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Make Your Linux Desktop More Productive

Apple has convinced millions that they can make the switch from Windows to OS X, but those curious about Linux have to see for themselves if they can work or play on a free desktop. The short answer is that, for most halfway tech-savvy people who aren't hardcore gamers, yes, you can. There are positively addictive productivity apps available for Linux, along with tools to make switching between Linux and other systems easy, or just running Windows programs themselves if you need to. Today we're detailing a Linux desktop that helps you move quickly, work with Windows, and just get things done; read on for a few suggestions on setting it up.

Setting up your system

If you're dual-booting with Windows, there's no reason to build a wall between the two systems. Most modern Linux distributions can read and write to hard drive spaces created for Windows, free Windows apps can grab files from Linux, and many free programs can even share configuration settings. See our guide to using a single data store when dual-booting.

Even if you're devoting your whole hard drive to Linux, you don't have to leave Windows behind. Free virtualization software VirtualBox is a fairly user-friendly solution to running Windows inside Linux. I've found that it works great with most flavors of XP, but, as you might imagine, has a few problems with the "home" versions of Vista, and requires a swift system to not occasionally lag a bit. One nice compromise to needing just that one must-have Windows app for work is running it seamlessly in Linux. On my own system, VirtualBox is the solution for Office 2007 apps and, when I need it, iTunes (without USB/iPod functionality, unfortunately).

Some apps, however, can run without building whole virtualization machines. The WINE project works to create a framework that can run many useful Windows apps, including a good number of games, Adobe Photoshop, and the "viewer" apps that let you read and print Office documents. These days, they've even got a working version of Google's Chrome browser. Check out our guide to installing and using WINE for help getting started.

Productivity tools

Clever hackers have not only copied some of the coolest tools available for Windows and Mac systems, they've extended them to work with other parts of the desktop in some seriously cool ways. Check out a few of our favorites:

GNOME Do: It's in the same field of Alt+Spacebar launchers as Windows' Launchy, and strongly styled on OS X's Quicksilver, but GNOME Do has grown into its own kind of productivity tool. Plug-in designers have taken full advantage of webapps' APIs, giving you the ability to quickly compose new email messages (in a local client or in your webmail), search for files or folders, add calendar events, and switch music tracks when a stinker comes up in shuffle. Oh, and it also finds applications super-quickly as you type, making desktop icons seem kind of, well, quaint. Here are installation instructions that should work for most Linux systems.

Launchy: If you're a devoted user of our readers' favorite application launcher, you're in luck. Launchy recently debuted its Linux port, and it works just like Windows. With a few changes to accommodate Linux's file system, many of the tweaks detailed by our own devoted Launchy user, Adam, will work just as well.

Dock organizer

Avant Window Navigator: A lot of people prefer OS X's dock to the cluttered taskbars of Windows, and while most GNOME-based distros come with a top and bottom bar, it only takes a few clicks to ditch them. Like GNOME Do, the Avant Window Navigator (AWN) dock has a big collection of useful applets, including simple to-do lists or widgets, email and RSS checkers, a Stacks-style folder launcher, and, of course, shortcuts to your most frequently launched apps. You can style the bar however you'd like, including a near-exact copy of the OS X dock. The AWN project's wiki has a installation guide that puts the most up-to-date version of the dock and its many applets into most popular distributions.

Cairo-Dock: This dock follows the same extensible template as AWN, but many prefer its easier-to-tweak configuration and slick graphical effects to the somewhat buggier AWN. The project's download page has compilable source and Debian-based installation packages, but most Linux users will want to install from their system's own installer.

Productivity tools

CheckGmail: Most ambient mail notifiers serve only to draw you into a browser or email client by throwing subject lines and senders at you. CheckGmail, on the other hand, serves as its own mini-reader, letting you read, archive, or delete messages within a small white pane, and using your Gmail account's RSS feed for minimum bandwidth use. Works great with Google Apps mail as well, and it's totally customizable in appearance and timing.

Timer Applet: Available in most Linux systems' repositories, this unobtrusive applet works great for those who like to work in timed bursts. Start the timer as either a running clock or set it to alert you at a custom interval of time. For those who like to track their time across multiple tasks, whether for personal tracking or client billing, the Hamster tracker has a similar drop-down interface for keeping yourself on-schedule.

Super-charged GEdit: Lots of Mac users—especially coders and technical writers—swear by their TextMate, a context-coloring, smart-functioning text editor. The built-in text editor in GNOME-based systems, GEdit, can gain a few super powers of its own, as detailed by the New Linux User blog. Since it's tightly integrated into the desktop already, it makes GEdit into a right-click power tool. KDE users can also add highlighting to the system default Kate.

Automated backups

"Cloud" solutions: Web-based backup is all the rage lately, and Linux hasn't been left in the dust. Dropbox, recently opened to public beta, features a nifty client that integrates into the GNOME taskbar and automates back-ups from a chosen folder. SpiderOak offers a similar 2GB of space, with a more GUI-focused client. And if you're mostly a word-processing or spreadsheet user with a hankering to do some tweaking, you can automatically back up to Google Docs, or install an OpenOffice extension to edit and synchronize documents between the open-source office suite and Google's online offering.

Those are just one editor's recommendations for making Linux a friendly, secure, work-able environment. Let's hear from those already rocking the open-source system what tools and tweaks are indispensable to getting work done.

Fixes for Vista's Worst Features

Just ask anyone who's seen Spiderman 3; good ideas seldom survive bad execution.

The developers at Microsoft had some great ideas while designing Vista, but poor implementation turned many of those great concepts into lousy, annoying features. To be fair, Vista inherited most of these well-intentioned flaws from earlier versions of Windows. But it either failed to fix them or didn't even try.

Here are ten of Vista's most irritating flops, along with quick fixes and workarounds. Let's start with one that's absolutely unique to Vista, and almost universally hated by those who use it.

User Account Control
People do some things in Windows--such as install destructive applications or edit the Registry--that deserve a stern "Are you sure you know what you're doing" warning. These situations may even warrant having to prove you're an administrator before you're allowed to continue.

But Vista's User Account Control (UAC) fails to give enough feedback to users; there's often no way to know why a given act is considered dangerous. Even worse, Vista's designer's went overboard, forcing people to click through a UAC prompt to set the clock or manually start a backup. The result: People get annoyed and learn to ignore the UAC, effectively removing any protection it might provide.

Here are three imperfect ways to stop UAC annoyances. One minor problem they all share: Every so often when you boot, Vista will warn you that the UAC is off. You can just ignore the warnings, in much the same way you've already learned to ignore the UAC itself.

1. Just turn it off. This easy fix works well in an administrator account, but it renders standard accounts almost unusable. Select Start, Control Panel, User Accounts, and click Turn User Account Control on or off. Select Continue at the UAC prompt, and on the next screen, uncheck Use User Account Control (UAC) to help protect your computer. Click OK and reboot.

2. Use TweakUAC. This free program can turn UAC off for Administrator accounts while leaving it on for everyone else, which is a relatively safe and convenient compromise. Just run the program, select Switch UAC to the quiet mode, and click OK.

If you don't mind taking matters into your own hands, you can tweak a variety of settings using the Security Policies editor.

3. Fine-tune your system's UAC settings. This only works in Vista Business or Ultimate. Select Start, type secpol.msc, and press Enter. Navigate the left pane as if it was Windows Explorer to the Security Settings\Local Policy\Security Options folder. In the right pane, scroll down to the bottom for nine options controlling how UAC behaves.

TiVo Recordings

KMTTG is a Perl/Tk program I wrote to facilitate TivoToGo (TTG) transfers that can download, create metadata, decrypt, run comskip & comcut (commercial detection and removal) and re-encode multiple shows you select from your Tivos all in one step. The program also has the capability to transfer and process shows automatically from your Tivos based on titles and keywords you set up.

You can select one or more shows at a time and then with one click of a button the program will download all the selected items, with the options of also automatically creating a metadata file for pyTivo, decrypting .TiVo files to .mpg, running comskip (commercial detection and removal program), and automatically re-encoding to a more portable format using mencoder, ffmpeg or any other command line encoder of your choosing. The program queues up multiple jobs and displays time, size and speed statistics for ongoing jobs.

Previously I was using different point tools to accomplish this, such as Tivo Desktop or TivoPlayList for downloads, pyTivoMetaGen for generating metadata files, Tivo Decoder UI for decrypting and various GUIs built around ffmpeg for re-encoding. I did not want to pay for or be limited by Tivo Desktop Plus. This is my attempt to simplify and automate these different tasks all into one simple GUI.

Microsoft Phone Data Manager Syncs Your Phone Wirelessly

Windows only: Microsoft's free Phone Data Manager syncs contacts, music, pictures, and videos between your phone and you desktop and the web. More specifically, the contacts are synced to the internet with Windows Live (meaning you'll need a Windows Live login), and the media is synced with any folder you choose on your desktop. Microsoft Phone Data Manager syncs over USB or Bluetooth, and Microsoft has published a list of supported and unsupported phones. The list only includes phones they've actually tested, meaning if yours isn't on either list, you may still be in luck. The Windows-only application is currently in beta and is free to download. We don't have a supported phone on hand, so let's hear how it works for you in the comments.

Western Digital Offers 500GB Laptop Drive

Western Digital (WD) on Friday announced that it's shipping its Scorpion Blue 500GB 2.5-inch hard disk drive. It costs US$219.99.

The new Scorpion Blue 500GB drive fits in standard laptop drive bays. The drive crams 250GB onto each of two platters into a Serial ATA (SATA) hard drive mechanism suitable for installation in laptop computers. The two platters reside in a 9.5mm hard disk drive mechanism--the standard height for a laptop hard drive.

300GB remains the largest hard drive you can order from Apple for a Mac laptop; that's an option on the 17-inch MacBook Pro. MacBooks and MacBook Pros both take commodity hard drive components, and a user interested in upgrading their system could add this 500GB drive themselves (or pay a technician to do it).

The drive operates at 5400 revolutions per minute (RPM) and features WD's "WhisperDrive" technology, which the manufacturer claims allows it to operate more quietly. "ShockGuard" firmware and hardware protect the drive if it's dropped or bumped, while "IntelliSeek" calculates optimum seek speeds to lower power consumption.