De-uglyfying Majaro Linux (Xfce)

I’ve said it here and at the Manjaro community: The Manjaro Linux is an ugly duckling.

The default counter argument is that it is a subjective matter of taste, but that is just plain old BS. While Manjaro provides a excellent distribution from technological perspective, they are either blind or break decent design practices just for the fun of it.

But as this is Linux, everything is hackable and can be customized. I going to do just that in this thread, posting a series of articles on how to make Manjaro great again. Your tips and ideas are more than welcome too. We are going to be covering topic including, but not limited to:

  • Icons
  • Fonts
  • Theme
  • Wallpaper
  • Panels…

And whatever comes along the way. Some of this stuff really is a matter of taste, but most of them are just common sense.

1. The initial state of Manjaro Xfce

I wanted to install something leading edge and rolling, without going full monty with Arch Linux, and right now Manjaro is the best bet. Their latest release is version 16.10.3. I chose Xfce desktop as I wanted something rather light weight and stable. I am running this with Linux kernel 4.8 and for the first time I am also trying out the Btrfs file system. And this is what they give you as the default.

  • A flat 2D icon theme with pastel colors is mixed with slightly glossy faux-3D window manager theme. They worlds apart in terms of design language.
  • On my 1440x900 screen the icons are also very small, and some hard to identify.
  • The main icons are round, but if you go to Manjaro Settings Manager, you’ll find square and glossy icons instead.
  • File system icon color (greenish) matches wall paper color. Folder icons on the desktop are barely visible.
  • The terminal window is too transparent, seriously hurting readability.
  • The wallpaper is too bright and not especially good looking.
  • The contrast of dark grey and white is a bit too much in the menu.

These are the most obvious faults and the overall out-of-the-box experience makes my eyes bleed :confounded:. What really ticks me off with Manjaro is that it really is a great distribution. It is almost heart breaking to see what kind of a first impression they deliver. The KDE version is slightly better, but the unofficial community spins of Gnome, MATE, etc. possibly even worse.

But it can be fixed. We’ll fix this. Stay tuned.

If you are not yet running Manjaro, the first thing to do is to get your copy from and install it.

2. Fixing the icons

There is no shortage of high quality icon packs in the Linux world. The first thing to consider is that whether you prefer flat 2D, like Windows 10 or later Android versions, or something more with more depth, color and photo-realism. Here are examples of high quality icon projects:

There is one unfortunate trend in free/open-source icon designs. Many of them have chosen to mimic Apple’s iOS by making them uniform in shape. There is a high availability of round, rounded or square icons these days, but they share one common problem. Valuable information is lost when all icons are made identical in shape. Human eye is very effective in detecting shapes and patterns and for example everyone knows that Google Chrome’s icon is round. This makes it quicker and easier to detect among icons which are typically not round. If you prefer to have shape information, then Elementary (3D) or Paper (flat 2D) is your top choice.

I will however pick Moka. The Moka Project is made by the genius Sam Hewitt, also responsible for the aper Project.The icons are rounded squares, against my personal preference, but they are very crisp and professionally made. They are nearly flat, but there are some gradients and an occasional shadow to add some depth. Colors are lively and bright, but not too much. The icon pack is extensive, containing a huge amount of icons for most applications.

To install type the following:

yaourt -S moka-icon-theme-git

Enable in the Appearance settings and the end result is this:

The icons alone improve the aesthetics of Manjaro quite a bit. Moka is a huge upgrade over the defaults, even though they do not quite match the window manager’s theme.

To be continued…

3. Better theming

There are 5 different themes you can adjust in Xfce: the window decorations, the GTK+ interfaces, the cursors, the notifications, and the icons. Many designer provide matching themes and icons, ie. the complete package. Numix and Paper projects feature complete theming and the Shimmer Project themes that are a good match to the Elementary icons.

If you picked a flat icon theme, then you are best of using a flat desktop theme as well. There are many options, Numix being a good one. Paper is also good, but currently their color scheme is a bit broken for the Xfce’s panel - you can work it around by defining panel color manually.

I chose the Moka icons which do not come with complete theming, so our choice is Greybird from the Shimmer Project. It is also the default theme of Xubuntu. Now the Moka icons and Greybird may not be a 100% match, as they are separetly developed projects, but they are in the same ball park. They both feature slight gradients and very subtle depth, which makes them nearly flat but not as dull as a totally 2D solution. Install from AUR enable in Appearance and Window manager’s settings.

 yaourt -S xfce-theme-greybird

4. Desktop arrangement

By default Manjaro uses a single bottom panel layout. One of their team members said that it is a statement for the users of Windows and it makes to some extent if you want to lure in new people to the world of Linux. But again we can do a whole lot better.

1. Move the panel to the top.

Sure, you can argue this as much as you like, but you know what - those Apple designers are not complete idiots and actually use a bit a science.

Most desktop applications have their menus and buttons at the top and very little functionality at the bottom of the user interface. By moving the panel to the top you reduce your average mouse travel distance in between the application menus and the panel features.

I cleaned up the panel quite a by removing all the ugly icons from the right hand side. Consider adding your most frequently used applications to the panel in order to always have immediate access to them, but keep the number to the minimum. I just added Chrome as an example.

2. Install and configure Plank dock

Next we install a simple dock to the bottom of the screen to provide quick application launching and some window control capabilities. This way we have a single click access to the most commonly used applications. To install simply:

sudo pacman -S plank

Add Plank to Xfce’s auto starting applications so that it starts on boot and add your favorite applications to the dock. Also disable dock window shadows from Xfce’s compositor settings or you’ll see a weird shadow line accross your screen.

3. Find a better wallpaper

The wallpapers provided with Manjaro are mostly useless low quality images and their contributors have a weird habit of stamping a large Manjaro logos everywhere. Now the wallpaper is a matter of personal taste and preference, but there are some useful guidelines for best results.

  • For sharpest results use a image that matches you display resolution.
  • Avoid too much fine details, text or anything that would catch the eye. A good wallpaper is complementary, never distracting.
  • Use calm and not overly bright colors.

The web has a gazillion wallpaper images available, so your options are limitless. The name Manjaro apparently comes from the Mt. Kilimanjaro, in Africa. It is a popular tourist attraction, so I search for Kilimanjaro wallpapers with my native resolution 1440x900 and found this (and many other awesome photos).

After all these tweaks the desktop is starting to look pretty good, but there are still many tweaks we can apply. To be continued.

5. Better font

Fonts and font rendering are also a somewhat subjective matter and also heavily dependent on your display. Manjaro Xfce’s default font is Cantarell, which has never been my favorite, so next thing to do is to replace that.

Google has been nice and has developed and released a number of fonts for public use. One of their recent projects is the Noto Font family, which includes Noto Sans UI, that is very suitable for applications, web site UI and desktops alike. It’s a variant of the Noto Sans font with less horizontal spacing, making it good for menus, window borders etc.

To install Noto Fonts simply type:

sudo pacman -S noto-fonts

Then go to Appearance / Fonts and choose Noto Sans UI. Rendering settings depend on your hardware, but LCD displays typically benefit from:

  • Anti-aliasing enabled
  • Hinting: Full
  • Sub-pixel order: RGB

Learn more about sub-pixel rendering at Wikipedia and you may find this simple online test useful: LCD sub-pixel test.

The Terminal has it own independent font setting, so open the Terminal and open Preferences / Appearance. For the Terminal a mono-spaced font (all letters are equallly wide) usually makes most sense, so choose Noto Mono Regular.

After these settings, your fonts and font rendering should be quite satisfactory.

6. Misc tweaks

No, we are not done yet.

Tear free video for Intel GPUs:

On my old hardware, the Xfce always seems to be suffering from video tearing. It has a setting Sync to Vblank, but this does not do a very good job in my case. This is easily fixed by enabling the option TearFree in the Intel GPU driver’s settings. Create the following file with provided content:

sudo nano /etc/X11/xorg.conf.d/20-intel.conf
Section "Device"
   Identifier  "Intel Graphics"
   Driver      "intel"
   Option "TearFree" "true"

Disable system beep

I have no idea why, but Manjaro has a couple of super annoying PC speaker “beep” notifications enabled. There are many ways to disable it, but via Xorg is probably the easiest.

xset -b

This command on the terminal will silnce it. Add it to Session and Startup settings as Autostart to run it on every boot, making the silencing permanent.

P.S. I’ve noticed that the theme Zukitwo works very well with the Moka icons.

yaourt -S zukitwo-themes

A Little side step to Manjaro KDE edition

The KDE version of this great distribution is not as bad as the Xfce version. It does not look great either, but a whole lot better. Interestingly, they also look very different from each other, the only common nominator being the combination of green and dark grey.

The good thing about the KDE edition and the, desktop environment in general, is that you can pretty much sanitize it from the user interface. The KDE version includes the desktop default Breeze themes. So one can pretty much clean it up just by tinkering with all the different theme settings (desktop, window decoration, icons…). The KDE version also comes with Noto Fonts enabled - just check the anti-aliasing settings.

And the KDE is highly configurable in general. You can move the panel to top if you like and create a dock-like panel to the bottom by just using the native desktop elements.

What sizes do you use on the Noto Fonts?

I don’t have that installation anymore as I sold the old Thinkpad. But I think I increased the size +1 point from the default value.

Thanks for that. This looks great on my Antergos running Thinkpad btw

With pleasure I read your discussion topic ‘De-uglyfying Manjaro Linux (Xfce)’.
I decided to give your suggestions a try. But there was this peculiarity after installing the Moka icons. The very most of the icon files are not empty, but don’t contain an image and thus no icon. The other ones are OK. The same is true for the Faba, Faba-mono and Faba-mono-dark icons, that were also installed together with the Moka icons. The terminal showed no errors while installing. There were only warnings about danger and possible damage (?!)
I must say my Manjaro installation is a bit peculiar. My laptop is 10 year old and has a MCP51 Serial ATA Controller. To make the laptop acceptably usable I installed a SSD. This combination binds me to kernel versions =< 4.1.x. So I installed Manjaro 15.12 Xfce and updated it, disabling the manjaro-system update.
I hope this is the right topic for my problem. If not, please advice me what to do.

Meanwhile I solved the problem.
I found a solution that worked for me, on the following website:
< How to: Fixing missing icons in gtk applications / Applications & Desktop Environments / Arch Linux Forums >.
Thanx in advance anyway.

Hey there, this post has been super helpful thus far. I’m a lifelong Debian guy, but I’m quickly falling in love with Antergos and Manjaro (I’ll go full Arch when time permits).

What I’d really love to accomplish is something akin to your screenshot here without any top panel. Just a full desktop, a nice customizable dock, and hot corners to launch an applications menu.

Generally speaking, I’m looking for the aesthetic appeal of Deepin DE, but without all the bloatware crap that comes along with it. As far as docks go, I think either Cairo-dock or Docky will give me what I’m looking for. But what’s a good lightweight DE that would smoothly support those, plus hot corners, and allow me to eliminate panels?

Thanks in advance for taking the time to read this, I am eager to hear what you think.

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