apps. (Yes, of course, I know that I can run Gnome apps under KDE and vice-versa, but the KDE desktop looks Qt-ish and the Gnome desktop looks GTK-ish.)

Hello again, Gnome

As many folks have observed, including me, installing Ubuntu is pretty much a breeze. It all just works right out of the box.

That said, I did notice a few small problems this time around.

  • You are backing up your crontab file, right? I wasn't, my full system backup excluded /var/spool in the interest saving a few bytes. That means I've lost my crontab and it'll take me a while to figure out everything that's missing.

  • Someone suggested running xscreensaver instead of the Gnome screen saver. It seemed to sortof work, but never powered down the panel so I went back to Gnome screen saver. $@%#!? ~/Pictures and all.

  • Make sure you fix all the Java links in /etc/alternatives after you install Sun's JDK (which you can now do with apt-get). Otherwise, you'll still be running the buggy gcj stuff and inexplicable Bad Things™ will happen.

  • And finally, what the $@%#!? is up with all the keychain options!? There's gnome-gpg, gnupg-agent, ssh-agent, gnome-keyring, and keychain (at least!). It took a whole bunch of undirected thrashing about to get things working. And don't ask me what's actually working because I'm not really sure (though it appears to be gpg-agent).

It all runs just peachy again now.


[Updated: 14 July 2006] Lots of good comments. As I said, my reaction to the screen saver issue was really an over reaction (i.e. a hissy fit). As

<foaf:name>Paul W. Frields</foaf:name>
and an anonymous commenter point out, there are workarounds of various sorts for the ~/Pictures issues. And I'll have to check out F-Spot too. It's not that the screen saver is somehow intolerable, it was just the last straw.

Other annoyances: I hook up my CF card reader and Gnome tells me that it's detected a photo card and asks me some question about adding the photos to an album. So I check the “Always perform this action” checkbox and select the “Ignore” button (no, I don't need you to manage my photos, thank you very much). But does it subsequently ignore the card? Of course not, it ignored me and asks the same damn question every time.

Or how about the “Disk Mounter” panel applet? I have two encrypted partitions which it insists on putting in the panel. I promise you, those partitions are not removable in either a physical or logical sense. At least not while the Panel is running!

Those are just the two annoyances that come to mind right now, I'm sure there are at least a handful more. Yes, I should write them down when they occur. Yes, I should file bug reports. Heck, this is open source, I should submit patches! But the days are short and the my “todo” list often reminds me of the Nile, flowing from Lake Victoria and winding out of sight across my desk.

One final note. I did, in fact, consider abandoning both Gnome and KDE and just running Fvwm natively as I used to. And I did for a few minutes. Then I decided I really did want some of the conveniences of a modern desktop. But you know, if I find a few minutes to work out how to get on screen feedback for my laptop keys (like volume) and something like the disk mounter applet, I might just try again.

But for the moment, there are things higher up on my todo list!


I also use the GNOME desktop, and although I agree that being able to install a filter/locator for pictures would be a great boon, it's also probably not one for the target audience. (Look at your command line for glaring evidence why.) Here's what I would propose; I am using Fedora Core 5 but I imagine just about any GNOME 2.14 will act the same way.

The screensaver choices are stored in /usr/share/gnome-screensaver as .desktop entries. Notice that the personal-slideshow.desktop (hopefully your system's file is similarly named) includes the appropriate line, which calls the screensaver program located in /usr/libexec/gnome-screensaver, using the --location option. Writing your own .desktop file is trivial.

If you want to filter your custom location, you could simply have a cron job that runs hourly, for instance. Create a ~/linked_pics and run something like:

find /share/Backup/flickr -type f -mtime -60 -name '*_o.jpg' | xargs -i ln -s {} ~/linked_pics

I realize this is would be complicated for the type of user who's not already comfortable with the command line -- but that user is precisely the type GNOME's usability guidelines target. For that user, simply dropping pictures into a ~/Pictures folder makes much more sense than writing cumbersome CLI-based filters. You and I, who are comfortable with things like find and cron, can take care of our own needs without requiring GNOME to sacrifice usability on the Altar of Tweak.

—Posted by Paul W. Frields on 13 Jul 2006 @ 10:47 UTC #

I've been frustrated with the lack of configurability as well. Not only does the personal slideshow screensaver not allow you to customize the directory, but it gives no indication what that directory is. This is certainly not an example of good usability.

—Posted by Pat Rondon on 14 Jul 2006 @ 12:29 UTC #

A simpler method:

Install F-Spot, import all your photos into it, and create a "Screensaver" tag. Next, tag all the photos you want to show up in your screensaver with that tag. Finally, in F-Spot, go to Edit --> Preferences, select "Screensaver" in the dropdown list of tags, and hit the "Make F-Spot your screensaver" button.

Voila, problem solved!

—Posted by Jens Knutson on 14 Jul 2006 @ 12:46 UTC #

I went back to Gnome screen saver. $@%#!? ~/Pictures and all.

It's not much consolation, but the directory containing the pix the Gnome screen saver's personal slideshow will display can be changed in the line

Exec=slideshow --location=Pictures

in the file


I discovered this through my rabid detestation of capitalized filenames like "Pictures". :^)

—Posted by Anonymous on 14 Jul 2006 @ 12:51 UTC #

Hi Norman,

There's no need to manually edit /etc/alternatives, there's a tool that does that for you:

update-alternatives --config java

will let you pick a systemwide VM. I typically do an "update-alternatives -all" after a fresh installation to set things just how I like them. There's a gui tool in universe called "galternatives" which does the task, though it's not as straightforward as the text tool.

—Posted by jorge on 14 Jul 2006 @ 01:10 UTC #

gnome-screensaver really is bothersome. For some reason common video players (e.g. totem, gmplayer) cannot inhibit the screensaver from running. sort of makes them useless for watching movies/network streams.

—Posted by pel on 14 Jul 2006 @ 08:21 UTC #

Even better than update-alternatives is a program specifically for Java packages that does the same thing but easier to use. It is called (what else?) update-java-alternatives and you can read its man page for details.

—Posted by Roshan Shariff on 15 Jul 2006 @ 09:34 UTC #

I have started using gnome in the last 3 months. In the past I usually use KDE. (I switched just to have a balanced perspective.)

As of yet the ~/Pictures directory (Just one example of the lack of easily customizing things on what seems to be a high level) and the over-all slowness of gnome are my only issues. (though KDE is not much snappier). Part of this could be my own ignorance too but gnome is not as friendly as KDE by a LONG stretch IMHO.

I have the same issues with gnome screen savers on the ~/Pictures dir, that others have. The developers say "adding certatin types of functionality will only confuse users". (Read that in Linux Format)

I say to that:
Not telling the end user that a picture directory needs to exist (when they are trying to set the screen saver) or where it should be and not creating one automatically so it can be populated, isn't going to cause confusion?

To work around the lack of user friendliness I just made a symlink to my existing images directory. (KDE had no problem pointing to my existing directory. Thumbs up to KDE developers for "thinking outside their code".)
"ln -s /path/to/image_dir /home/usersname/Pictures"
As for the recursion though... I don't have an easy solution to populate the Pictures directory with items from subfolders.

(Unless you want to create symlinks in the Picture dir to each individual file you want to include. Which is possible I guess, but NOT user friendly at all!)

Any-who ... nice blog Norman.

—Posted by jfg on 27 Jul 2006 @ 04:33 UTC #

try Xfce!

—Posted by m on 31 Jul 2006 @ 09:06 UTC #

Well whenever one asks one of the GNOME people about this, they come back with this lame excuse about user experience referring to useless papers academic papers on the subject. We all know that academic UI 'research' is like statistics, you pick the input based on the output result you want to end up with.

What infuriates me is that with every release the GNOME crowd makes it harder to put sanity back in. It's not a matter whether or not they are supposed to use Emacs keybindings, but fact is that there is a significant userbase out there who relies on this keyboard layout and removing it can only be described in one way: outright irresponsible.

With gnome-2.15 it seems that the trick of using gconf-editor to set the theme to Emacs no longer works .... so what the f**k does one do now to get it back?

Do I really have to switch desktop because a bunch of kids are more interested in making Linux look like Windows than they are in accomodating those who created Linux in the first place?

—Posted by Jes on 06 Aug 2006 @ 03:15 UTC #

Um.. shouldn't somebody fork the slideshow screensaver, then?

—Posted by Ross Perkins on 19 Mar 2007 @ 09:29 UTC #

I liked KDE better as a desktop when I tried it as it had so many more configuration options. But when running KDE, X was using CPU like there was no tomorrow and everything on my system slowed to a crawl. So it was back to gnome by default :( Then I discovered that my updated gnome 2.14 screensaver had no option to specify a different picture folder location, as so many other have noted. Totally insane and stupid design!!!! The workaround I used was to create a symbolic link called ~/Pictures and set its true location to MY folder the way I like it.

The command I used was ln -s ~/Documents/pics/For_Screen_Saver/ ~/Pictures

Screensaver seems to work ok now with my pictures, including subfolders.

But we SHOULDN'T have to go throught this sort of kludge for such basic and simple functionality. Is anyone with the gnome team listening?????

—Posted by Carlos Hawes on 10 Jul 2008 @ 05:09 UTC #

There is one simpler trick that I just used:

ln -s /usr/share/games/anywhere/pix ~/Pictures

That should work, aye?

—Posted by Brian Fahrlander on 18 Dec 2009 @ 11:18 UTC #