Thursday, May 27, 2010

Configuring Compiz to emulate Spaces and Expose

If you have an OpenGL-capable video card and driver for Linux, like the GeForce 7900 GS in my big box, you can run Compiz on Ubuntu 10.04 and emulate Spaces and Expose'. So here's how to do it in Gnome (I do not recommend KDE on Ubuntu 10.04 due to some serious bugs I found):
  1. Install the latest proprietary driver via System->Administration->Hardware Drivers. Without this installed, my GeForce 7900 simply would not do 3D, and Compiz wouldn't run.
  2. Install the Compiz settings manager:
    • # apt-get install compizconfig-settings-manager simple-ccsm
  3. Identify the X11 mouse buttons you wish to use. Sorry, I identified those via trial and error. On my Logitech Anywhere MX mouse, here is the map from mouse action to X11 mouse button:
    • Button 1: Left click
    • Button 2: Right click
    • Button 3: The 'menu' button
    • Button 4: scroll wheel forward
    • Button 5: scroll wheel back
    • Button 6: scroll wheel left
    • Button 7: scroll wheel right
    • Button 8: backmost-arrow button (on left side of mouse)
    • Button 9: forwardmost-arrow button (on left side of mouse)
  4. Select Preferences->Appearances and select your theme that you want, then click the Visual Effects tab. Select 'Normal' unless you want the wobble-on-window-move effect (which I hate because it makes it hard to accurately place the window). It should do some work, then ask you if you want to keep it. Say yes :). Then exit out of that.
  5. Select Preferences->CompizConfig Settings Manager
  6. Under Desktop, choose "Expo". This is half of the Spaces look-alike, though it doesn't *quite* work like Spaces. Under Expo Key, set it to whatever key you wish to use to enable Expo, either Windows-E (the usual setting, note that the Windows key is called 'Super' in this UI because the Compiz folks apparently hate Windows ;), or a function key of your choice. Note that I recommend using the 'Super' prefix for that function key, because otherwise you end up conflicting with applications, since normal keyboards don't have a 'fn' key like Mac keyboards that can be used to access regular function key codes of function keys assigned functions in the GUI.
  7. Expo won't work with four workspaces all in a row, so right-click on the four workspaces in a row at the bottom right of your screen, select 'Preferences' from the resulting pop-up menu, and set it to a 2x2 grid.
  8. Now you need to set your arrow keys left/right/up/down to move you between the workspaces. Click 'Back' in the Compiz Settings UI, and select 'Desktop Wall'. Click the 'Bindings' tab. Expand the 'Move within wall' collection, and set the Move Left/Right/Up/Down keyboard shortcuts. I suggest Super-left, Super-right, Super-up, Super-down.
  9. Okay, click Back, and now let's set our Expose'-lookalike. This is under 'Windows' and is called 'Scale'
  10. The question is, which one of these do you want to use? "Initiate Window Picker" allows "Expose" on all windows on the current workspace. Unfortunately, if you have a multi-monitor system, it puts all those windows onto the monitor where your mouse is currently residing. This gets very cluttered if you have two large monitors (I'm running a pair of 1050p monitors). In that case, I suggest using 'Initiate Window Picker for Windows on Current Output', which does it just on the monitor your mouse pointer is hovering over. I selected Mouse Button 9, the forward-arrow button on the left side of my mouse, to do this.
The end result: Something that approximates what Expose' and Spaces would have looked like if implemented by someone in the Communist-era USSR who'd approximately heard descriptions of how they worked, but had never actually seen them. You can practically hear the clunks of heavy metal and whirring of primitive gyroscopes as you activate them. The Expose-clone doesn't work well with multiple displays because of its bad habit of trying to collect all the windows onto the current display, thus requiring the 'on Current Output' kludge to avoid getting window overload. The Spaces clone requires more mouse clicks to move windows between "Spaces" (it doesn't simply exit to the workspace you just moved the window to, it stays activated until you double-click on a workspace), and doesn't have a handy icon to get to it quickly in case you're using a laptop that lacks a 9-button mouse (!). And like virtually all things dealing with Linux user interfaces, it takes a jillion-step process to get it configured and set up, with oodles of trial and error to figure out which X11 "mouse button" corresponds to which actual button on a mouse.

In short, Linux programmers still haven't figured out that users just want things to work. I've had to whack my own teams on the hands a few times when they brought back a design prototype that had oodles of screens, buttons and widgets to tweak -- "No, I want one input box here, one submit button there, that's all the user cares about, he just wants to do the job, he doesn't want to adjust all the internal stuff you're exposing here." Complexity is the enemy of user interface usability and consistency -- something which geeks seem to not understand, I've had to do this (shoot down too-complex user interfaces) repeatedly over the past ten years. Sadly, there is nobody to do this for Linux (well, except what Nokia did for Maemo, which works really well at giving a consistent user interface to all Maemo apps, but Maemo is pretty specific to its particular environment) -- and thus Linux continues being an incoherent mess for the average end-user.

Still, for my purposes, it works fine at keeping my workflow working while I run a bunch of KVM virtual machines with VNC viewers into them. So I'm a bit less grumpy today. But I sure wish there was a benevolent dictator for the Linux user interface the way there is for the Linux kernel itself... it's frustrating, the technology is there, but nobody has actually turned it into a coherent whole, and the distribution vendors seem either overwhelmed by the situation or just don't care. Oh well, back to work...


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