Optimizing Linux's User Interface

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

The GoodStuff iconbar is truly one of the most useful Linux utilities I have ever found. GoodStuff is a fvwm module and only runs under fvwm. GoodStuff is an iconbar extremely similar to that found on the NeXT and to a lesser extent like Window's Dashboard or RipBAR. GoodStuff uses approximately 500KB of memory and very little CPU resources. The configuration file is the same as fvwm, .fvwmrc.

GoodStuff's primary use is simply to assign iconic buttons to commonly-used applications so that they may be started with a single mouse click. For example, I have rxvt terminals assigned to each machine in my home network which I can immediately log into. This is substantially faster than my old method of typing xterm, moving the mouse into the window's field of view, clicking for focus, typing rlogin machine name, and then entering my password.

I also have common utilities, such as my mail utility, ftptool, Emacs editor, netscape, file manager, and so forth attached to individual buttons. I limit the GoodStuff iconbar to a dozen buttons (laid out in a 2'6 matrix), because each one takes valuable screen real estate, especially since I have it set permanently in the foreground. Rxvt, my most commonly started application, is not included in GoodStuff but instead is mapped to the middle mouse button on the root window. I can immediately pop up a new rxvt window by simply clicking the second button on the background wallpaper. Less commonly used programs are attached to the root menu (as described in the previous section).

Button bars are hardly novel. What is special about GoodStuff is that one may assign running X-Windows applications to each button and use the button as the display. For example, I have xload running as a 2x1 button at the top of the GoodStuff menubar, and it displays just as it would in a small window. I have xbiff in another window, which alerts me if mail has arrived (the button's color becomes inverted, and it is very noticable). I even have a less well-known but equally useful X-Windows app called xosview which monitors instantaneous CPU, memory, disk, and network usage as a small colored bar graph. It is very helpful for me to watch this program running in the GoodStuff button bar to see when I'm taxing the network or CPU or running out of memory or disk space. All I needed to do to incorporate xosview into GoodStuff was the following line in the .fvwmrc:

*GoodStuff - whatever Swallow "xosview" xosview -bg grey -geometry 210x96-1500-1500 &

I also have fvwm's 2x2 virtual desktop at the bottom of the GoodStuff menu bar. I don't use it all that often, but it is a handy feature when needed.

Other fvwm modules exist, including Pager, Banner, WinList, Clean, Ident, Save, Scroll, Debug, and Sound. I don't use them as much as GoodStuff, but they are all useful utilities.


The strategy described above uses fvwm, tcsh, and other utilities to generate an effective desktop interface to manage programs, data, and system resources. While lacking in certain features, such as drag-and-drop desktop tools and object-oriented metaphors, the combination of these tools creates a desktop which is more flexible, customizable, and powerful than competing paradigms. Current versions of these tools are freely available at many Internet sites including ftp://sunsite.unc.edu/pub/Linux.

Jeff Arnholt is currently developing X-based biomedical imaging packages at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He is a medical and graduate student who hopes to earn his MD/PhD degrees by 1997. You may contact him at arnholt@mayo.edu.



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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.