The GNOME 2 Desktop Environment

A look at the improvements and functionality of the GNOME 2 desktop.

The bottom panel initially contains a workspace switcher or pager. This isn't unique to GNOME, but it's a useful component of the desktop, allowing you to have multiple virtual desktops running simultaneously. You can open a couple of related applications on one page and have another page with another set of applications, so you can switch between them quickly without having to minimize and maximize. For example, when using a program like The GIMP, which opens each image and tool in a separate window, it's handy to be able to switch to another workspace to check for e-mail without disturbing The GIMP windows.


Depending on your computer, certain applets already are placed on the panels, but several others may be added. By default, the clock applet is installed. However, the choices for faces are now limited to a single digital one. The old GNOME provided a half-dozen or so, including some stylish analog clock faces. For laptops, a battery monitor applet is placed on the panel. You can add a dictionary form, a weather report applet, a scrolling marquee stock ticker, modem indicator lights, an e-mail box notifier, a CD player and audio volume controls, and a floppy disk mounter—something useful for users who don't know the mount command to save their data.


One very useful feature of a fully integrated desktop environment is the ability to copy and paste text between applications. In recent years, this has been possible in GNOME, but it was fairly spotty and not very dependable. However, this no longer seems to be much of a problem. You now can copy from a web browser to a terminal window running vi to a word processor and so on. Resolving this bug has greatly added continuity to the GNOME environment.

Figure 2. GNOME 2.2 Really Cleans Up the Fonts

Another continuity achievement is the improvement in screen fonts. In the past, screen fonts had a jagged look. That's all changed, says GNOME Release Coordinator Jeff Waugh of Sydney, Australia:

With GTK+ 2.0 [used in GNOME 2.0], we gained Pango, a font layout, rendering and i18n library. But with GTK+ 2.2 [used in GNOME 2.2], it now supports new font configuration software written by Keith Packard, fontconfig. This really cleans up the fonts. They span all desktop applications in GNOME because everything is based on GTK+.

The result is a desktop with a consistent, professional look throughout.


An integral part of GNOME is Nautilus, a graphical interface for managing files and configuring Linux. The simplest way to access Nautilus is by double-clicking on the Home icon on the desktop. Nautilus is a comprehensive drag-and-drop file manager. You can copy and move files by key strokes, by dragging and dropping a file's icon from one window to another or by right-clicking on a file's icon and selecting a choice from the pop-up menu. The pop-up menu also provides a screen for modifying permissions and ownerships. You also can now add graphical markers to icons associated with specific files to earmark them (e.g., important or personal).

Figure 3. Emblems Screenshot

If, like me, you've accumulated hundreds of data files on your computer, within dozens of directories going down several levels, you'll appreciate Nautilus' bookmark feature. Simply browse your way to a directory you use often, click on the Bookmarks pull-down menu and select Add Bookmark. The next time you want to get to that directory, click on the icon created for it in the Bookmarks menu and you're there.


Nautilus is also a graphical interface for configuring both GNOME and the underlying OS. You can reach the GNOME utilities and configuration programs through the menus or by clicking on the Nautilus pull-down menu labeled Go and choosing Start Here. A window then opens with four program group icons that read, Applications, Preferences, Server Settings and System Settings. Incidentally, the desktop had an icon for it in version 1.4, but it has been replaced by the configuration menus.

The Applications menu group connects to all the applications that appear in the main menu on the menu panel. Here you can launch programs or add application launchers to the menus. However, this doesn't work in version 2.0, which was shipped with Red Hat 8.0. It has been fixed in version 2.2.

Under the Preferences menu group, you can modify a variety of settings such as the background, the default font and the mouse settings. You can pick a different theme or change the focus behavior of windows here. Those who are more keyboard- than mouse-prone will appreciate the Keyboard Shortcuts utility. With it you can create key combinations to do things like open favorite programs or switch workspaces. Many are already set up in this utility, but they can be modified.

The Server Settings program group provides links to utilities for configuring server applications such as Apache's web service. This program group will have more or fewer utilities depending on what's installed on a system. At a minimum, though, there is an interface to the xinetd services located in the /etc/rc.d/init.d directory. These are the same system services that are accessible from the old setup program.

Figure 4. Nautilus System Settings

The System Settings program group has all the good stuff for configuring a computer. Many of these utilities are coming from Red Hat but have been developed for GNOME. This includes an interface for date and time and a utility for changing the video display settings. Incidentally, this is now where you adjust your X configuration; it's no longer part of the setup program, in case you were frustrated not to find the X configurator there. With version 2.2, support for multiheaded display with multiple video cards and monitors was simplified. Waugh says, “Nautilus will manage both desktops with the same process, and panels will be able to display on both heads, etc. There's even support for migrating applications between displays and such.”

Clicking on the Network icon in the System Settings window will open a utility (neat) for configuring network cards and the hosts file. The printer utility (printconf-gui) allows the user to add printers, set print drivers and restart the printer dæmon.