The problem with a custom laptop environment: designing it

July 31, 2013

For reasons beyond the scope of this entry I was recently irritated into putting my custom laptop environment plans into action (I do a surprising number of things due to irritation). In the interests of avoiding analysis paralysis I'm basing the first attempt on my existing fvwm-based desktop configuration (with an ever increasing number of changes). Somewhat to my surprise, the difficult part so far has not turned out to be what I expected.

My two biggest problems are related. The first one is simply designing things, in the sense of what goes where and how things will actually work (and also how I will avoid everything looking hideously ugly, which is so far being harder than I'd like). My usual desktop layout doesn't really work on a 1024 by 768 screen (there just aren't enough pixels) and I'm pretty sure I'm going to need a collection of new launchers and widgets.

(I'm basing this partly on my experience with my current Gnome 2 environment on Fedora 14, where the Gnome taskbar has launchers for several things and I use them frequently.)

The second problem is that there seem to be a huge collection of choices for the various pieces of such an environment (and some of them even work). Since I need some stuff beyond what I already have in my existing desktop fvwm configuration I've been forced into picking my way through this field of options. Many of the programs seem very powerful but their documentation is mostly focused on people who already know what they do and what they're good for; sadly this doesn't describe me right now.

(What I dream of finding is a guide to assembling your own custom desktop, laying out the options for application launcher bars, system trays, status monitors, essential applets, and so on. Given the huge amount of work it would take to assemble such a thing, this is crazy talk.)

On a closely related issue, I will note that there is nothing like trying to copy bits and pieces of your personal environment to another machine to rub one's nose in just how intertwined, baroque, and encrusted with various relics of history the whole mess is. I'm getting very tempted to conduct a slash and burn expedition through $HOME/bin in order to clean up a bunch of things.

(I should not have just looked at how many files I have in there, because the answer is 'too many'.)

PS: part of my uncertainty is that I haven't tried my in progress environment on the actual laptop yet. So far I've only been working in a VM (at the right resolution) since I wanted to have the basics there before I reinstalled the laptop.

Update: all my grand plans fell through spectacularly when I tried my in-progress environment on the actual laptop. See here for the depressing update and reversal of plans.

Sidebar: on the matter of alternate window managers

Most of the popular modern window managers for minimal desktops seem to be primarily or entirely tiling ones. From current experience with my laptop, a 1024 by 768 resolution is simply too small to not have plenty of overlapping windows (and thus a whole bunch of support for moving, restacking, and resizing windows). I also like using some amount of the mouse and don't want to have to memorize a big list of keyboard sequences for a machine that I only use infrequently.

I've looked briefly at awesome but the idea of writing Lua to configure my window manager is even more extreme that fvwm's elaborate configuration language. Maybe I'll try it some time for a (strictly hypothetical) version two of my custom laptop environment.

Written on 31 July 2013.
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Last modified: Wed Jul 31 23:28:37 2013
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