The Beryl Project – Productivity erasor or taking Linux desktops to the next level?

After my buddy Rohit installed Beryl as his desktop manager on Ubuntu and amazed me with the whole rotating cube effect, I had to try it out for myself.

According to Beryl’s website, “Beryl is an OpenGL accelerated desktop that seeks to provide a free, open source desktop experience to the community that reflects the wishes of the users.” I’ve adjusted to the fairly staightforward no-nonsense GNOME desktop that comes with Ubuntu, and I tend to keep eye-candy to an absolute minimum to keep performance up (my lappy only has one of the Intel integrated graphics cards that aren’t exactly known for their amazing 3D performance) and I have yet to see any eye-candy more than good syntax highlighting that helps you write good code. In a nutshell, I’ve dismissed randomly animated 3D rain effects on my Firefox window as blasphemy to the programmer’s religion. Until now, that is…

Installation
Beryl was smooth to install. I followed their Wiki instruction to add the packages to my source list, and apt-getted it without any issues. Beryl-manager launched with not problems and my screen became a semi-translucent wobbly cube of goodness. hmm…

First Impressions
Upon laucnhing beryl, a water-like spash screen distracts your attention while Bery pops up into your taskbar and takes control of your desktop. Your windows gets stylish semi-translucent headings and the fonts change. Barely-noticeable shadows appear and your workspace seems to take on a partly organic partly sci-fi life of its own. Flipping between workspaces rotates a 3D cube, and minimizing or maximizing echoes the Mac OSX magic lamp effect. Accidentally dragging your mouse to the top corner of your screen pops open a scaled view of all your running programs, very much in the Mac taste.

Compared with Windows, Beryl is FAST. I used to have lags doing fade-in and fade-out on my menus in Windows, and here you get to spin between workspaces using a 3D cube without breaking a sweat. I’m impressed! The default skin was a bit bland to my liking, but they claim Beryl as a user-customizable desktop for good reason. I quickly settled on a nice black skin, somehow very much like the new Vista (yet running one a computer that Vista would probably barf all over).

Customization
I’m all for productivity, though, and when my windows takes 2 seconds to minimize, I get agitate… Beryl features a fairly straightforward configuration dialog, allowing you to enable and customize everything and anything:

Flipping through the effects and settings is slightly overwhelming at first due to the sheer amount of settings and features, but once you get the hang of their layout (which takes about 5 minutes, no sweat), changing speeds, effect types, timing and keyboard and mouse shortcuts (which are absolutely key to using Beryl) are easy as eating that home-made pie your mom just pulled out of the oven.

Beryl really relies on the user knowing a couple of basic keyboard shortcuts and mouse manipulations. Its no big deal, but you find yourself using the Windows button a lot (which they call the “Super” key ?!?!), which tends to never happen under linux. Flipping between workspaces, changing window translucency, switching between active programs or expanding your view to see all active programs and zooming in on those youtube videos we’re all addicted to becomes second-nature.

Productivity increase or time waster?
I was flipping out about how Linux is now making OS X look like good ol Windows 95 when my friend Gleb on AIM pointed out that i’m spending half my time flipping between windows instead of actually coding, and “How is that an improvement?!”. Now, of course, I was forced to fiercely defend my position here, but I do ask myself “Great, my windows are plotted as a rotating cube with cool translucency… is that a good thing?” And after a 24 hour test drive so far, I have a two-fold answer.

Happy people are creative people…productive, sure, but creative especially. Which, in my mind, explains some of the Mac success. People love their macs, sometimes completely irrationally. They can’t wait to pounce on that baby and churn out another sweet Web 2.0 interface. And a part of that is definitely the user experience that Macs give. Subtle icing on the visual cake keeps everyone happy, and that is exactly what Beryl bring to Linux, with the added sweetness of gobs of user control. Sure, I do find myself making taking that extra couple of milliseconds to appreciate the smoothly fading and flying dialog box when i’m saving my project, but Beryl, like OS X, manages to do it in an appeasing, fast manner than puts a smile on my face instead of an impatient hammering on the keyboard (ya, i’m taking about you Windows). So, I’m saying, give me a beautiful desktop and i’ll write you beautiful code.

Measurable timing changes using keyboard shortcuts between desktops and programs are the technical reason for Beryl’s productivity increases. Sure, the rotating 3D cube will never take less time than just switching to the next damn workspace, but since Beryl puts that right under my fingers with a keyboard shortcut makes me flip through workspaces no problem (okok sure GNOME could do this too, i know, but without the 0.2 second rotation love honey!). The program switcher is gobs better than the standards Alt-Tab GNOME one, and i find myself using the expand feauture all the time. No longer and I flipping through documentation, browsers, IDEs and my music player to find where the API spec disappeared to. I hit F8, and a couple of keystrokes later i’m looking at it. Not only did the process of finding that window increase significantly, but I had the fun experience of a well-designed layout of all my windows to please my eye.

So, in conclusion, Beryl is definitely a tool that, even by default, can improve your experience both through pure eye-candy and ease of the very basic tasks of desktop usage. With a little bit of configuration, Beryl becomes the ultimate combination of pleasure and productivity – What more can you ask for? Go, add those sources!

One Comment

  1. Anonymous says:

    Nice post – just about to start using Linux for a dev project, used to using mostly Windows… we shall see how Beryl fares but I agree in principle with all your points, the Mac guys certainly seem to churn out much lovelier UI’s than Windows..