Fancy, stylish Docks for your Linux


Updated: January 28, 2011

Docks ... Apart from being waterways between piers and platforms for unloading of cargo, they are also the common name for desktop bars akin to that normally featured in Mac OSX. While most operating systems ship their desktops with static top and bottom panels containing all kinds of icons, docks are livelier, sometimes animated, featuring a slick interface and cool transitions, and usually add color and spice to the typical computer experience.

I am not a great fan of docks, but after using Macbuntu for a while, I started getting more and more interested in the concept. And then I discovered that there are many such applications available, with various names and functions. A typical user could get confused when first trying a Linux dock app. Because there's Cairo with OpenGL and without it, there's Docky, there's Awn, which is a subset of the more fully featured Avant Window Navigator. Some of these programs require compositing; others do not. There's the matter of 3D drivers, effects, Compiz, and so forth. It can be baffling.

Teaser 1Teaser 2

In this article, we will review a handful of popular Linux docks programs. There are many dock apps available, but I will focus on the best only. I will show you the main features, the looks, the bells and whistles, problems if any, configurations, and more.

Test platform

All tests done on Linux Mint 9 Isadora, the previous Mint release before Julia, running on my LG RD510 laptop with a proper Nvidia 9600M GS card. All of the software is available in the repos, no manual tweaks required.

Desktop

Dock app 1: Awn (Avant Window Navigator)

Teaser

Without getting too technical, this is your choice number one.

Add Applets

These are sort of desklets or widgets, if you like, already customized to do all kinds of neat things, similar to what we have seen with gOS 3.1 Google Gadgets. You can add all kinds of cool applets, like comics, a fancy analog clock, fortune messages, email integration, and more. Rather neat.

Settings

Drag 'n' Drop icons

If you want to add your own custom shortcuts to the dock, you can do that by dragging and dropping items from your system menu into the Launchers section and then shuffling the items any which way you feel.

Drag 'n' drop icons

Themes

You can also change the themes and customize the looks. There's the annoying enable desktop effects message, which shows up even after you enable compositing.

Themes 1Themes 2

And in action:

Awk final look

Working

After a bit of work, you can really get stylish results:

New looks

Dock app 2: Docky

Teaser

Docky is the would-be front end for Gnome Do, so if you've heard the second phrase thrown about by tongue-happy geeks, be not confused. Docky is your second option. While both Awn and Docky do not really require 3D effects to work, Docky does complain a little more about the lack thereof.

The default look is fairly modest, but it can be pimped up very quickly.

Default looks

Configuration

Docky is very simple to configure and fairly intuitive. You can have more than a single dock running. You can drag and drop icons onto the dock without opening the configuration menu like in Awn.

Settings

Helpers

Like Awn's applets, you have Docky's helpers. It sounds silly, but the idea is the same. You can add preconfigured controls to help you manage your programs more easily and with far more style than normally. Enabling/disabling the items is very easy.

Add helpers

Here's a screenshot showing a handful of helpers added; very similar to what we've seen with Awn earlier. Stylish and good looking.

Helpers added

Zoom

Docky also supports Mac-like zoom and has a wide range of embellishments, like glassy reflection, shadows and transparency.

Zoom

Dock App 3: Cairo (with and without OpenGL)

Teaser

Cairo is probably the most cooperative of the three when it comes to running without compositing. However, it is also the most verbose, throwing large text messages that look ugly and unprofessional. On the other hand, it has a handful of really neat features, which we will examine soon.

Like Docky, Cairo has a fairly simple default look.

Default

An interesting feature is the Mac-like dot pointer below open application windows, so the shortcuts double as application launchers and windows.

Main

Zoom & popup

I did not like Cairo zoom, because it also shows the titles of adjacent icons, which makes for some visual clutter, despite transparency and pale font. Some of the anchored items are multi-purpose menus, similar to the applets and helper we've seen earlier.

Popup Zoom

Setup

The setup is a little clunky, but you get a large number of excellent themes, with previews. When it comes to customization, Cairo wins over the other two programs. If you spend some time tweaking the dock, you can get some pretty impressive results.

Setup

Themes

For instance, you can go for Mac OSX looks, like Macbuntu. By default, you get a childish CPU and RAM speedometer, which kind of spoil the looks, but if you remove the desktop widget, it becomes quite classy.

With cpu meter

Without CPU meter

Overall, when it comes to looks, Cairo is the winner:

Lovely

Mini summary

So, let's wrap it up.

Which one would I choose?

It's an interesting question. First, remember there ARE many other dock programs out there, so do not limit yourselves to my list only, although I believe these three are really the best offering on the market at the moment, in terms of development, features, stability, simplicity, and requirements.

Best looks: Cairo. Best functionality without OpenGL enabled: Cairo. Most intuitive to use and setup: Docky, closely shadowed by Awn. Best icon effects: Tough, both Awn and Cairo have some really impressive stuff, but I find Docky's simple zoom to be most satisfying.

Now, docks are all about looks. In that regard, go for Cairo. If you want simplicity, Docky. In between, any one will do. Now, let's grade them: Cairo 8/10, Docky 7/10, Awn 6.5/10.

Conclusion

There you go. I purposefully avoided listing just about any dock app available to minimize clutter and confusion. Even having three great choices is tough. Once you get comfortable with Awn, Docky and Cairo, you can start exploring further. In fact, I promise a sequel, where we will sample a few more dock programs.

Overall, any one will serve you well. Cairo leads with best themes and performance on machines with weak graphics cards. Docky and Awn follow closely, with some really neat transitions and effects. Whatever you choose, you can't go wrong with either one.

And I'm spent. If you have any suggestion, this is the right moment to exercise your SMTP server a little. P.S. Send me a mail if you want.

Cheers.

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