SoSLUG Archive

Compiz Fusion – a Tutorial


What is Compiz Fusion? Compiz Fusion is a compositing window manager. What does that mean? Previously, each program you run draws graphics directly onto the screen within its own window. Compositing puts a layer in between programs and the screen, changing the flow from programs, to the intermediate buffer, to the screen. What this allows for is that graphics from a running program can be manipulated before being drawn in various 2D and 3D ways, like this:


What you’re seeing is Compiz Fusion’s Desktop Cube plugin, but we’ll get to that later.


Before we dive into it, we need some preparations. Firstly, let’s install some packages. In Ubuntu, they’re named as the following (likely the same or similiar on your distribution)

  • compizconfig-settings-manager (for plugin configuration)
  • compiz-fusion-plugins-main (the main set of plugins)
  • compiz-fusion-plugins-extra (additional cool plugins)
  • fusion-icon (the notification area icon)
  • emerald (an alternative window decorator)

Once these are installed, one of the first things you’ll want to do is turn compiz fusion off and on easily. To accomplish this, run the “Compiz Fusion Icon” from the System Tools menu. You probably won’t want to do this every time you log in, so we can automate the process. Firstly, open the “Startup Applications” found in System, Preferences:


Add a new Item, the comment and name can be anything you like, but the command must be “fusion-icon”. The name field cannot be blank, so at the least give it a name. Add this to the list and close.

Before we start, you should get used to a common UNIX-based system feature, workspaces, or “multiple desktops”. Try this, press CTRL + ALT + right arrow, then CTRL + ALT + left arrow to get back to your first workspace. You’ll notice all windows disappeared, leaving you with a fresh workspace. This is useful as you don’t have to keep switching and moving windows so often. Open or move some windows (CTRL+ALT+SHIFT+arrow to move a focused window) to the other workspace and get used to the concept.

Now that that’s sorted, right click on the new icon in the top-right of the screen. You may already have Compiz running, in which case Compiz will be selected as the current Window Manager. Ubuntu tries to run Compiz Fusion by default with a set of minimal plugins, such as the desktop wall. If your workspace moved to the left and right visually and shows the current workspace in the middle of the screen as below, Compiz is enabled. If not, then another window manager is running, such as Metacity (Gnome and hence Ubuntu’s default).


If nothing happened except the workspace switcher applet (bottom-right on Ubuntu and most Gnome systems) changes and all windows disappear, then go ahead and click Compiz in the menu. You’ll need a video-card that allows compositing and have the correct drivers installed (currently this means an Intel, ATI/AMD or Nvidia card). If it flashes and then goes back to metacity, you need to either install drivers (go to System, Administration, Hardware Drivers) or change your video-card. I may make another article addressing that problem later.

Plugin configuration

If Compiz works, hooray. What you can do now is head to the Compiz Settings Manager by right clicking the notification area (systray) applet or you may also find it in System, Preferences. You’ll be presented with this:

Now we can play with the plugins. From this point on, everything I ask you to do is a suggestion. Play with the sliders and options as much as you like! The first one I would recommend you to try is the Desktop Cube, for the effect shown in the top image of the article. Find the “Rotate Cube” plugin and enable it (tick its checkbox). It will ask to disable the Wall and enable the Desktop Cube, allow it to do both. Now, change workspaces or hold down CTRL, ALT and the left arrow key. You should see the following: (without the mouse)

Neat, but we can improve it. Firstly, we can’t see much of the cube from that close-up view, so go into the Rotate Cube plugin and increase the Zoom. It stands for zoom out, so increase it a little, to say 0.3. Try rotating the cube via the mouse again. Set it to what you like. Also, go into the Desktop Cube plugin, and under the Transparent cube, reduce the opacity for rotating to about 50%. You should end up with something like this:

However you’ll notice the other sides of the cube are barely visible. This is due to the default “lighting” option. To disable it, go into the Display Settings tab of the General Options at the top of the CompizConfig Settings Manager (or CCSM), and untick the “Lighting” option. I’ll leave you to decide if you want the lighting option on or not. Whilst here, you can also go to the Desktop Size tab and change the number of sides that you have. If you need lots of virtual desk space, you can have as many as 8, 16 or even 32 sides, forming a large prism of workspaces:

However, with so many workspaces especially, you may end up flipping between them often to find the window you want. This leads to a need for a window switcher. Fortunately, Compiz Fusion comes with one set up by default: press Alt and Tab to switch windows within one workspace (cube side). Alt, Shift and Tab to go backwards. Hold down Ctrl with those keys at the same time and it will switch between all windows on all sides of the cube. The good news is, there are better looking switchers available. Try the Ring and Shift switchers. You can find the key bindings to use them on the “Bindings” tab of the plugins. You may find these awkward to press, so you can change them by simply clicking on the binding, e.g. “” in the Ring Switcher. Note that the “Super” key is the Windows key on most PCs, the Apple or Compose key on Mac hardware. If you’ve altered your keyboard to have a neat little tux penguin icon instead of the Windows or other logo, it’ll be that one 🙂

My personal favourite is the Ring switcher, if you decrease the ring height and double the thumbnail height and width it gains a much more 3D look:

Keeping to the practical side of things, there’s also a Zoom plugin available, which is handy for seeing something small on screen more clearly or showing something specific to someone else from a distance or otherwise. The newer, improved version of this is called the Enhanced Zoom plugin, near the top of the settings manager. Go enable it, and hold down the super key and scroll up. Do the same but scroll down instead to zoom out. I’d recommend the Panning option (and disabling Synchronise Mouse) under the Behaviour tab, as then you can move the mouse somewhat out of the way of what you’re trying to look at.

“Hey look! Cool performance-monitors!”

Speaking of visibility, the Opacity, Brightness and Saturation plugin under Accessibility is also useful. Once enabled, holding Alt and scrolling whilst hovering the mouse over any window will adjust the opacity of it and make it translucent! You can enable saturation and brightness adjustment too, but you’ll have to think of some bindings to use as they’re disabled by default.

Here, I’m using the Compiz Settings Manager whilst keeping an eye on some serious business. (I could open more windows in the free space).

I should mention that if you didn’t know already, holding alt and left clicking whilst hovering the mouse over a window will drag it around without having to grab the title bar. You can also resize a window by alt-middle click dragging . On XFCE and KDE I believe it’s alt-rightclick dragging to resize the nearest corner. You can also right click on a window bar and tick “Always on Top” or “Always on visible workspace”, to keep a window visible whilst you click and move around other windows and workspaces.


Author: Andy Knight - Page reference: 1284
Last modified: Alan Campion - 2012-11-16