Optimizing Linux's User Interface

Jeff provides a handy guide to X-Windows window managers and tells you how to customize them.

One of Linux's most impressive but least recognized features is its flexible and powerful desktop environment. While great efforts are underway to develop the next generation of desktop interfaces (such as OSF's Common Desktop Environment or Microsoft's Windows 95 and Bob), Linux enthusiasts have for years had a choice of several stable, powerful, and customizable window managers and shells for program management.

Unlike many other operating systems, Linux runs extremely well on standard VGA 80x24 terminals. While unglamorous and less intuitive, Linux's terminal interface provides speed and ease-of-use still unmatched by GUIs. Linux uses mature, powerful shells such as tcsh and bash, which elegantly display and manipulate text at blazing speeds on any PC. Linux's text mode support is particularly appropriate for portables with small screens, slower processors, and little memory. [See “The Best without X” in this issue, page 22—Ed]

The reduced requirements for character-mode displays also enables Linux to run very well off of floppy drives, which has great utility for creating bootable emergency repair disks or running Linux on non-Linux PCs. Linux's text mode support is inappropriate for graphical applications like Netscape or WYSIWYG word processors, but is superior for system administration and text editing tasks due to its versatility, speed, and uniform support.

At the other end, Linux supports a wide number of X-Windows servers on large monitors at resolutions up to 1600x1200. Linux's X-Windows client-server technology offers the superb capability of displaying graphical applications locally which run remotely, a feature unmatched by other PC operating systems. X-Windows is also notable for the extreme amount of customization available through resource files. For example, as a left-handed mouse user I commonly switch the scrollbars of my X-Windows applications to the left side, which cannot be done with other operating systems. With native support for three-button mice, multiple displays, and a myriad of free window managers, Linux provides more powerful and flexible desktop interface options than most other operating systems.

Unfortunately, the Linux interface suffers from the inevitable tradeoff of flexibility and power for ease-of-use. Many Linux users continue to use default X-Windows or shell configuration files, unaware of alternative interface tools or configuration options which can simplify or enhance their current setup. I have encountered many Linux users who are unwilling to modify their installation because of arcane configuration file syntax and lack of knowledge on this subject. This problem continues to increase as more people without Unix training migrate to Linux.

This article describes strategies for desktop interface configuration and utilization under Linux. These strategies are based on a simple premise: the optimal desktop environment is one which maximizes data visualization and screen utilization (output) while minimizing the amount of time, interaction, and complexity required to perform a given task (input). Utilities which are frequently used must be immediately accessible to users with a few keystrokes or button clicks. Less commonly used utilities need not be as accessible but should be well-organized such that they are easily located and started. Utilities should optimize screen usage to permit monitoring and interaction with multiple, concurrent processes. Finally, all interface tools must make minimal usage of memory and CPU resources.

Having tested the majority of Linux window managers and shells over the past several years, I am most impressed by rxvt and fvwm, John Bovey's and Robert Nation's (fvwm@wonderland.org) xterm clone and window manager, as tools to manage my desktop environment. I use Tcsh, written by multiple authors, within rxvt, although Bash, GNU's “Bourne again shell”, is a fine alternative.

The Command Line

While I prefer most graphical programs to their command line alternatives (ftptool instead of ftp, for example), terminal windows continue to provide three important uses. First, most of my routine system administration tasks are performed with homegrown perl and shell scripts running in a term window. While many fine GUI program builders are available (such as Tcl/Tk), it is still simpler to program shell scripts for command line input and output. Complex networking, file management, searches, or other system activities are most easily performed in this manner. Second, even as SLIP and PPP become more widespread, wider support and better responsiveness exists for terminal-based serial line communications.

Finally, terminal windows usually provide much faster interaction than GUI alternatives. It is much easier and faster to type “date” at the command line than to open an Xclock (which requires more keystrokes), move it and/or minimize it, read it, and then close it. In addition, programs which do not require much user interaction are best run as command-line applications to avoid the additional resources and programming complexity required by graphical applications. Linux's terminal windows serve as master interfaces for all programs without sophisticated input/output requirements and eliminate the need to open multiple windows for different tasks.



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undead_rattler's picture

Mr. Torvalds is the guy who coded most of the kernel for linux, and is still going strong. Look at linux.org if you want more info.