Thursday, December 24, 2009

Customizing Ubuntu Lucid (alpha)

With the latest releases of Ubuntu has come a loss in being able to customize certain things via a gui.  For instance, Ubuntu used to give you all sorts of options to customize the login screen, but if you look now at System >> Administration >> Login Screen, virtually all of those options are gone.  Also, Grub2 has come to Ubuntu.  For the old grub, Startup-Manager (SUM) was a great gui tool that let you tweak a number of things from the login timer to the splash image.  SUM has limited functionality with Grub2.  See for details.

Customizing the login screen

Changing the login theme

Press Alt+F2, and run "gksudo -u gdm dbus-launch gnome-appearance-properties".  Use the "Theme" tab to customize the login theme, and the "Background" tab to customize the background image of the login screen.  After doing this, you might notice some new blue icons in your notification area.  Go to System >> Preferences >> Keyboard, click the "Accessiblity" tab, and uncheck "Accessibility features can be toggled with keyboard shortcuts" to get rid of one of them, and then reboot to get rid of the other.

Changing the "System Ready" sound

This is the drums sound that plays when you get to the login screen.  The file is located at "/usr/share/sounds/ubuntu/stereo/system-ready.ogg".  Run nautilus with root permissions via Alt+F2 "gksudo nautilus", and browse to the folder " /usr/share/sounds/ubuntu/stereo".  Rename "system-ready.ogg" to something else (e.g. "system-ready.ogg.bak") to disable the sound.  If you want to replace it with your own custom sound, back up the original file by renaming it, then make a new file called system-ready.ogg in that folder and it will play your new sound.  The program Audacity is good for trimming a sound file and saving it in the .ogg format.

Customizing Grub2
Be careful editing your grub2.  If you screw something up, you might have trouble booting, so have a LiveCD handy to help you undo whatever you did.

You can try StartUp-Manager for some limited customization options.

You can find plenty of detailed info in the Ubuntu documentation .  The only spot it lacks is in configuring a spash image, for which there is an easier method if you're running Lucid (which is in alpha right now, so I'm not suggesting you should run it).  Perhaps this method works in earlier Ubuntu versions too, but I don't know.

Configuring splash image in Lucid
1) Install grub2-splashimages.   This will give you a set of background images to choose from.

GUI Instructions:
Run Synaptic via System >> Administration >> Synaptic Package Manager.
Search for grub2-splashimages, right click on it and select "Mark for Installation"
Click "Apply" in the toolbar.

Terminal Instructions:
sudo apt-get install grub2-splashimages

If you want to create your own image, see the Ubuntu documentation for saving your image correctly, and then put it in the folder /usr/share/images/grub (use alt+f2, then type "gksudo nautilus" to do this, or you'll get a permissions error).

2) Use alt+f2, then type "gksudo nautilus".  Create the folder "desktop-base" in /usr/share (unless it already exists).  Create the document "" in this folder, and open this file for editing (right click, and select "Open with gedit")

Terminal Instructions:
sudo su
mkdir /usr/share/desktop-base
gedit /usr/share/desktop-base/

This is what my "" file looks like:

The first line specifies the image, the second the color of text, and the third the color of higlighted text.  Text color is specified as "text color/background color", where black as a background color is just transparent.

3) Run "sudo update-grub2" in the terminal.  Be patient, it might take a few seconds before you see it do anything.  You should see a line like "Found background image: Lake_mapourika_NZ.tga" in the output.

4) Reboot and see if it worked.  Go back and change the text color if it's hard to read.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A comparison of Gmail notifiers for Ubuntu

If you're looking for a program to check your Gmail in Ubuntu, you'll find there's a lot of them.  Variety's good, but it's difficult to wade through all these options to find the one you want.  Perhaps one day these developers will combine their efforts to create one awesome Gmail notifier, but in the mean time here's a comparison of the options to help you out.

Here I'm specifically looking at email notifiers that work in Gnome with Gmail.  If you use an email reader like Thunderbird, that already has this functionality built-in.  Also, if you use KDE, there's some other gmail notifiers you'll want to check out, although some of the ones below also work in KDE.

Uses Gnome keyring: Yes
Notification system: use Ubuntu's notification system
Shows number of unread messages in system tray icon: Yes
Hide icon when no new emails: Yes, configurable

The notification only tells you when there's a new email and how many unread messages you have, not who it's from or what it's about.  There's also no way to launch the browser or email client from this.  This was a decent program when Ubuntu's notification had actions, and what I have been using up until this point, but that is no longer the case.

This one isn't working for me at all.

Uses Gnome keyring: don't think so
Notification system: some custom system
Shows number of unread messages in system tray icon: No
Hide icon when no new emails: No

When a new email arrives, a notification appears in the lower left corner with the sender, subject, and message preview.  Ugly, but effective.  There's a link to open your web browser in the right click menu, but it wasn't working for me.  Overall, I don't care for this one.

Uses Gnome keyring: don't think so
Notification system: some custom system
Shows number of unread messages in system tray icon: No
Hide icon when no new emails: No

Notifications show some useful information, but lack things like message previews.  It does let you mark as read, archive, delete or report as spam directly from the popup that appears on hover without opening your browser or email client.  Overall, a decent set of features, but not as nice looking as some of the others.

Uses Gnome keyring: Yes
Notification system: Uses Ubuntu's old notification system, which means it doesn't work properly with newer Ubuntu releases.  There's a workaround for this: here, but hopefully a proper fix will be released soon.
Shows number of unread messages in system tray icon: Yes
Hide icon when no new emails: Yes

With the workaround, you get an Ubuntu style notification with which email inbox it's in, the sender, subject, and message preview.  Plus, you can left click on the status icon to open the message and this behavior is configurable.  You can also launch the mail reader or email in browser from the right click menu.
A few minor gripes:

  • the "Properties" menu item would be better labeled "Preferences"
  • doesn't seem to add itself to startup applications, nor does it have an option in Properties to do so.  You can add it yourself in System >> Preferences >> Startup Applications, but it's just a minor inconvenience.
  • it would be nice to have the option to show the icon even when there's no unread email, although I wouldn't use that option

(Note: the notification screenshot is from the blog I linked to, but I tested it on my system too.  Other screenshots on here are by me, or from the official sites of these programs, and I verified that they are consistent with what the current version looks like.)

After trying all these out, I think mail-notification is by far the best (with the workaround to get notifications working correctly).  It has almost everything I want in an email notifier.  It even works with other email services besides Gmail.  There are a few minor features it lacks that some of the others have, but they're things I don't use anyway (examples: customize the tray icon, check labels in Gmail besides Inbox for new messages).  But don't take my word for it, try them out yourself and see which you like best.

Also of note is gm-notify, available at, but not yet in the repos.  It boasts support of the new indicator-applet.  I don't use indicator-applet and haven't tried this one out yet, but if you do it may be worth a look.

Incorrect information?  Left out your favorite notifier?  Let me know in the comments.