Sunday, March 28, 2010

The search for the right dock for Ubuntu on a netbook

The beta version of Ubuntu Lucid Lynx became available last week.  I usually upgrade at least one of my machines to the beta versions, so I went ahead and did so for my netbook. 

The first thing I noticed was that the upgrade removed the Netbook Remix enhancements, and I was looking at a plain vanilla Gnome desktop.  This isn't a terrible problem but it does take up extra space and I started wondering if I could do better.

I remembered hearing about several docks available for Ubuntu and decided to give them a try.  I decided that I really wanted to see the following features:
  1. One icon to launch an application or if it were already running, bring the instance of it to the top.  With Gnome, you have your launchers at the top and your running programs at the bottom. So if you want to go to a website, you first have to check the bottom of the screen to see if Firefox is already running (which is especially hard with the new Lucid theme, since the tab for the selected window has white typing on a light-gray backround, which makes it almost impossible to read).  The thing that first made me interested in exploring the possibility of a dock was the idea that when I am ready to browse the web, I have one icon that will launch Firefox if it isn't open already or bring it to the top if it is already open.  
  2. The one icon needs to have some visual indicator of whether the application is running.
  3. If I am to switch to a dock, it needs to replace all current panels and menus.  That means I want some kind of menu with full access to all of the programs and settings currently in my Applications, Places, and Settings menus.  I also need to be able to control my WiFi, see how much battery is remaining, adjust the volume, and shut down from the dock.
  4. It has to be fast and not too flashy.  I've seen some of these docks where the items grow as you hover over them, and I think I would really hate that.  When I am trying to click on an icon I do not want it growing or moving around as my mouse approaches it.  I also want the icons to be in the same position on the screen all the time, which means that I don't want the dock expanding and contracting as I launch applications (I found out later that a few docks supported "panel mode" which fits this requirement nicely).
 The Search

With these criteria in mind, I set off to find the best dock.  I found this blog posting and basically started going down the list.  Docky had a nice-looking panel mode but it wasn't easy enough to use (I couldn't figure out how to add a launcher).  Cairo-dock was nice and I almost stuck with it, but it didn't have the nice panel mode I wanted.  It was only available in the centered, expanding and collapsing mode, and the only theme that provided indication as to whether the application was already running under each launcher also had the icons growing in size when my mouse rolled over it.  So Cairo-dock was close but no cigar.  

I installed WBar but by the time I figured out how to launch it, I was already in the process of installing the dock I stuck with, Avant Window Navigator.

Avant Window Navigator (AWN)

To make a long story short, AWN met all of my specifications to the tee.  It is quite user-friendly and easy to configure, and the repos contain a lot of great plugins (more on that later).  AWN has all of the common options I saw when testing other docks, but also allowed me to configure it just the way I wanted it.  

I used Synaptic Package Manager to install the following packages:
  1. avant-window-navigator (with dependancies)
  2. awn-applets-c-extras
  3. awn-applets-python-extras
  4. python-awn-extras
When the setup was complete I ran avant-window-navigator from the command line and my dock popped up at the bottom of the screen.  I set the following settings on the Preferences tab:
  1. Size of Icons: 24 pixels
  2. Orientation: Bottom
  3. Style: None
  4. Behavior:  Panel Mode
  5. Icon effects:  None
  6. Checked the "Expand the Panel" checkbox
  7. Slid the "Position on the screen" bar all the way over to the left
  8. Checked "Start AWN automatically"
 Then I flipped over to the Applets tab and was blown away by the number of applets!  I found almost everything I could want there, including the battery meter, the volume control, a menu (I recommend the "Yet Another Menu applet" over the "AWN Main Menu" or the "Cairo Main menu"), the date/time, etc.  There were a few things I wasn't looking for but was happy to see:  media player controls (I added the play/pause, previous and next controls to my dock and now can control Rhythmbox with one click), an RSS feed reader, a system monitor, a hardware sensor, a weather indicator, etc.  It's perfect for me today, and has a lot of potential to make my life easier in the future.
It wasn't long before I was totally hooked and ready to abandon the default Gnome panels for good.  I right-clicked and deleted the bottom panel without a problem, but when I went to delete the top panel, I noticed that the Delete option was grayed out.  I guess they do that in order to stop newbies from accidentally deleting the panel, but I had made an informed decision to get rid of it! 

Long story short, here is how to turn off the top panel in ubuntu:  hit Alt+F2 and type "gconf-editor".  That will pop up a window that looks kinda like the Windows Registry Editor.  On the left-hand side, expand Desktop, then Gnome, then highlight Session.  On the right-hand side double-click "reuired_components_list".  That will pop open a new window.  Highlight "panel" and click Remove.  That's it!  Now the next time you log in you won't have any panels.

Here is what I ended up with.  Hope this helps!

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