July 27, 2004

Introducing the Linux desktop

Author: Joe Bolin

Having used Linux exclusively for the last six years, I am amazed at the number of people who look over my shoulder and say, "That looks too complicated." I could understand their reaction if I were using arcane text commands, but I get that when I'm using graphical interfaces like KDE and GNOME. Most of my observers aren't geeks like me. Most of them are complete newbies to computers, not to
mention Linux. While these potential computer users have at their disposal a plethora of information on how to use Windows-based computer, there is little available for this audience in regard to Linux. That ends here.Linux is an open source operating system used to run a wide range of computers around the world. Linux offers graphical environments, similar to Microsoft's Windows or Apple's Mac OS X, in which a user can interact easily with applications. The main graphical environments for Linux consist of desktop environments and window managers.

Window managers provide an environment for launching and managing applications with graphical user interfaces (GUI). Desktop environments provide a similar interface for
GUI applications and contain additional applications to manage everyday
computing tasks, such as reading email and Web browsing.

If you don't already have access to a computer that has Linux installed, you should grab a LiveCD for the purposes of
learning to use the Linux desktop. I recommend MandrakeMove for new users. Due to physical limitations on the amount of software that can fit on a LiveCD, you are generally limited to one desktop environment and one window manager when using a LiveCD.

Logging in

Once your computer has booted up, you will be presented with a login
screen. There are many different login screens for Linux and each has its own look and feel. Each one consists of an area to enter your user name and password. (A picture with your user name may be substituted in the place of an area to enter your user name; if you see this,
simply click on the picture, then enter your password.) Your password will not be displayed while you type but instead will be represented by asterisks in order to keep someone from stealing your password by viewing your computer screen.

You will also notice an area that contains a list of desktop
environments or window managers to choose from. Select the one you
wish to use and click the login button (or press the Enter key
on your keyboard) to complete the login process. The two main desktop environments for Linux are KDE (K Desktop Environment) and GNOME (GNU Network Object Model Environment).

The desktop

After a brief splash screen, you will be presented with your Linux
desktop. There are two main areas of the desktop: the desktop
area and the desktop panel.

The GNOME desktop - click to enlarge

The desktop area comprises the majority of the computer screen. This
is where application windows appears when you launch an
application. It also contains the desktop icons, which are small pictures that represent different items. Some common desktop icons are:

  • Home -- This lets you browse your home directory, which is where your personal files are stored. Each user on a Linux system has an individual home directory.

  • Device icons -- These indicate media devices such as diskette
    drives, CD-ROM drives, DVD drives, and hard drives. Clicking on of
    these allows you to browse the contents of the device.

  • Application icons -- This allows you to launch an application
    directly from your desktop area.

  • Trash -- This is where files go when you delete them
    by selecting the file and pressing the Delete key on your keyboard. The Trash folder
    allows you to recover files that you inadvertently delete. Emptying
    the trash, or using the Shift-Delete keyboard combination to delete files, results
    in permanent deletion of the files.

The KDE desktop - click to enlarge

The desktop panel consists of a bar that is normally always visible. The Linux desktop may contain one or more panel areas, depending on your settings. The panel area may contain application icons, special buttons, GNOME/KDE menus, and panel applets.

The GNOME and KDE menus, which you'll find in the lower left corner of your screen, appear different for every Linux
distribution. They may be indicated by the GNOME logo (a foot), the KDE
logo (a gear), or the distribution's logo. After clicking the icon you
will see a hierarchical list of applications by category, and
actions (such as Log Out). Clicking a menu item starts the
selected application or action.

The panel applets are small areas within the panel(s) that perform
specific function. There are a multitude of applets available for both
the KDE and GNOME panels. Some common applets are:

  • Taskbar -- An area containing the names of all open applications. By clicking the
    area of the application you want to use you can easily switch between open applications. Applications are always visible here when minimized.

  • System Tray -- The system tray contains iconified applications, which are small applications that are running during normal desktop operation but which do not take up space in the taskbar.
    Some larger applications may be shown here as well to
    unclutter the taskbar. Applications running in the system tray can only
    be exited through the system tray, usually by right-clicking the icon to invoke a menu
    and selecting quit.

  • Pager -- It is possible to have multiple desktops, known as
    virtual desktops, under Linux. The pager area allows you to switch
    between these virtual desktops by clicking the desktop that you wish to
    switch to.

  • Clock -- The clock indicates the time. Clicking the clock applet opens a small calender.

That's a brief tour of the Linux desktop. Don't be afraid to explore your desktop -- nothing you do will break your computer. Next week we'll get deeper into the desktop, with a look at menus.

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