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.