Yesterday I listened to a recent installment of FLOSS Weekly, which is an excellent podcast about free and open source software, hosted by Randal Schwartz. The subject of the episode was Compiz, the compositing window manager, and the lead Compiz developer Sam Spilsbury was the guest.
One point that was mentioned on the show is that most people associate Compiz with those über-cool desktop effects, like rotating cubes and windows bursting into flames. I once thought that was actually the case — that Compiz was mostly about a bunch of useless and counter-productive effects for kids who want their computer screens to look like those in Hollywood movies. Let me tell you how that view of mine changed.
A few years back, I replaced my home computer’s little 19″ screen with two big 26″ monitors. I instantly fell in love with the huge amount of screen estate, but the change has quickly proven to have a nasty side effect. With all the white background being the default for so many applications and websites, there was just too much brightness around. My eyes got tired quickly and it was pretty much impossible for me to work for a longer time without getting a headache.
I knew I could probably tweak the Gnome appearance preferences, and install some dark-toned skins for applications that have that option, but I wanted a more general solution that could be applied on a desktop level. So I started digging into the desktop preferences, and that’s when I discovered all the useful features that Compiz and its numerous plugins have to offer. So, let me name a few:
- The “Dim Inactive” plugin. As the name implies, it reduces the brightness level of inactive windows, turning them darker and thus making the focused window stand out. Some trivia: the plugin was originally named “ADD Helper”, since it was supposed to help people with Attention Deficit Disorder remain focused on whatever they should be doing, instead of constantly switching between windows. So at this moment most of my desktop is dimmed, except for the Firefox window that I’m using to write this very post.
- The “Opacity, Brightness, Saturation” plugin. In addition to dimming the inactive windows, I wanted some of the applications to be darkened even when focused — and this plugin does that. It allows setting the opacity, brightness, and saturation values for specific windows/applications. For example, my e-mail client and Eclipse IDE windows are set to 70% brightness. This does not bother me in any way when using those apps, and it’s way easier on my precious eyeballs.
- The effects. Well, not all of them are useless. I actually like those unobtrusive (and quick) transitions when I’m restoring a minimized window or switching workspaces — they produce a feeling of slickness that also seems more eyes-friendly than no animations at all.
These are the things that pretty much eliminated the eye strain problem for me (there was also a Greasemonkey script involved, but that’s a story for another post). I could point out a few more useful features of Compiz, for example I also very much like the fact that the “Window Rules” plugin lets me permanently make specific windows “sticky” (displayed on every workspace) — but, these are just things that work for me and meet my specific needs. I encourage you to try it out for yourself — if you haven’t yet explored the features of Compiz, go and launch the CompizConfig Settings Manager and play with it. You might find a couple things that will make your desktop experience a little bit better.