Extreme Desktop Makeover: Josh Edition

Many people don’t really care about how their desktop is set up. Those people tend to leave things pretty much at the defaults, or maybe just change the wallpaper or color scheme. Some of us, however, consider desktop layout to be vitally important to productivity. Personally, I like to keep maximum information available at all times, with the ability to access my preferred communication tools. Today, I’m going to show you the methods I use to create my own personal Ultimate Desktop.

Design Concept

Not everyone has the same goals for their desktop interface, so before we get much further I’d like to explain the reasons for this design. The single most important aspect of this design is the “info bar” on the right.



As you can see, this setup is designed for a widescreen monitor. Without that extra space on the side, the info bar (as configured in this guide) would take up too much screen space.

I have a lot of requirements for my info bar, and finding and configuring the software necessary to meet those requirements took a lot of research and testing. No single solution met all my needs, so I had to combine several tools.

The standard Lucid Lynx Gnome install, as of Beta 2, is the basis for these modifications. All software, unless otherwise noted, is available in the standard repositories. The wallpaper is from wallpaperbox.eu, and I’m using the Dust theme for Gnome.

Panel – Gnome Panel

joshdesktop-gnomepanelSome may be surprised that with all the fancy 3D docks available, I stuck with gnome-panel. The main reason is simple – applets. Specifically, the Gnome Panel in Lucid was the only dock or panel available that includes a useful interactive notification area for chat clients.

From the standard Gnome desktop, remove the lower panel completely, and open the properties for the top panel. Change location from Top to Right, and increase the size to 64. In the screenshots, the panel is set to solid black with about 60% opacity to match the Gadgets sidebar. Choose your panel applets at will, but if you’d like to copy my setup the objects are ordered as follows (from top to bottom):

  • Main Menu
  • Indicator Applet
  • Indicator Applet Session
  • Application Launchers (Moblin Icon Theme, desaturated)
  • Weather Report
  • Shutdown
  • CPU Frequency Scaling Monitor

Full panel can be seen in the desktop screenshot above

UPDATE: Download link added for icon theme

Google Desktop Gadgets

There are two features of Gadgets that make it essential to my setup – the Gmail app, and the ability to block off a section of the screen. With the Gadget sidebar active and set to Always On Top, maximized windows will not cover the sidebar. Without it, Gadgets would be far less useful to me as they’d always be covered by running applications.


There are other mail-checking panel applets out there, but only the Gadgets version gives me a fully interactive interface where I can read, compose, and reply without ever opening up a web browser or email client.



Conky is an extremely powerful system information tool. To use it, you edit a text file to list the items you want displayed, and Conky embeds itself into your desktop background, frequently updating itself to show real-time system information.

Configuring Conky is beyond the scope of this guide, but fortunately we’ve already taken care that. By using the Gnome Panel weather applet, we can greatly reduce the complexity of our Conky setup. If you’d like to copy my Conky setup, you can download my .conkyrc file here.

Important Note: If the Gadget sidebar is set to Always On Top and you want Conky to sit behind it, you’ll need to edit your Conky config file to include own_window yes and own_window_type override. If you’re using my config file, those entries are already set.

Desktop Management – Compiz Expo

I can’t live without virtual desktops, sometimes called workspaces. X has supported them for decades, but until recently there’s been very little innovation. The Expo plugin, part of the Compiz package, provides a fast, beautiful, efficient way to view and manage your virtual desktops.


If Compiz and Expo are already installed, you can activate it with the Win+E key combo. If not, Expo can be activated from within the Compiz settings manager. The 3×3 pattern in the screenshot is a result of setting Gnome’s workspaces to 3 rows, 3 columns.


Finally, there’s Guake, the drop-down terminal. If you’ve played a lot of PC first-person-shooter games, you’re probably familiar with the concept of a drop-down command terminal. Guake and similar apps like Yakuake for KDE are extremely useful for heavy users of the command line, as you no longer need to alt-tab or switch workspaces to get to a terminal.


Room for Improvement

The biggest problem with this setup is that it requires several different applications to get the proper functionality from the info bar. For this to truly be a top-notch setup, we’d need a sidebar application capable of handling all the required tasks. I’d like to abuse my position as an internet writer to ask the software community to help with this. Can we create an application that can act as system info center, notification area, messaging center, and dock? Google Gadgets bring you pretty close, but I think we can do better.

If you’ve got any suggestions or other desktop customization tips, let us know in the comments!

Joshua Price

Josh Price is a senior MakeTechEasier writer and owner of Rain Dog Software


  1. Nice desktop, Josh. Like many, I am going to keep things simple until Gnome 3 gets the bugs ironed out. G3 will finally give KDE a run for the money in the eye candy department. However, Gnome gets the win for being functional as well as pretty.

  2. Images in both posts seem to work fine for everyone else, myself included. Are those the only two posts that give you this problem?

  3. I would suggest ditching guake for either tilda or yakuake. guake runs all the way across the screen, eating into your eye candy. Both Tilda (gtk) or yakuake (kde) can be configured to use a specific width of screen at a particular position.

    You could consider using XFCE, because you can mark the area for the control panel and conky as not part of the client area so maximized windows will not attempt to cover that area. I also believe you can do the same thing with Openbox

  4. I have thought for a long time that I'd love a good sidebar-panel instead of these bottom and top panels. Your looks fantastic!

  5. nice, i'd like to give it a whirl, can you link us Moblin Icon Theme, desaturated, as I cant find it, thanks and good job !

  6. I tried Tilda and Yakuake when researching this setup. Yakuake is the best looking, and allows for horizontal scaling of the window, but that meant loading up a bunch of KDE libraries for that one app, so it was slow to start and didn't always play nice with the gnome desktop. Tilda was nice and fast but rather ugly and missing many of the features of Guake and Yakuake.

    I've done the XFCE and Openbox “margins” as well. I don't recall what happened with XFCE, but Openbox had a limit of 90 pixels in the GUI config tool. You could extend it by editing the config directly, and it worked, but it would get overwritten next time the config tool was run.

  7. The moblin icon theme is available in standard repos, but I desaturated it myself with a Gimp batch processing script. I will tar my processed pack and drop a link in this thread.

  8. great article, inspires me to customize my desktop environment again, something I haven’t spent much time on since windowmaker was in active development. I’ve been more in the quicksilver/gnome+do space for navigating my space.

    1. Funny you should mention that, as all my destop customizations revolve around the concept of mimicking Window Maker. In fact, my veru first article for MTE was how to customize Window Maker. I have yet to see a modern WM as clean and capable as wmaker, but as you said, the lack of active development makes it difficult to stick with these days.

      I’ve spoken with the wmaker devs once or twice on their IRC channel, and they tell me a new release is in the works, but they’ve been telling me that for over a year now =P

      1. yeah, your desktop looks to have some grounding in the NeXTStep aesthetics, which is awesome. I check windowmaker.org from time to time (probably annually or so) and it’s pretty quiet over there. I’m really not sure if I get all that much out of gnome’s extended desktop offerings, tho I suppose the toolkits it provides are pretty handy.

  9. cant get the indicator menu applet icons align horizontally which makes the entire setup look ‘ugly’ ….

    1. Gnome-panel apps don’t always align correctly, especially when the panel was just moved. Sadly there seems to be no single app capable of everything needed here.

      But that will change in the not-too-distant future (hint hint)

      1. but how were u able to align the icons properly(as seen in your screenshots- the messaging menu and the sound menu are properly aligned)

        1. Gnome-panel is a little inconsistent on this, and has behaved differently for me with different versions. In short, if I set gnome-panel to right-alignment many of the applets don’t align properly, but after restarting gnome-panel (logout, reboot, etc) they usually (but not always) do. It sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t, and I’m not 100% sure on how to force it to work all the time.

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