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By beginningubuntu at 2007-04-26 05:03
Here's a complete guide to personalizing Ubuntu (or any GNOME-based distro). It looks at changing the theme, installing new themes, tweaking theme components (icons, buttons etc), altering font properties, changing the login screen, and more. The guide was written for newcomers to Ubuntu but is comprehensive enough to offer something for everybody.

The guide is extracted from Chapter 10 of Beginning Ubuntu Linux, Second Edition (published April 2007). The entire chapter looks at complete desktop management—changing themes, adding/removing desktop furniture, getting to grips with GNOME applets, and so on.

Changing the Look and Feel
Ubuntu is similar to Windows in many ways, but the developers behind it introduced improvements and tweaks that many claim make the software easier to use. For example, Ubuntu offers multiple virtual desktops--long considered a very useful user-interface feature that seems to have passed Microsoft by. It also moves the programs menu to the top of the screen, leaving the whole width of the screen at the bottom to display taskbar buttons. This is very sensible, because the buttons don’t look cramped when more than a handful of applications are open. However, if you’re not satisfied with Ubuntu’s out-of-the-box look and feel, you can change it.

You might be used to changing the desktop colors or wallpaper under Windows, but Ubuntu goes to extremes and lets you alter the look and feel of the entire desktop. Everything from the styling of the program windows to the desktop icons can be altered quickly and easily.

Altering the Theme
Ubuntu refers to the look of the desktop as a theme. Because it’s built on the GNOME desktop, Ubuntu allows you to radically personalize your desktop theme. Several different themes come with the distribution, and you can download many more. Each lets you change the way the windows look, including the buttons and the icon set (although some themes come without additional icons).

However, unlike Windows themes, most GNOME themes don’t change the fonts used on the desktop, and the wallpaper and color scheme will probably remain broadly the same. You can change these manually, as described in the “Setting Font Preferences” and “Changing the Wallpaper” sections a bit later in this excerpt.

To alter the theme, select System -> Preferences -> Theme. Then it’s simply a matter of choosing a theme from the list in the Theme Preferences dialog box, as shown in the screenshot below.

A useful hint is to open a Nautilus file browser window in the background (Places -> Home), so you can see how the changes will affect a typical window.

Note The default Ubuntu theme is called Human and is designed to represent the skin tones of the world’s population. This is intended to reflect Ubuntu’s mission of being accessible to everyone, no matter where or who they are.

My favorite themes are Clearlooks and Mist, largely because they’re simple and uncomplicated. Remember that you’ll be working with the theme on a daily basis, so it should be practical and not too distracting. Those miniature close, minimize, and maximize buttons might look stylish, but they’re useless if they’re so small that you can’t reliably click them with your mouse.

As well as changing the overall theme, you can also modify individual theme components and even download more theme components.

Changing Individual Theme Components
You can individually alter the three aspects that constitute a GNOME theme: the controls (sometimes known as widgets), the window borders, and the icons. Controls are simply the elements you click within dialog boxes and windows: buttons, scroll bars, and so on. Additionally, controls usually come with their own color schemes, which affect all components of the program windows.

The window borders are, as seems obvious, the borders of program windows and dialog boxes, with particular attention paid to the top of the window, where the program name appears along with the minimize, maximize, and close buttons.

Icons are, as is again obvious, all the icons on the desktop, within program windows (such as file browsing windows), and so on.

Note To make matters a little confusing, most window borders have their own selection of close, minimize, and maximize controls.

To make changes to a theme, click the Theme Details button in the Theme Preferences dialog box (see the screenshot below), and then click each tab to see your choices. Unfortunately, there are no thumbnail previews of each style, but as soon as you click each option, it will be automatically applied to the currently open windows. To preview the effects fully, the best policy is to keep a Nautilus window open (Places -> Home).

When you’ve made your choices, you can save the theme for further use. Simply click the Save Theme button in the main Theme Preferences dialog box. You’ll need to give the theme a name and, if you wish, a short description for future reference. By putting a check in the Save Background Image box, the theme will also remember the wallpaper that’s in use. When you select the theme in the future, the wallpaper will be suggested at the bottom of the Theme Preferences window; to select it, just click Apply Background.

If you don’t save the theme, as soon as you select another one, the changes you made will be lost.

Installing Additional Components
If you get tired of the built-in possibilities, you can download additional theme components, such as window borders and controls, to enhance your desktop experience. You have two main ways of getting new themes:
  • Download themes from the official Ubuntu repositories.

  • Visit the GNOME Art or GNOME-Look web sites ( and, and download items from there. Be warned that there is sometimes artistic nudity on some of the wallpapers available from GNOME-Look.
Downloading from Ubuntu Repositories
To get theme components from the Ubuntu software repositories, you use the Synaptic Package Manager. Setting up Synaptic Package Manager to use the online repositories is described in Chapter 8 of Beginning Ubuntu Linux, Second Edition, although guides can also be found around the web.

Select System -> Administration -> Synaptic Package Manager, click the Search button, and enter gtk2-engines as a search term (gtk2-engines is how Ubuntu refers to theme components). In the list of results will be those gtk2-engines already installed, indicated by a dark green check box, and several that are available for download.

Note In my tests I found a handful of dummy gtk2-engines packages (according to the description when you select them in Synaptic Package Manager). These are there for those upgrading from an older version of Ubuntu, and you can ignore them.

Icons rarely come in gtk2-engines packages, and instead are contained in their own packages. To find icons, use the Synaptic Package Manager to search for "gnome icon theme" (without any dashes or quotation marks).

Although each theme component comes with a description, you won’t really know what it looks like until you see it. The best policy is to download all of them and audition them one by one. However, be aware that themes can be large, so they may take some time to download on a slower connection.

Don’t forget that you’re downloading theme components, rather than entire themes.

To use your new theme components, select System -> Preferences -> Theme, click the Theme Details button, and choose from the various lists.

Downloading from the GNOME Art Web Site
Visiting the GNOME Art site (, shown in the screenshot below, gives you access to just about every theme ever created for GNOME. In fact, the site also contains wallpaper selections, icons, and much more besides. All of the offerings are free to use, and most of the packages are created by enthusiasts.

Installing new theme components is easy, and the instructions here work just as well for the GNOME-Look site too (

If you wish to install a new window border, for example, click the link to browse the examples, and when you find one you like, click to download it. It will be contained in a .tar.gz archive, but you don’t need to unpack it. Simply select System -> Preferences -> Theme, and click the Install Theme button in the Theme Preferences dialog box. Then browse to the downloaded theme, and click Open. You’ll be asked if you want to use the new theme component immediately, although it will also be available by clicking the Theme Details button.

You can delete the downloaded file when you’re finished.

Note The same principle of sharing that underlines the GPL software license is also usually applied to themes. This means that one person can take a theme created by someone else, tweak it, and then release it as a new theme. This ensures constant innovation and improvement.

Changing the Wallpaper
The default Ubuntu wallpaper is a love-it-or-hate-it affair. Some find its swirling colors beautiful and appreciate its humanist metaphor. Others just don’t like it. If you’re one of those who prefer something different, it’s easy to switch. Right-click the desktop, and click Change Desktop Background. You can then select from a short list of different wallpapers, including Dawn of Ubuntu, which shows the Ubuntu logo raining down on an African landscape.

If you want to use a picture of your own as wallpaper, click the Add Wallpaper button, and then browse to its location.

In the Style drop-down list, you can select from the following choices, which affect the displaying of the wallpaper:
  • Centered: This option places the wallpaper in the center of the screen. If the wallpaper is not big enough to fill the screen, a border appears around the edge. If it’s bigger than the screen, the edges of the wallpaper are cropped off.

  • Fill Screen: This option forces the picture to fit the screen, including squashing or expanding it if necessary (known as altering its aspect ratio). If the wallpaper isn’t in the same ratio as the screen, it will look distorted. Most digital camera shots should be okay, because they use the same 4:3 ratio as most monitors (although if you have a wide-screen monitor, a digital camera picture will be stretched horizontally).

  • Scaled: Like the Fill Screen option, this option enlarges the image if it’s too small or shrinks it if it’s too big, but it maintains the aspect ratio, thus avoiding distortion. However, if the picture is in a different aspect ratio than the monitor, it may have borders at the edges.

  • Zoom: Like Fill Screen, this option forces the picture to fit the screen, without any borders at the top and bottom. However, it avoids altering the aspect ratio. If the wallpaper isn’t the correct aspect ratio then parts of the top/bottom or left/right of the image may be cropped off.

  • Tiled: If the picture is smaller than the desktop resolution, this option simply repeats the picture (starting from the top left) until the screen is filled. This option is primarily designed for patterned graphics.
Don’t forget that the GNOME Art web site ( offers many wallpaper packages for download.

Tip The default GNOME backgrounds include several wonderful nature pictures and some cool patterns. However, they aren’t included out of the box with Ubuntu. To install them, search for gnome-backgrounds in Synaptic Package Manager. Note that the backgrounds are contained in the “universe” software repository, which should be enabled prior to installing the backgrounds. How to do this is explained in Chapter 8 of Beginning Ubuntu Linux, Second Edition.

Setting Font Preferences
Ubuntu lets you change the fonts that are used throughout Ubuntu (referred to as system fonts). You can also alter how they’re displayed.

To change a system font, select System -> Preferences -> Font. In the Font Preferences dialog box, shown in the screenshot below, click the button next to the system font you want to change, and then choose from the list. You can also set the font point size, so for example, you can make the labels beneath icons easier to read.

By clicking the entries under the Font Rendering heading in the Font Preferences dialog box, you can change how fonts look on your monitor. This will alter the antialiasing and hinting of the font. Antialiasing softens the edges of each letter to make them appear less jagged. Hinting affects the spacing and shaping of the letters. Used together, they can make the on-screen text look more pleasant. Try each Font Rendering setting in sequence to see which looks best to you (the text in the dialog box will update automatically to show the changes). Nearly everyone with a TFT-based screen, including notebook users, finds the Subpixel Smoothing option best.

Personalizing Login Options
You can even personalize the login screen under Ubuntu. This is known technically as the GNOME Display Manager, or GDM. To access its configuration options, select System -> Administration -> Login Window. The dialog box that appears has five tabs:
  • Local: The Login Windows Preferences dialog can configure settings for remote as well as local logins. Remote logins are those that take place over a network (or even the Internet), while local logins are the standard type that you use to access Ubuntu while sitting in front of it. In the Style drop-down list of the Local tab, you can choose the type of login screen people logging in locally will see: Themed, which is to say one that includes a pretty graphic such as the Ubuntu logo; Plain, which shows a simple plain color background with the GNOME logo; or Plain with Face Browser, which is like the Plain option but also shows user-selected photographs (see the next section). Assuming that you select Themed from the Style drop-down list, you can select the actual theme you want from the list. The default choice is Human, which features the Ubuntu logo and color scheme, but you can also select from a handful of other designs. By unchecking Show Actions Menu under the Menu Bar heading, you can deactivate the Actions menu on the login screen, which lets the user restart or shut down the computer. This can be useful for security purposes. By unchecking Include Hostname Chooser (XDMCP) Menu Item, you can remove the option from the Actions menu that allows users to log into a remote system. By selecting Custom under the Welcome Message heading, you can have the login screen display a custom sentence, but only if the Theme allows this—the default Human login screen doesn’t. By clicking the Add button, you can install new login screen themes, which, as with other GNOME theme components, can be downloaded from

  • Remote: The Remote tab controls X Display Manager Control Protocol (XDMCP) logins. This is considered a very insecure method of remotely accessing Ubuntu and should be disabled. I discuss more secure options for remotely accessing Ubuntu in Chapter 34 of Beginning Ubuntu Linux, Second Edition.

  • Accessibility: This tab lets you activate GNOME’s Accessibility tools during login, which can aid those with physical disabilities. Additionally, you can alter the sound that is heard when the login prompt is ready to take input (by default, this is the sound of bongo drums). By putting a check alongside Login Successful and Login Failed, you can also choose sound effects to accompany both those two actions.

  • Security: This tab lets you alter login settings that might present a security risk to your system. The Enable Automatic Login check box lets you do away with the login screen completely when Ubuntu starts up and go straight to the desktop. Simply put a check in the box, and provide the login username. This presents obvious security issues, but if you’re the only person using the computer and if it’s located in a secure location, you might want to choose this option. The Enable Timed Login option lets you select a user who will be logged in by default after a given period. This is useful if you want to present the opportunity to log in as a different user but also want to have the failsafe of logging in automatically, too. Under the Security header you can select Allow Local System Administrator Login, which controls if the root user is allowed to log in, something which is considered a security risk (this is only relevant if the root user account is enabled, which it isn’t by default under Ubuntu). The Enable Debug Messages to System Log and Deny TCP Connections to X Server options relate to security, and it’s unlikely you’ll ever need to use them. The Login Retry Delay section controls how long Ubuntu will pause after an incorrect username or password has been entered on the login screen. Increasing this value can put an irritating block in the way of anybody who intends to try various random username or password combinations to break into your system, but it can also be annoying to you should you mistype and then have to wait! The Configure X Server button lets you configure the X server that starts by default. Changing these settings could stop your computer booting to a GUI, so you shouldn’t alter the settings unless you know exactly what you’re doing.

  • Users: Here, you can specify which users are offered as choices within GDM if the Face Browser option is activated in the Security tab. Bear in mind that Linux has many system user accounts that aren’t designed to allow logins. By default, all users who have a password are displayed at login time, which is the best way of working (the system accounts don’t have passwords, because they aren’t login accounts).
Changing Your Login Picture
If, when configuring the login options in the previous section, you selected the Happy GNOME with Browser theme, or activated the Plain with Face Browser option, the login screen will display a picture alongside your name. You can click this and type your password to log in. You might be familiar with a similar system under Windows or Mac OS X.

Users can choose their own login pictures by clicking System -> Preferences -> About Me. The About Me dialog is designed for users to enter their personal details, such as their addresses, but they can also simply use it to choose photographs of themselves. To do this, click the empty square alongside your name at the top of the dialog box. Ideally, the image you choose should be square and 96×96 pixels, although if the picture is too large, it will be automatically scaled down. Click OK when you’ve finished. See the screenshot below for an example of the face browser login screen in action.

Give Me My Trash Can!
The developers who designed Ubuntu’s desktop decided to keep the desktop largely clean of icons. This included relegating the Trash icon to its own applet at the bottom-right side of the screen. Many people find using the applet a little difficult and miss the desktop trash can icon, which has been present on Windows and Mac OS desktops for more than 20 years.

The good news is that it’s easy to get the trash can back. Click Applications -> Accessories -> Terminal, and at the command prompt type gconf-editor. In the program window that appears, click the down arrows next to Apps, then Nautilus (you’ll have to scroll down the list a little), and then click Desktop. On the right side of the program window, put a check in the trash_icon_visible entry. The Trash icon should then instantly appear on your desktop! To delete the old Trash icon at the bottom right, simply right-click it and select Remove from Panel.

You can also put a check in the computer_icon_visible, home_icon_visible, and documents_icon_visible entries if you wish to see Computer, Home, and Documents desktop icons. By putting a check alongside network_icon_visible, you can add a My Network Places–style icon to the desktop too.

Be careful when using the Configuration Editor program. It lets you configure just about every aspect of the GNOME desktop and doesn’t warn you when you’re about to do something devastating, so the potential for accidental damage is high.


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