The Linux Moderate

One Man Standing Up for Computers That Get Work Done

Transforming Xubuntu into DBCOS

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Part 2: Making IceWM Work Right

We’ve got IceWM installed as the alternate window manager for our Xubuntu system. Now we have to make it work.

The problem with IceWM the way it comes from the Ubuntu repositories is that it’s minimally usable. The menu doesn’t have most of our programs in it, and the default theme is not only ugly but broken.

Take a look at the window buttons. They change into something unrecognizable if you hover over them. It took me a long time to figure out that the window buttons were actually somehow picking up a snapshot of the system-status graph in the toolbar at the bottom of the screen. How? I have no idea. It’s just weird. But I’ve had the same problem on two different computers with two different installations of IceWM in Xubuntu, so it’s not just one odd computer.

Firefox running in IceWM with the default theme. Look at the buttons in the upper right corner of the window,
Firefox running in IceWM with the default theme. Look at the buttons in the upper right corner of the window.

Luckily, the default theme is the only one that has this problem, and we were smart enough to install a package of alternate themes when we installed IceWM. To set a new theme, all you have to do is bring up the menu (press the “debian” button or right-click anywhere on the desktop), then choose “Settings,” then “Themes.” The themes are listed alphabetically, grouped by letter if there’s more than one beginning with that letter.

A quick tour through the themes reveals that most of them are ugly and amateurish. I’m going to pick one called “iceCrack2,” because it’s straightforward and usable and not as ugly as most of the rest.

Choosing a new theme for IceWM. We have a large selection, so pick the one you like best. I promise not to question you taste.
Choosing a new theme for IceWM. We have a large selection, so pick the one you like best. I promise not to question your taste.

Now we’ve solved the problem of the window buttons. All we’ve changed, however, is the window decorations and the IceWM toolbar and menu. The rest of the theme–program icons, toolbars, and menus–is the same ugly mid-90s style.

It’s possible to make IceWM take on any GTK theme–that is, any of the settings you can choose in the “User Interface” setting in Xubuntu. In order to do that, though, we’re going to have to edit a text file.

But don’t be alarmed. It’s a really easy text file. Mine has two lines in it.

First, we’re going to bring up our file manager. Because we haven’t changed the menu yet, the only practical way to do that is to use a command line.

IceWM has a secret trick for getting an instant command line. Hold down the Windows key on your keyboard (the one that, for odd historical reasons, has a Microsoft Windows logo on it) and press the space bar. Now you can type a command right into the toolbar at the bottom of the screen. Our command is only seven letters:

pcmanfm

To get a command line, hold down the Windows key and press the space bar.

To get a command line, hold down the Windows key and press the space bar.

When you press Enter, the PCmanFM file manager should start. It’s very quick, which is one of the reasons we’re using it instead of Thunar.

The first thing you’re likely to see is this warning:

Tons of useful information here if you know how to interpret it.
Tons of useful information here if you know how to interpret it.

This screen is actually stuffed with useful information. It tells us at least two ways we can get IceWM to recognize the User Interface setting we want it to use.

One way would be to make a text file specifying the theme. That works perfectly well, but you can’t change your mind without editing the text file again.

The other way is much more versatile. XFCE uses a program called xfce-mcs-manager to control the user interface. If we could have xfce-mcs-manager running when we started IceWM, it would set the User Interface theme for us. And it would not only pick the theme, but also pick up any alterations we wanted to make to it, such as fonts or colors.

But how do we make something happen when IceWM starts up? That’s easy. All we need is a startup file.

Push the OK button on the warning screen. You’ll notice that PCmanFM starts up perfectly fine, in spite of the warning.

In spite of the warning, PCmanFM starts just fine.
In spite of the warning, PCmanFM starts just fine.

From the View menu, choose “Show Hidden Files.”

"Show Hidden Files" reveals a bunch of folders whose names begin with periods.
“Show Hidden Files” reveals a bunch of folders whose names begin with periods.

You’ll see a whole bunch of folders whose names begin with dots, which is what makes them hidden. Look for one called .icewm. If it isn’t there, create it.

Now we need a text editor to create our startup file. I choose Mousepad, which comes with Xubuntu. Hold down the Windows key and press the spacebar to get a command line; then type mousepad and press Enter.

In the text editor, type

xfce-mcs-manager &

While we’re in the startup file, I’m going to add one more line. My only Internet connection is by wireless, so I need the Network Manager applet to start when I start the computer–otherwise, it won’t connect to the network. So my startup file has one more line:

nm-applet &

(I should mention, by the way, that the Network Manager applet doesn’t run perfectly under IceWM: after a while, it tends to disappear from the toolbar. But by then it’s done its job, and the wireless stays connected, so it’s not really a problem.)

Later, if we like, we can add more programs to run at startup, but that’s enough for now. Save this file under the name startup in your .icewm folder.

We’re almost done creating the startup file, but we have to make sure it’s executable first. Open the icewm folder in PCmanFM. While you’re here, you might as well bookmark it, because we’ll be coming back here again and again. From the “Bookmark” menu, choose “Add to Bookmarks.” Now the .icewm folder will appear in the left panel of the file manager, and you can choose it from there even when “Show Hidden Files” is turned off.

Right-click on the startup file and choose “Properties”; then choose the “Permissions” tab. Make sure that the “owner” (that’s you) has permission to “Execute” the file; otherwise, it won’t do anything when you start up.

Make sure the "Execute" box is checked at least for "Owner."
Make sure the “Execute” box is checked at least for “Owner.”

Now that we’ve created a startup file, we can log out (choose “Logout” from the main IceWM menu) and log back in, choosing XFCE from the Session menu. We’re back in the regular Xubuntu desktop for the time being. From the “Applications” menu, choose “Settings,” then “Settings Manager,” and then click on “User Interface Settings.” Now you can choose any theme you like and tweak it the way you want. When you log back into IceWM, that theme, with all your tweaks, will be the one your programs use.

We’ve begun the process of making IceWM really usable. But there’s still one more important step before it’s really useful. The next thing we have to do is attack the IceWM menu.

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Written by cbaile19

August 3, 2008 at 12:34 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] Making IceWM Work Right. « The $50 Computer Transforming Xubuntu into DBCOS […]

  2. […] on August 5th, 2008 We’ve installed the Ice Window Manager or IceWM, and we’ve made it start up with the GTK theme we chose (and in my case with the Network Manager applet so that I can connect […]


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