The Linux GUI: Of mice and menus


Author: Joe Bolin

I introduced some of the basic elements of the Linux desktop.
Now you need to learn how to navigate and use it to start applications. To do this you
need to know how your mouse works with the Linux desktop and understand the desktop menus.

I assume, since you found your way to this article, that you know that the mouse is the small input device that lets you move the cursor around a computer screen, and that you know how to point and click using the mouse. You know you can press and hold the left mouse button, move the cursor to a new location, and release the button to drag and drop elements around the screen.

A lesser-known action you can perform with the mouse under Linux is middle-clicking.
Linux allows you to simulate a middle mouse button by pressing and releasing the left and
right mouse buttons simultaneously. Middle-clicking makes cut and paste operations easy; select an area of text, move the cursor to where you want to paste the selected text, and middle-click again.

The best place to start using your Linux desktop is at the desktop menu. The desktop menu provides easy access to the many GUI applications available for the Linux desktop. Within the desktop menu you can start applications and perform many actions related to your Linux desktop. Most desktop environments and window managers have a desktop menu system, usually accessed by clicking on the icon located on the desktop panel. For KDE, the K menu’s icon is usually the letter K and a gear. The GNOME menu icon usually looks like a left footprint with only four toes. Some distributions use their own logo in the place of the default GNOME and KDE menu buttons.

The desktop menu is a hierarchical menu, meaning it contains submenus that are displayed in a cascading fashion. Categories containing submenus are indicated by a small arrow to the right of the category name.

To navigate the desktop menu, simply move the cursor over the menu. The menu item beneath the cursor will be highlighted. If an item contains a submenu, then that submenu will be displayed automatically when the cursor is over the item. Navigate the submenus in the same way as the main desktop menu.

The desktop menus of nearly all Linux distributions are a little different. While most Linux distributions simply use the default menu structure for GNOME and KDE, some distributions have customized the desktop menu structure to make it more user-friendly. Don’t fret too much if you don’t like how your desktop menu is structured because, as I’ll discuss in a future article, you can customize it to suit your individual tastes.

Some common desktop menu categories are:

  • Office, containing applications for performing many work-related tasks, such as creating text documents, creating presentations, and using a calculator;
  • Internet (or Network), containing many applications used to perform tasks on the Internet, such as Web browsers, email clients, instant messengers, and Web editors;
  • Multimedia, containing applications used to view movies and listen to sound files or CDs;
  • System (or Configuration), containing items you can use to change the settings on you Linux system;
  • Documentation; and
  • Games.

Once you have familiarized yourself with the desktop menu you can
begin running applications by moving the cursor over the application
that you wish to start until the item is highlighted, then clicking the
item to start it. Tooltips, which are pop-up text areas that give you
more information about an item, may appear when you highlight a menu item or
desktop item, depending upon your desktop settings.

At some point while exploring the applications that come with Linux, you will find some applications that you’ll want to run every day. You can place these menu items on your desktop or desktop panel to provide easier access to the applications. To do this, locate and highlight an application in the desktop menu, drag the application to your desktop area or desktop panel until a small plus-sign appears next to the cursor, and release the mouse button. You can use this technique to place single applications or entire sections from the desktop menu on the desktop. When you drag an item onto the desktop in KDE, a pop-up menu will appear;
choose Copy Here from the menu to create a shortcut on the desktop.

As well as containing applications, the KDE desktop menu also contains special sections, including:

  • Bookmarks, which contain bookmarks from KDE’s Web browser (called Konqueror);
  • Quick Browse, which allows you to navigate your computer directly from the menu;
  • Recent Documents, which contains a list of your most recently accessed files;
  • Print System, which allows you to manage and configure printers;
  • Find, which contains search utilities to locate files on your computer; and
  • Preferences, which allows you to configure your KDE desktop settings.

You can also find some special actions in the KDE desktop menu. The Run
Command action allows you to start an application by typing its name
in a text box. Lock Screen lets you password-protect your computer
while you’re away. Logout ends your desktop session and returns to
the login screen.

You can find similar entries for the GNOME desktop in a separate desktop menu labeled as Actions.

In addition to the desktop menu, Linux offers context menus — pop-up menus that appears when you right-click on an item or the desktop. These special menus provide a quick and easy method for performing specific actions on the item (such as copy, paste, or delete), or to
configure the item. The Linux desktop has a context menu for nearly every item and application that it contains. If you change your mind about using a context menu, then click an area away
from the menu and it will disappear.

Next time I’ll discuss working with application windows.