Some thoughts on that compiz bling

Posted on Mon 09 February 2009 in misc

I spent some time pimping my Samsung NC-10 netbook over the weekend. I had been having problems with Firefox slowing down and becoming sluggish and unresponsive. A little digging around later and I unearthed the culprit as being the closed source Flash plugin. Although well behaved Flash applications like the YouTube and iPlayer viewers don't seem to cause a problem a lot of other flash instances where being created with general browsing. A quick installation of Flashblock improved the situation massively. I now only have Flash starting up and running when I want it to play video.

One of the main deficiencies of the NC-10 is it's rather puny touch-pad and rocker style click buttons. I knew this was an issue when I bought the machine but as I'm mainly keyboard driven didn't think it was a major problem. However it was causing me trouble when selecting windows, especially as I usually keep them maximised. However the NC-10 does have a simple Intel 3D graphics chipset with fully open source drivers so I spent some time tweaking Compiz for my setup.

As can be seen Compiz is responsible for the flashy rotating 3D cubes and general "bling" on the Linux desktop these days. While I had it on my old work machine it was a pretty demo but somewhat marred by the binary nVidia drivers which would periodically freeze my machine. However with careful tweaking it makes my netbook a lot more usable. I can now use key chords (super+[DWAE]) to bring up the desktop, windows on work view, windows of app (i.e. all Firefox windows) and a full Expose type view. The touch pad is now relegated to pointing at a window (no click required) to bring it into focus.

As a result of the way Compiz works every application can always draw to a "display". This means you get, relatively cheap computationally, thumbnails of the actual window contents for these summary displays. So instead of heavily using tabs on my netbook which take up valuable screen real estate I now open fresh windows for every page. Super+A then easily brings me thumbnail views of all my current browser views to switch to a new window.

There remains a debate as to whether enabling Compiz on a Netbook increases or decreases battery life. Without actually measuring the consumption in-line it remains to be seen. It could be that by using the otherwise powered graphics chip to move graphics around you save the main CPU from having to run faster to manually copy stuff around into the frame-buffer. Unfortunately I don't really have a objective way to measure it right now.