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A first look at Ximian Desktop 2

A polished, polished, polished Gnome-based desktop

(LinuxWorld) — I missed Ximian Desktop. I gave it up last fall when I installed Red Hat 8.0. It's not that I didn't like Bluecurve, the new desktop treatment for GNOME and KDE that Red Hat included with 8.0, but it just wasn't Ximian. The months went by and I began to wonder if Ximian would ever release a new version of its desktop. The real problem, of course, was not Red Hat's Bluecurve, but getting Ximian completely ported to GNOME 2.

Ximian is a commercial endeavor founded by Nat Friedman and Miguel de Icaza, who founded the GNOME project. Their goal was to accelerate the adoption of Linux as a desktop platform. The Ximian Desktop represents a natural extension of the GNOME desktop. When a friend asked me what the difference was between GNOME or Bluecurve and the Ximian Desktop, I answered "polish, polish, polish."

A month or two ago Ximian asked if I would like to participate in a beta for its new desktop offering. I said yes, but only if it supported Red Hat 9. Ximian marketing folk said it would and swore me to secrecy. The following is what I found in the last two weeks: Ximian 2 is drop-dead gorgeous. It is much more powerful than it was before, and many tweaks are now in the interface. A couple of the tweaks I didn't like, but most I did. I'll get into those specifics a little later in the story. Let's start at the beginning.

It was a big download, and it took almost two hours for it to download and install. That's over broadband cable courtesy of TimeWarner/RoadRunner. While that's a largish chunk of time, it was easy time. Very little was required of me by the installation process. Keep in mind that the beta I downloaded was much larger than the production version, thanks to the debugging code in the beta.

The screenshot you see below is what the Ximian 2 desktop looks if you select the recommended option of letting Ximian configure everything for you instead of sticking with your current GNOME configuration.

Custom Ximian 2 Desktop
Editor's note: The above image is reduced in size and color palette to allow it to load quickly. Click on this image to see the original.

Across the top panel are the familiar Program System Help icons on the left. Also present on the left is an icon for volume control. I can't remember if that was present on the old Ximian desktop. On the right are three icons for three standard offerings: Evolution, Galeon, and OpenOffice.Org. Just to the right of them are the time and a drop-down menu showing the programs running currently.

Three items are placed on the desktop itself. Nautilus opens when I double-clicked on my home folder. Clicking on "My Computer" brings up icons for various types of configuration chores, from printers to Samba to fonts. The third item is a trashcan.

The bottom panel contains a large area for displaying running tasks, a four-desktop switcher, and the Show Desktop icon by Red Hat, which I mentioned in my recent Mandrake 9.1 first impression. (See Resources below.)

Fileselect dialog
Ximian Desktop file select dialog.
Editor's note: The above image is reduced in size and color palette to allow it to load quickly. Click on this image to see the original.

Powerful surprises

The stock desktop for Ximian 2 appears sleek and simple. As I went about exploring, using, and customizing my Ximian 2 desktop, I learned that the simplicity belied much hidden power and functionality.

I got my first surprise after clicking on the Programs icon on the top panel. It is filled with goodies. The first one came when I peeked into the accessories category and then clicked on more. I found a GUI archiving tool called File Roller and an IBM 3270 terminal emulator. Sacre TSO bleu!

Next, I checked to see which games Ximian had installed for me. I discovered by clicking on More at the bottom of the list that Ximian had found and added the Devastation and Return to Castle Wolfenstine betas I had previously installed to the menu. It's good to have mission-critical apps just a click away.

A bigger surprise awaited me when I clicked on System on the top panel. Both Personal and Administrator Settings appeared when I did. I clicked on Administrator Settings and found that I could configure just about everything on my system, from the date/time to printers to users and groups to security. All in a simple easy-to-use GUI. This is a huge improvement over the old Ximian.

After exploring a bit more, I decided it was time to start tweaking the desktop. The first thing I did was to choose a theme. That was as easy as clicking on System->Personal Settings->Theme. A dozen were offered and I chose Grand Canyon.

Next, I wanted to change the size of the panels at the top and the bottom. Both were simply too small for my eyes. On the bottom panel, it was as easy as right-clicking on the panel and then selecting Properties. That gave me the option of changing from Extra Small (the default), to a number of different sizes as you can see from the image below. I changed it to medium. Unfortunately, the top panel cannot be resized. Not yet, at least. I understand from Ximian that there will be an option to do that in a future version.

You can tweak many other items under Personal settings, by the way, including display, network, printers, mouse, proxies, session, file associations, and even PalmOS Devices. Ximian makes it very easy to tune your system just as you like it. Want to start Evolution or GAIM each time you log in? Nothing to it. Select Sessions instead of Themes and then click on the Startup Programs tab and add, edit, or delete to your heart's content.

I decided to really personalize my desktop by using a digital photograph taken by my friend Susan instead of one of the pre-fab Ximian offerings. I like the way the colors matched the Grand Canyon theme.

Custom Ximian 2 Desktop
Editor's note: The above image is reduced in size and color palette to allow it to load quickly. Click on this image to see the original.

By default, when you add applications from the Programs menu to the panel, they go to the top panel. Because that panel is so small, I have trouble distinguishing one application from the next. Especially as many of those icons have been redone with Ximian 2. Instead of fighting a losing battle with my eyes, I simply right clicked on each application icon on the top panel, selected Move, and dragged it to the bottom panel. I could have simply deleted the top panel completely, but that would also take the Programs and System menus away and I didn't want to lose them. When I had finished, my desktop looked like you see it above.

Adding a new printer dialog
Adding a new printer dialog in Ximian Desktop.
Editor's note: The above image is reduced in size and color palette to allow it to load quickly. Click on this image to see the original.

What's not to like?

I mentioned Ximian Desktop sports a few things I don't like. In Galeon, when you add bookmarks, you can no longer add them directly into a specific folder. This complaint is somewhat offset by the fact that bookmark editing in general is much improved. It's very slick, and much less time consuming.

Another change to Galeon I should mention is that with the new Galeon, you cannot download from a Web site the way you used to be able to, by shift-clicking on the link. Now you must right-click and then select download. I'm not sure I like this change.

The Home, My Computer, and Trash icons on the desktop proper are permanent and cannot be deleted. I really dislike them. Nevertheless, I guess Nautilus (a fine tool, but I don't use it) needs them to be there. My Computer? Please. I don't want that on my desktop.

What's to like

Here is one item I had on my "didn't like" list but have since moved to my "cool new feature" list. In the past, when I was attaching files to Evolution mail, the file selection would "stick" so that if I had several files to send from a particular directory, it would be in the same directory and location when I went back to attach the second or third file. In the new version of Evolution, that doesn't happen. I thought it was a major bummer until I found that I can now attach several files at once, using the CTL or shift keys to select them. This is a very good thing.

After clicking My Computer
After clicking My Computer in Ximian Desktop.
Editor's note: The above image is reduced in size and color palette to allow it to load quickly. Click on this image to see the original.

Another small detail that I have noticed and appreciated in the new Ximian desktop is that when I click on a mailto: link in Galeon, I now get a compose message window addressed to the object of the mailto:.

One other thing. I have a Lexmark Z52 printer and I use the Lexmark drivers with it. In the past, I have found mixing CUPS and Lexmark has been a real problem, usually resulting in instant segfault. Using the CUPS-lpr so far has not seemed to be a problem with the Lexmark driver. However, the jury is still out on this one.

During the beta I worried about a possible conflict with using the Ximian Red Carpet software update service with or instead of Red Hat's up2date. Benjamin Kahn put my mind at ease on the subject when he said "You can always use up2date to keep your distribution current. We consider any conflicts with up2date to be a serious bug and we work to fix them immediately. That said, Red Carpet gets updates from Red Hat twice a day, so updates should be available very quickly."

As I noted, my evaluation of Ximian Desktop 2 is of beta software and I have noticed a couple of bugs, just as you might expect. I noticed them in Evolution and Galeon, and I trust Ximian will have them all killed by the time it releases the production version.

Ximian edition wordprocessor
Ximian edition of OpenOffice.org.
Editor's note: The above image is reduced in size and color palette to allow it to load quickly. Click on this image to see the original.

My overall impression, beta or no, is Ximian has done an outstanding job on Ximian Desktop 2. Not just in bringing its desktop up to the latest version of GNOME and the latest releases of major distributions, but in the additions, tweaks, and tuning as well. I'm very happy to have a Ximian desktop again, and I hope I don't have to go a long time without it in the future. I don't want to start a flame war, but I pity the phools who aren't running Ximian 2. (Just kidding, Nick!)

In addition to the Ximian Desktop, Ximian offers a number of other products. Ximian Connector for Microsoft Exchange allows a Linux client to speak natively with an Exchange server. Ximian Evolution provides integrated workgroup and personal information management along with an excellent email client. Ximian also provides individual or corporate-level automated software management through its Red Carpet products.

You can download the Ximian Desktop for free from the Ximian Web site or purchase a boxed CD version at Ximian's store.

More Stories By Joe Barr

Joe Barr is a freelance journalist covering Linux, open source and network security. His 'Version Control' column has been a regular feature of Linux.SYS-CON.com since its inception. As far as we know, he is the only living journalist whose works have appeared both in phrack, the legendary underground zine, and IBM Personal Systems Magazine.

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