My favorite useful Compiz features - Adventures in Switching to Linux

Friday, August 1, 2008

My favorite useful Compiz features

Users of Compiz, a window manager that provides pretty visual effects, know that a lot of those effects are just for fun. Things like drawing fire on the screen or folding up windows like a paper airplane to close them look cool but have little real value. I think a lot of those features (plugins) were written more to show off what Compiz can do than to provide useful functionality. I don't doubt that lots of users are still using them though. Linux users cherish the ability to customize settings to the nth degree.

Personally, I am most concerned with the Compiz plugins that add functionality to my desktop. There are plenty of those too. I am going to outline some of my favorites and most useful. First though, I want to point out that if you have Compiz installed, you will want to also have the CompizConfig Settings Manager (ccsm) installed too. You can add it from Add/Remove Applications. Also, when I refer to the Super key it is most likely the Windows key or Apple Key on your keyboard. And now, on to the list:

Scale Effect (Shift+Alt+Up)
The scale effect is like the OS X "All Windows" Exposé feature that is invoked with F9. It shrinks all the windows down to fit on your desktop so you can see a thumbnail of everything running to find the window you want. This feature is most useful when you have lots of windows open. The more windows you have open, the smaller each thumbnail gets. It also puts the application icon down in the corner for you to help with identification of applications. You can use your mouse to select the window you want or while still holding down Shift+Alt you can use the arrow keys to move to the window you want.

Ring Switcher (Super+Tab)
The ring switcher is another feature for switching between windows. With this plugin all your windows are shrunk and rotated as if on a rod. The windows farther away are smaller and the window you are switching to is front and center. The window title is also displayed. Although not as useful as the scale effect for selecting a window, it is another good way to scroll through all your open windows and switch applications. Maybe you like the way this one looks better too. It is more like the traditional Alt+Tab but allows you to see all of the windows available at once.

Enhanced Zoom Desktop (Super+Mouse Scroll Up/Down)
Zoom can be a really handy feature. If you run your system at a really high resolution, sometimes you need to be able to take a closer look at something. I've found this feature very useful when watching videos that I can't resize or when using a CRT that just isn't very sharp. It also provides a universal way to zoom so instead of having to know how to zoom in different applications, you can always use this.

Expo (Super+E)
Expo is a feature that makes switching between workspaces (a feature Windows is sorely lacking) a lot easier. It will spread out all your workspaces in a row (with some nice reflection) to allow you to see what is running on all of them at once and then switch to the one you need. Since I've used Linux more I have started to rely on multiple workspaces. I usually have one just for my IM client, one for my personal web browsing, one for work web browsing, one for my media player, one for document editing, etc.. With Expo, seeing what is where is a lot easier and getting there is faster.

Shift Switcher (Shift+Super+E)
The shift switcher is another of the features for switching between running applications. It works like cover flow in iTunes. Because you only see 3 windows at a time, I don't use it as much as the scale effect or the ring switcher but it still useful when you have less windows open at once.

Window Previews
I first saw a feature like this on Windows Vista. Maybe someone else thought it up first but who cares as long as I can use it. I think this feature has great potential but it also has a HUGE problem as it currently works. If you want to see a thumbnail now, the window has to be visible already. If the windows is minimized, it will not draw the thumbnail. I can understand the technical limitations that lead to this but this feature is most useful when the window is minimized. To see these all you have to do is mouse over the application on the taskbar.

One last honorable mention that I really love is the Viewport Switcher which allows you to use your mouse scroll wheel to switch workspaces when the pointer is over the background. I could not really get a screen shot to show that.

Also keep in mind that you can customize most any of these settings for days on end to get these features to work just the way you want them to. Just install the CompizConfig Settings Manager (ccsm). Some of these features I mentioned are not enabled by default either (on Ubuntu 8.04 at least) so don't expect them to all work untill you enable them.

One last thing, if you haven't seen Compiz in action, just look on YouTube. There are tons of screencasts showing these features and the crazy awesome ones too.


Daengbo said...

The most useful feature I have found is the graphical representation of workspace switching. I've always had problems with people "losing" their applications or some such. When Compiz came up, new users just said, "Oh, I see, it's moving to another side." That visual effect worked better than all my explanations.

action007 said...

Thanks a lot for this article! I am relieved to know that Compiz isn't just a shiny waste of time, but is instead quite useful.

slonkak said...

It used to be useful until I upgraded to the newest Xorg and it doesn't work anymore because ATI and NVIDIA can't make their drivers work.

Erik said...

Put and Window Move are excellent for organizing windows without reaching for the mouse.

Adam said...

What, exactly, is a "super" key?

Don said...

Its the windows key

Justin said...

Adam, a super key is, on a PC at least, the windows key.

doswheeler said...

Do it dude. Linux totalyl rocks. Its worth it.


Roger said...

Sssshhhhhh don't mention Windows in a Linux post! :)

Great list.

seanlilmateus said...

Most of the useful features, derivate from others Platform like Windows and Mac OS X.

Great Jobs guys, what about that **** Sphere things, what is it good for?

daretoeatapeach said...

I shamelessly use Compiz for the bling. When I am using my laptop in a cafe, I want people to ask, "Whoa! What is that sweet interface with the flaming transparent rotating cube in a sea of awesome zoominess!"

Linux, little grasshopper. 'Tis Linux.

Seriously I am not a programmer and Compiz brings Ubuntu full-circle in showing that anyone can use it and it just as good as those other OSes.

gnubit said...

Today i was working for a customer.

They lokk at my ubuntu and say
"Very cool, whats this?"
"Is linux" and i show how it works.
"Can i use for internet"
"Yes, with no problem".

Now is 23:54 and i'm installing ubuntu on the customer's notebook.

Sometimes i hate linux.

lancest said...

Make your Ubuntu desktop Make Your Ubuntu Desktop Rotate As a Cylinder/Sphere:

This is the coolest Compiz yet on my PC's.

Slick Nick said...

@slonkaka: Try EnvyNG to install the latest drives for your card. I had lots of problems with my 8600XT until this.

Anonymous said...

I only wish the Expo feature would allow you to pick a desktop with a single click, the way scale windows does. Even better, it should take its cue from the Raise Focus option and not need a click at all.

macewan said...

@daretoeatapeach, I do the same with Ubuntu on my MacBook Air (VMWare).

"Wow, that's Apple?"

"No, no, that's Ubuntu Linux dear child."


Anonymous said...

I agree about the Compiz usability compleatly, have been using it for 2 years now and can not live without it.


Elaine said...

From expo, you can select a desktop by right clicking. If I am using the mouse, I right click to select the desktop I want. If I am using the keyboard to get to expo, I use the cursor keys then enter.

hacktheplanet said...

it has been said that the desktop cube functions with the four desktops help users new to linux easier grasp the concept of multiple desktops.

Providing an visualization that is easy to understand. At least my parents tought soo.