How I made my Ubuntu usable again

Many fellow Ubuntu users have been protesting the recent developments in user interface design, call it Unity/Gnome 3/whatever. But what can a user do? Of course one could migrate [back] to Debian. But I happen to really like the way Ubuntu has done many other things. And I've found a way to restore its usability. I'll also share a few extra tips that I've found useful with Ubuntu.

Moving to Xfce

First, I replaced the default desktop environment with Xfce. It's a full-fledged, light-weight, easy-to-use desktop environment that by default has kind of an OSX-style look but is extremely customizable. It also comes with a simple compositor. Installing Xfce is simple:

$ sudo apt-get install xubuntu-desktop
$ sudo apt-get --purge remove ubuntu-desktop
$ █

This will also rebrand your distro as Xubuntu. Despite this superficial change, it will use the same repositories and, for the most part, will work exactly the same way as you're used to.

No more PulseAudio

Secondly, and less importantly, I eradicated PulseAudio which is another common source of mischief:

$ sudo apt-get --purge remove pulseaudio
Scan finger on UPEK TouchStrip Sensor-only

One of the most satisfying biometric sudo moments!

Cool little terminal

My terminal emulator of choice is rxvt-unicode, also known as urxvt. Living up to its name, it has great support for Unicode in addition to being fast and lightweight. It can be daemonized, which shortens the startup time of new windows even more. Needless to say, it's very customizable via Xresources. It also comes with a bunch of optional Perl extensions.

Keyboard tips

These keyboard tips work in Xubuntu and Xfce, but could be applied to other environments, too.

Some shortcuts

[Image: Keyboard settings window with the Application Shortcuts tab open.]

Keyboard shortcuts can be added in Application Menu → Settings → Keyboard → Application Shortcuts. For example, I've set the command urxvtcd to be executed when the section (§) key is pressed. This way you can map a seldom-used key to do something more useful, in this case open a new terminal window.

I've also made it easy to copy text from XA_PRIMARY (the "mouse cursor" clipboard) to XA_CLIPBOARD (the "Ctrl+C Ctrl+V" clipboard) by adding a shortcut key to launch the command /bin/sh -c "xclip -f -out | xclip -selection clipboard".

Compose key

The Compose key can also be useful. It lets you quickly input many special characters not directly present on the keymap, using simple mnemonics.

To map the Windows key to work as a Compose key, add keycode 133 = Multi_key to your ~/.Xmodmap:

$ echo keycode 133 = Multi_key >> ~/.Xmodmap
$ █

Also, make Xfce read the config at startup by adding xmodmap /home/username/.Xmodmap to your Settings → Session and Startup → Application Autostart:

[Image: Session and Startup settings window with the Application Autostart tab open and the popup Add application.]

Some compose key sequences and the characters they produce:

Cmp + S + O§
Cmp + O + C©
Cmp + A + Eæ
Cmp + + >

Unicode input

To input an arbitrary Unicode character that you know the code point of, press Ctrl+Shift+U, then the code point in hexadecimal, and commit it with Enter or Space. Like so:

Ctrl + Shift + U
21D2   space  
221B   space  
5B97   space  
2620   space  

Over-enthusiastic Sticky keys

You can disable gdm's Sticky Keys and Slow Keys accessibility helpers by adding xkbset -a to the aforementioned Autostart list.


There you go! Make sure to choose Xfce or Xubuntu session from the greeter when you log in. And here's a screenshot of my Xubuntu session with root-tail, conky, rxvt-unicode, vim, and Firefox:

[Image: Full-desktop screenshot of Ubuntu.]


  1. You could also go with Kubuntu, the KDE version of Ubuntu. Also it also has its moments, it is not as cringe-inducing as the current GNOME whateveritis that is shipping with Ubuntu these days.

  2. followed your steps to switch to xfce, rebooted, and was surprised to be greeted by unity again...

    (I forgot to switch to "xfce session" when logging in)

    Ubuntu is great. (Except for unity, and it does not support my printer properly)

    1. Oh that's true :) I should add it to the post.

  3. Hi Oona, very nice screenshot. I'm also a xubuntu user, xfce is the only way to go.

    And this brings me to the point, what is that window manager theme and where can I get it? I absolutely love straight edged window borders, and the simple buttons are just my style, reminds me of twm..:)

    Cheers ~

    1. The window manager theme is 4dyne. I like it very much, too. My Firefox theme is FT DeepDark, and the VIM color scheme is elflord.

  4. Oona,
    Many thanks for the prompt reply and the links, you're a star.

    Regards ~

  5. The system monitor in the very back and lower-right, as well as whatever printed "Nov 9 23:00:02 pentti CRON[25400] ..." are spiffy. Do tell!

    1. The system monitor is Conky, and the log viewer is root-tail, if I recall correctly.


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