Monday, June 11, 2007

The Panel Applets

Or, "How to make your life a little easier"

What is an Applet?

If you look at the Ubuntu menu, you'll notice that programs are called applications. Given that hint, you can probably guess that an applet is just a very small application. Panel applets are small, single-purpose programs which sit in your panel. They may be used to monitor some aspect of your computer, give you information about other computers on the network, or just indicate the weather in your area. Sometimes applets give you an easy-to-access interface for a common program like a dictionary, search, notes, blogger or calculator. In these cases, clicking on the panel applet pulls down a small version of the larger program. Clicking again hides the program.

Let's look at how to add a panel applet and go through descriptions of the common applets one by one.

How to Add an Applet to the Panel

The Ubuntu desktop, based on the Gnome (pronounced Ga-nome) Dektop Project, is amazingly predictable and consistent. The Gnome developers went through a lot of usability testing with average people and came up with the Human Interface Guidelines (HIG). All applications officially in the Gnome Desktop must adhere to the HIG standards. Why am I telling you this? It is because right-clicking to bring up a context menu is in the HIG, and the panel supports this because it is part of the Gnome Desktop. If we want to change or view the properties of something, we can consistently right-click to get what we want, and that is no different with the panel.

So to add an applet to the panel, we right click on an empty space in the panel and choose "Add to Panel." Not complicated or difficult. We will be presented with a dialog which lists the installed applets in various categories. Although the list is already pretty long, more can be installed by searching for "gnome applet" in Add/Remove.
Below is a list of applets which I think might interest you:


  • Address Book Search: If you use Evolution as your main personal information manager, this applet will search through your contacts and allow you to e-mail them just as if you were using Evolution itself.
  • Clock: This is already present in the top-right corner of your screen. The look and format can be changed by ... right clicking on the applet.
  • Deskbar: To me, this is the big daddy of all applets you'll want to use. It can search virtually anything from your desktop. People tell me that it's similar to Google Desktop Search on WinXP and Finder on OSX, but I don't really know. This is a list of some of the things it can do for you:
    • Web Searches: If you use the Epiphany Web Browser (the Gnome Desktop Application) instead of the standard Ubuntu Firefox, you can use the Deskbar to search under every quicksearch. I have Wikipedia, Google, Flikr, and many others.
    • History: Previous searches matching the phrase jump right to the top.
    • Programs: Launch a program by name instead of going to the menu.
    • Web: Type or paste a web or e-mail address and go directly their.
    • Files, Folders, and Places: Search for places which include the search phrase.
    • Dictionary: Look up words using the dictionary program.
    • Yahoo! Search: Get the top 10 results from Yahoo on the phrase.
    • Beagle: You can search inside your files instead of just by name. Want find that chat you had with Joe in March? It's a lot easier this way. Results open in a new window.
    • Web Bookmarks: If you use Epiphany Web Browser, your bookmarks will be searched for the phrase.
    • Web History: Go to a recent web page by typing part of its address or name.
    • Beagle Live: Similar to Beagle, above, but results are presented in the same search column as everything else.
    • Computer Actions: Type "shutdown" to shutdown, for example.
    • Bookmarks: If you are part of the social bookmarking site, you can retrive your bookmarks from there.
    • Shortcuts and more are available by choosing "More" inside the Preferences window.
  • Dictionary Look up: This used to be one of my favorites, but is not of much use since Deskbar came along. The only superior aspect is that the dictionary pulls down from the panel instead of being a separate window.
  • Fish: Want to raise goldfish but don't want the mess? This is your chance. Goldfish right in your panel!
  • Geyes: Eyes eerily follow your mouse pointer around the desktop. While this applet initially looks just as silly as Goldfish, it can be extremely useful if you are the kind of person who loses your mouse a lot. Maybe consider longer mouse trails, too.
  • Invest: If you have stocks that you want to follow, throw some of the symbols in here and have quick access.
  • Sticky Notes: These are notes that work like Post-Its (r). I don't use them anymore now that I have Tomboy (below).
  • Tomboy Notes: Wiki notes. These are the hottest thing I've ever seen for keeping notes for my book or an article. Today's note also helps you keep track of wasted time. To-dos or virtually anything else you want to record are possible with these bad boys.
  • Weather Report: Weather reports in easy reach. The listed city closest to Masan is Busan/Kimhae. Close enough for gov't work.

Desktop and Windows

  • Drawer: Not enough panel space for all your applets? Add a drawer to put them in. Geez. I hope you never need this one.
  • Force Quit: Although applications (especially the Gnome ones) are well-behaved, you may sometimes hit an error and have an application hang up on you. These are almost always proprietary programs from outside Ubuntu. Don't worry. It won't take down the whole system. If you have the misfortune to actually need to work with one of these programs on a regular basis, you can install the "Force Quit" applet to kill off the offending application. Just click on the applet then click on the window you want to kill off.
  • Lock Screen: If you leave your computer on and logged in while you are away, consider locking the screen. This function is also available on the log out screen.
  • Quit: This brings up the log out screen which gives you the option to lock the screen, log out, shut down, or restart. If you change your preferences, you can also suspend or hibernate your laptop here. This applet is already in the top right corner of your screen.
  • Show Desktop: I never need this. It's already in the bottom-left corner of your screen.
  • Trash: I tend to delete files using Shift-Delete, erasing them immediately. If you use the Delete key or "Move to Trash" on the file, they will end up in your Trash (think of the Recycle Bin in WinXP). Empty it when you need disk space.
  • Window List: The taskbar at the bottom of your screen is really this applet.
  • Window Selector: If you don't like all the space taken up by the Window List Applet, get rid of it and use this instead. It gives you a pull-down (or pop-up) menu list of all open windows.
  • Workspace Switcher: This is already in the lower-right corner of your screen. The number of workspaces is adjustable (right click, of course). When one workspace gets cluttered with too many windows, move them to new spaces and open new applications in the new space. I generally have four workspaces and keep my applications on them like this:
    • Workspace 1: Web browser windows
    • Workspace 2: E-mail and Chats
    • Workspace 3: Documents or web pages that I'm writing
    • Workspace 4: Documentation and notes related to the writing.


  • Contact: If you install Telepathy (search Add/Remove), you can have all your MSN, GTalk, and Jabber contacts available for text and voice chat from the panel. This is kind of new and not 100% stable yet. Consider it early beta software, which is the reason it's not installed by default.
  • Contact Group: If you want to talk to entire groups at once (like a conference call, I guess) use this applet. Same caveats as the Contact applet.
  • Contacts Overview:
  • Peekaboo: another instant messaging applet. This one is not as integrated as the ones above and uses the Peekaboo program to communicate.
  • Zeroconf Service Discovery: When I'm at home, all the services are easy to find: printers, web pages on my server, VOIP clients, whatever. This is really only useful if you carry your laptop around to new networks all the time, like I do.

System and Hardware

  • Battery Charge Monitor: Monitor your Laptop battery. You already have a limited form of this in the notification area.
  • Brightness Applet: Lower the brightness of your laptop screen. It may or may not work depending on your laptop's hardware.
  • CPU Frequency Scaling Monitor: If your CPU supports scaling back to save power, you can monitor it here.
  • Inhibit Applet: You may now want to go into power-saving mode while you are watching a movie or even when plugged in to AC power. Turn power saving on and off here.
  • Modem Monitor: Will you ever use your modem again?
  • Network Monitor: If you want to watch the traffic going in and out of your network card, use this. Yes, I use it, and yes, I'm a geek. I don't see how it could interest you.
  • System Monitor: Look after your CPU and memory usage. Click on this applet to open a task monitor similar to the one you get when you press CTRL-ALT-DEL in WinXP.
  • Terminal Serve Client Applet: If you need to connect to a terminal server often, use this applet. What? Yeah. Don't worry about it.
  • Volume Control: This is already on your panel in the top-right corner.


  • Character Palette: If you find that you often need non-standard characters like ñ or ©, then use this applet.
  • Connect to Server: Unless you are a computer consultant who is traveling and changing networks all the time, don't worry about this.
  • Keyboard Accessibility Status
  • Keyboard Indicator: If you have multiple languages in your system and switch between them, you can easily get confused. Use this applet to remember what language you are currently typing in.
  • Main Menu: This is a Start style menu. As in Windows 95. One menu to rule them all.
  • Menu Bar: This is the Ubuntu menu. There are three sections divided by function. This type of menu has a better usability than the "One Menu" system, but some people prefer what they know.
  • Notification Area: This is already located next to the clock. If you have updates, they'll appear here. If an application wants to keep itself available to you after close, it'll be here, as well.
  • Pilot Applet: Do you have a Palm Pilot? I didn't think so. If you did, you'd use this applet.
  • Run Application: If you like to type your commands in (like I do) instead of clicking around, this will bring up a command entry dialog. Alt-F2 does the same thing, so I would never use this applet.
  • Search for Files: This is and old-fashioned, search-by-name applet. It's not of much use now that full-text search has arrived.
  • Separator: This applet offers no functionality other than being aesthetic pleasing. If you have a bunch of applets, group them with the separator.

Panel applets are great little additions to your desktop. They can make many jobs as simple as glancing to your panel. Find a few that you like.



How to ass applet through terminal


Hey Prasanth,
This article is almost three years old, but luckily the command line rarely changes in Linux and Ubuntu!

Adding an applet vie the command line is quite difficult, involving setting keys in GConf (kind of like a registry for Gnome). The first thing to do is to find out what keys to add. You will need to add the applet the normal way, then open gconf-editor and navigate to /apps/panel/applets/ and look the the names and values of the keys. Write them down.

After that, you can to use gconftool to set the keys using the terminal. Use "man gconftool" to figure out how to do that.

I assume that you are doing this for a custom installation or to push changes out remotely, yes? If you want to make changes to the default using gconftool, you can do that, too.

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