OS UI basics for power users


It should come as no surprise to you that I'm a power user on the computer. To me, that kind of means that I like to be in total control of my computer. I want to setup the environment to satisfies my every need. I want fast access to stuff I regularly use and remove the cruft I don't care about. That means tweakUI for windows and getting the hell out of Unity in Ubuntu.

I think there are three important classical UI elements in any graphical OS. The task bar, the start menu and the menu bar. Being a long time Windows user, I've grown to love them and cherish them. I'm a power user and still have a hard time using any (UI) system without them. This is part of the reason why I struggle with OSX and part of the reason most Linux distros do not suit me.

I recently upgraded my laptop to Ubuntu 12.04 which forced me to setup my UI all over again. It made me realize that I really need these elements in my every day power usage of a computer. I'm almost lost without them, and definitively less productive if they're not there. Even if it's just about the frustration of having to go out of my way to get the same thing done.

Task bar

The task bar is the bar that lists all the running programs. It allows you to click on them to go to an open tab. They also have something called a "system tray" or "systray". Where the task bar contains idle buttons (maybe with changing text), the systray contains icons that change and serve as an indicator. You can recognize a non-techy computer by the clutter in the systray of a bunch of programs that really should not be in there. Linux does not have the fixed systray concept as a default, although some (/most?) desktop managers will give you a way to accomplish the same.

The task bar concept has seen some evolution. It first started out as just a list of open tasks. Later customizable launch menus were added to it. This was bliss to me. I always removed the default ones and added a custom one, with most of my frequent applications in it. For the longest of time I would have a double bottom horizontal task bar, split horizontally. The bottom would list the tasks and the top would list the launchers. This worked _very_ well for me.

Later I realized that the horizontal bar is actually a waste of space. Vertical bars make way more sense. Your screen is more likely to be wider than it is high. So why waste even more vertical screen space? So I started moving the same setup to the left side. In Windows, this works flawlessly. The left part of the bar will contain the launcher icons. The right side the open windows. The bottom (left and right combined) will be the systray and time and such. In Linux, vertical support is bad. You can't really share systray between two adjacent panels and the only time widget available to me right now only allows vertical text. Sigh! (But I've seen widgets in other managers that do allow horizontal text..)

Later iterations of the task bar include grouping. That setting doesn't fly with me. I know exactly where each open window is sitting and I want single click access to it. Clicking through open windows is counter productive to me.

Another variety of the task bar was combining launchers with opened applications. This is a default for OSX. I've had to use this for a while but never got used to it. This was only made worse by also adding the grouping to this same icon. So you'd have a launcher and grouped opened windows under the same icon. While I'm sure that's awesomesauce for minimalistic UI, it sucks for people like me. It was never obvious to me when a window was already opened (the subtle blue indicator was far too subtle for me). I was always confused about whether I was starting a new instance of the application or openening existing windows. And the grouping, as said, just doesn't work for me. This is why I really don't like to work on OSX. This is part of the reason why I get rid of the Unity UI in Ubuntu asap (it forces the OSX way of launchers on you, although they have a seriously bad mechanism for adding new launchers to panels, I kid you not).

In Ubuntu you have "panels", which are pretty much customizable menu's you can drag around and position anywhere you'd like. You add widgets to them, which can do anything you might be able to do in Windows (and I suppose in OSX), like time, systray, open application list, launch bars, etc. I've only seen them as horizontal bars by default, but you can get them vertically. You just have to kill any kind of background theming for it though, since they still don't really support vertical bars. Highly annoying, but a fixed color is an acceptable workaround.

The "window list" plugin for panels did require a minor fix though. That did not seem to be required for 12.04 anymore though. But by the time I got vertical panels to work, I had switched between at least four managers because most don't even use the panels concept anymore. Some don't allow you to manipulate it (easily or at all). Sigh.

Start menu

I've always loved the classic Windows start menu. Well, after some tweaking of course. Like who ever really used the "help" option? Or "favorites" and "recent" for that matter. They all had to go immediately. Oh and the set the icon size to small, of course.

XP started to work with a new kind of start menu. Much more bloated, much more annoying. I've always had it revert to the classic start menu. As a result I could never find my way on most XP systems because I always got lost in the start menu. Yeah, great UX right there :/ I stopped bothering with the classic menu in Windows 7. But mainly because I switched to Ubuntu before that OS was released and only have it as a dual boot.

OSX doesn't really do the start menu dance, I think. Ubuntu has different flavors of it. I'm currently running one (11.04, classic) that's pretty close to the classic Windows menu. Well, Ubuntu style of course. But still simple and to the point. However, in 12.04 I ended up with GNOME 3.2 which let go of the start menu concept. Instead it has a hot corner which sports an overview page and simple (searchable) access to all applications. I'm still considering whether I like that or not. Needs more experience.

Menu bar

The menu bar is the file edit ... help menu that's on top of almost every window in Windows, the top (static) menu in OSX, and I think used to be the top static menu in Linux as well although by the time I really switched to Ubuntu they were doing it like Windows (every window has their own menu bar). That's still the way I prefer it. Mainly because it prevents me from having to move the mouse potentially "a lot" when wanting to access the menu.

Of course there's quite some evolution here. Microsoft is slowly moving away from the concept. As a power user, I hate that. But also apps like Firefox and Chrome are doing that, hiding the menu in a "start menu" dropdown. All in the queste for minimalistic UI. Sigh...

For me, the menu bar is the first place to look for preferences, searching and saving something. I virtually never use it for copy/paste or that sort of stuff. I'll use keyboard shortcuts for that, or my the context menu with my mouse if I must. Still something I deem invaluable to productivity. I don't like how vendors are trying to move away from them though. Microsoft is replacing it with ribbons. Others are simply trying to put them back in a dropdown because it'll take up too much permanent space otherwise. Meh.


I can't believe how much I use alt-tab to switch between open tasks. This has become extremely apparent to me with the upgrade to 12.04 because it turns out that gnome 3.2 fucked the living shit out of that option by applying the grouping thing to this as well. Worse yet, that's not configurable. What the hell. Luckily there was an extension to fix it back to the old behaviour. Sort of. Still doesn't quite work if you have many windows open (because it only creates one row of icons...), but it's much better than having to do alt-tab alt-tilde :'( to navigate groups. Often I don't even think about it, I just _know_ how many times I have to press tab to open my target window. Especially when deep into the zone. alt-tilde screws up my fu and I don't see any kind of up-shot for it for power users.

Ok, that's enough UI mumble jumble for one day. Hope you liked it anyways :)