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Friday, April 27, 2007

Optimizing Xubuntu's user interface

Xubuntu targets slower older hardware with limited resources like my IBM Thinkpad with 1 Gig Intel processor 250 Mb memory, 30 Gig hard drive and 14 inch display size. Running Xubuntu on older hardware is a challenge in itself but in this article I focus exclusively on usability issues that might enhance older hardware functionality making xubuntu experience more enjoyable.

When we interact with a computer we essentially use the interface as our primary aid to carry out certain tasks; therefore, it is essential to have a user-friendly desktop that speeds up rather than slows down our work process.

The default look of Xubuntu is pretty good but it still leaves room for improvements. For me the two panels default set up wastes too much valuable screen estate. The two panels don't add more functionality to the work environment than the one panel setup, in fact, I found the second panel redundant from the usability point of view. Take a look at the screeshot below. This is the default look of Xubuntu (click to enlarge).

After much thinking and experimenting, I worked out a different conceptual model of the interface that I describe below. In this set up, I have only one panel on the left side of the screen. I set this up by deleting the bottom panel from the default setup and reposition the top one to the left side of the screen. But before, I disabled the Application label in the top panel. The label prevents the panel to re-size properly when it is positioned vertically.

However, from the usability point of view the default Application icon is a weak visual sign, it doesn't provide enough feedback by itself because it was designed to function, in accord with the menu label. To fix this I've created a new Application button that can be seen in the following image.

In the next step, I changed the default color of the panel. Unfortunately, Xfce panel doesn't allow color customization by default. To be able to change the color of the panel, users have to create a .gtkrc-2.0 file in their Home directories with the following code.

style "panel"
bg[NORMAL] = "#909599"
xthickness = 0
ythickness = 0

widget_class "*Panel*" style "panel"
widget "*Panel*" style "panel"
class "*Panel*" style "panel"

I set the panel color Gray because the neutral tone provides an ideal background for the icons.

The code also lets the icons to scale properly. Xfce panel has a bug making the icons scale disproportionally when the panel size is changed.

Finally, I added an Icon Box applet to the panel. The Icon Box applet is a neat little program that shows the icons of all running applications. Again, icons as visual signals provide more complete feedback than the labels evident in the default taskbar setup. To add an Icon Box, simply right click on the panel and from the menu options select the Add New Item, then choose the Icon Box.

The next step, I replaced the default Tango icons for a visually more fitting icon theme called Nimbus. I like Nimbus because it is attractive and its visual properties are superior to Tango. Nimbus perceptual cues provide superb navigational feedback for users enhancing speed and sense of mastery over the task. Nimbus comes in binary debian packages and its installation is a matter of double-clicking on the file name.

There was one more thing that I had to fix regarding the icons--taking out the icon label backgrounds. Unfortunately, Xfce places non-transparent backgrounds behind icon labels that are visual nuisances. To take the background out you have to insert the code seen below into the .gtkrc-2.0 file.
The code:

style "xfdesktop-icon-view" {
XfdesktopIconView::label-alpha = 0

#Text colors you can delete these if you want you use gtk theme colors
fg[NORMAL] = "#ffffff"
fg[SELECTED] = "#00ff00"
fg[ACTIVE] = "#0000ff"

widget_class "*XfdesktopIconView*" style "xfdesktop-icon-view"

Notice that the code provides options for changing the font color (Normal, Selected and Active).

As a final touch, I replaced Xubuntu's clearlooks gtk theme for a faster and more fitting Murrina theme called MurrinaAquaIsh. Great Murrina themes can be found at the Gnome-look site; theming is more or less a matter of personal preference, but from the visual point of view the light gray of MurrinaAquaIsh is a better complement to the blue color of the background than the beige Clearlooks.

This is the redesigned interface of Xubuntu (click to enlarge).


ustunozgur said...

I prefer XFCE with only one bar at the bottom. I increase the icon sizes so that it looks more like a dock, and for working applications, I add the icon bar, that's much more usable than having a separate bar, as you have pointed out.

Alejandro said...

Hi, I was wondering if you could help me out a bit, currently Im using a Murrina Deviant theme, but I want to change the text color in the gnome-bar (task bar) to white, while leaving the rest of the text black, (drop down menus, right -click menus and everything else), I tried changing a couple of things in the gtkrc file but when I change the fg[NORMAL] to white, all the text goes white so now I cant see the text in the drop down menus. thanks for your help.

vince said...

Very helpful -- thank you!

Wim D said...

Great stuff, very helpful. A big thank you, very clear, and everything works just fine! BUT, only minor thing is that when the mouse pointer moves over the icons, their background becomes white? Do you know where/how to change that to something yellowish-greyish?

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