March 18, 2008

Lesser-known Gnome Panel Applets can improve your desktop

Author: Peter Enseleit

The Gnome Desktop Environment comes with a set of default panel applets included. A little searching in your distributionôs repositories and on the Internet will uncover a few extra applets which are not included in the official Gnome offering, but which you may find very useful all the same. Let's take a brief look at some of them.

Gnome Blog

With the Gnome Blog panel applet you can quickly and easily post new blog entries to your blog. You can work on the contents of your new entry a little bit at a time and your changes are saved as you go. If your blog site supports it you can even drag and drop images onto Gnome Blog to be included in your new entry. Once it is ready, just click Post Entry and your new blog entry is uploaded to your blog site. Supported Blog sites include,,, blog sites built on Movabletype, Wordpress, or pybloxsom weblog platforms, and any blog site using the bloggerAPI or MetaWeblog APIs.

Zeroconf Service Discovery

This interesting little applet allows you to discover Zeroconf Services available on your local network. You might know Zeroconf as Appleôs Bonjour or Rendezvous. Zeroconf allows you to publish a service on your computer for other computers on your network to use. One common example is the music sharing ability built into iTunes, and also Rhythmbox, Banshee and other media players on Linux. If you have any of these media players running on your network and they are configured to share your music, another user who has his or her Zeroconf-enabled media player playing on the same network can browse and listen to your shared music.

Music sharing is not the only service which can be published with Zeroconf, and you'll soon discover this if you enable the Zeroconf Service Discovery applet on your Linux box while you are on a typical office network, (if you have permission to do this, of course). By default only a few services are searched for, but you can add to this number by opening the appletôs preferences and ticking all of the services you want it to discover. Some of the services you might find published include Web sites, such as the Web interfaces for a variety of printers, iTunes shares, Apple File shares, published FTP Sites, Asterisk telephony exchanges, shared Web Bookmarks, LDAP directories, GnuPG keyservers, Apple iChat users, RealPlayer shared favorites, Shared RSS feeds, Skype users and Windows and WebDAV file shares, to name a few.

You may find that clicking on a discovered service gives you a message stating that there is no plugin available to handle it. This is because only a small number of services have plugins included with this applet by default. Services that are supported out of the box, at least in the Ubuntu Gutsy package, include H23 and SIP VOIP protocols handled by Ekiga, SSH and SFTP-SSH handled by gnome-terminal, VNC connections handled by xvncviewer, FTP, secure FTP, (FTPS), HTTP, secure HTTP, (HTTPS), WebDAV and secure WebDAV, (WebDAVS) all handled by Nautilus. Unfortunately Nautilus no longer supports the opening of HTTP or HTTPS pages, so clicking on a HTTP service will give you an error. This can be fixed by editing the plugin which handles HTTP located at /usr/share/service-discovery-applet/plugins/, but that is beyond the scope of this article. For those of you who are interested, you can add the ability to handle more service types by writing Python plugins along the same lines as the one listed above and adding them to the /usr/share/service-discovery-applet/plugins/ folder.


The Giplet applet simply shows the IP address of your computer in your Gnome panel. It can be configured to show the IP address of your ethernet network interface, either wired or wireless, or to retrieve your IP address from an external website. This is useful if you need to know your IP address in a network environment where your connection information often changes, for instance, if you use a laptop to connect to wireless LANs in airport lounges while travelling.

Music Applet

While many Linux music players already have an icon available in the panel notification area, some do not, and those that do often have clunky interfaces. The Music Applet allows you to control your music player from the panel with a simple, quickly-accessed set of buttons without having to right click and then select the action you want to perform. It provides Previous, Play and Next buttons, and can be configured to show the time a track has been playing and its rating. A popup notification, giving you song details, also appears when a song change occurs. Supported players in version 2.3.0 include Rhythmbox, Muine, Banshee, Exaile, MPD, Quod Libet, XMMS, XMMS 2, Amarok, Audacious and VLC.


The Byzanz applet allows you to record your desktop activity and save it as a GIF file. With it you can record your entire desktop, a certain area of your desktop or only a selected window. There is also an option to disable recording the movements of the mouse cursor, which is recorded by default. Unfortunately Byzanz does not work very well if you enable compiz desktop effects, but with effects disabled it produces quite good results, although they tend to be a bit grainy if you have high definition images on your desktop, due to the GIF formatôs limitation of only supporting a color palette of 256 colors.


The Workrave applet is designed to help prevent Repetitive Strain Injury for people who spend a lot of time typing at their computer. With it you configure how long you should wait between breaks from typing. You can configure micro breaks, which are set by default at 30 seconds every 5 minutes, rest breaks, which default to 10 minutes every 45 minutes, and your daily limit, which defaults to 4 hours. During the breaks, a series of stretching and eye exercises are presented for you to do. User input during these breaks is blocked so that the user is forced to focus on the exercises, but each break can be postponed or skipped if needed. Workrave can operate in distributed mode over a network, meaning that if you switch between two computers which are both running Workrave in distrbuted mode, your break times will occur at the same time on each of them. Workrave also keeps statistics on your break times, time worked for the day and mouse and keyboard usage. This applet is a great tool for the prevention of RSI and is useful in training yourself to establish sensible routines for keyboard use.

Camera Monitor

The Camera Monitor applet runs as a background task and shows an icon in the panel, as well as a notification message, only when you are using an application that accesses your webcam. This is useful if you want to monitor whether or not your webcam is being used, for instance when you are talking to someone with the Ekiga VoIP videophone.


The Cryptkeeper applet makes it easy to manage EncFS encrypted folders on your computer. You'll need EncFS installed and the Fuse kernel module loaded and you'll need to add your username to the Fuse group in order for Cryptkeeper to work.

sudo aptitude install encfs
sudo echo "fuse" >> /etc/modules
sudo modprobe fuse
sudo addgroup [your username] fuse

Once you've set up your environment for EncFS, install Cryptkeeper. If it isn't in your repository, you can get binary packages for Debian and Ubuntu from the Cryptkeeper Web site. Once installed, you'll find it listed under the Applications-System Tools menu. Click on its launcher and it adds an icon to the system tray. From there, you set up its configuration and can set up folders to be encrypted, as well as opening existing encrypted folders. When you open an existing encrypted folder, enter your password for the folder and it opens in the file manager configured in Cryptkeeper (Nautilus by default). From this point on you can manage the files in the folder in the same way as any normal folder. You can configure Cryptkeeper to automatically unmount the encrypted folder after a certain time, or you can manually dismount it from the Cryptkeeper icon, at which point it is encrypted again until you re-open it.

Quick Lounge

The Quick Lounge applet is similar in operation to the Windows Quick Launch bar. It holds a selection of your most commonly used application launchers, displaying them in the panel and creating a drop down list of the launchers which do not fit into the space configured for the applet. You can add launchers manually or select from existing launchers in the menu. The Quick Lounge applet differs from just placing launchers directly onto the panel by allowing you to configure how many launchers will be visible on the panel and how many will be placed in the drop down list. Another advantage is that all of the launchers behave as a single unit, so if you resize your panel, the launchers stay tightly aligned within the applet rather than becoming misaligned across the panel.

Timer Applet

The Timer applet is a very simple applet which counts down a timer and notifies you with a popup notification message when it is finished. You can also configure it to play a sound upon finishing if you want it to. It allows you to set up preset timers which can be quickly selected from the applet drop down menu. This is useful if you work to short deadlines or you need to notify yourself that a certain time frame has passed.


For more powerful reminder functionality look to the gToDo applet. It allows you to control the gToDo task list manager application from your panel. With gToDo you create individual tasks which make up a simple task list. You can configure when each task is due and gToDo will pop up a reminder at the due time, or fifteen minutes beforehand. You can create your own categories and allocate tasks to them, and you can export the task list to HTML for viewing in a web browser and to an XML file for importing at a later date. gToDo is not a replacement for a full-fledged calendar application, but it has enough functionality to meet many people's needs.

Menu File Browser

The Menu File Browser applet allows you to browse your directories and open files from your panel without having to open your file manager. You can configure multiple folders to browse, each showing as a new item on the panel, and whether or not you want to show hidden files in the list of files returned. I find this a real time saver when I want to quickly open files in one of my commonly used folders.


The list of panel applets described above by no means exhausts the number of offerings available. To find more applets, try searching your Linux distribution's software repository or the Internet. A good starting point on the web is The use of well-designed, functional panel applets can make your desktop productivity soar, so it's worth going to the effort of finding the right ones to suit your requirements.


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