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AWN Ekes Out a Win in the Battle of the Dock Apps

By Jack M. Germain
Aug 11, 2010 5:00 AM PT

My newfound favorite computing app is the desktop dock. Over the last few weeks, I freed myself of dependence on the desktop icon to find and launch the programs I use every day. My search for the ideal docking app came to a halt with Avant Window Navigator, also known as "AWN."

AWN Ekes Out a Win in the Battle of the Dock Apps

(click image to enlarge)

I was ready to settle down with GNOME Do and its handy Docky option (see my review here). But I decided to check out AWN and SimDock first.

The additional effort was time well spent. SimDock was a big disappointment. AWN is very similar to GNOME Do. But its few more bells and whistles pushed me into choosing it over GNOME Do.

Evaluating the ideal desktop dock for the Linux OS all comes down to deciding how much and what type of eye candy you prefer. An application dock adds a refreshing new look and feel to desktop navigation. A dock starts out where the panel -- which is a dock app of sorts without the glitz and glitter -- leaves off.

Few Trade-Offs

AWN is a slick dock. It holds the program icons you assign to the dock so launching them is a single click away. A white pyramid under the icon shows you which programs are running.

I use four virtual deskops built into Linux distributions to run different programs in separate desktops. AWN handles this Linux workspace feature with no complications.

In fact, the Shiny Switcher applet in AWN works much the same as the desktop switcher feature that is part of the Linux panel. One improvement in AWN makes the Shiny Switcher element even better. It appears on the dock with the same background image as the desktop background displays.

Nearly all of the dock apps I've tested came with trade-offs. Some features worked like I wanted as a familiar part of my usual computing routine. But most dock apps forced me to adopt a new way to go about my work flow in some crucial aspect. I found almost none of these distractions in AWN.

No Sweat Setup

AWN uses the display compositing drivers for its visual effects like the glass transparency. For this to work, you have to install either xcompmgr or Compiz Fusion. This should not be a hassle if it is not already configured on your computer. You will find the packages in your distro's package manager menu.

I found AWN to be one of the most flexible dock apps to configure. The settings icon by default sits on the dock. AWN comes with four themes available in both 2D and 3D views.

Setup is a multi-part process. The Applets tab contains a list of a dozen or more categories of nifty tools and computing aides that traditionally would be parked on the desktop as a screenlet. Double clicking the Applet title adds that feature to the dock.

You add programs to the doc using the Task Manager tab. Settings for the dock's appearance are handled in the Preferences panel. Select your preference for Dark, Light, Smoked or Dust themes from the Theme tab.

Big Annoyances

Adding programs to GNOME Do and Docky (which is also a stand-alone dock app) require merely dragging the icon onto the dock. For some dumb reason, AWN's design forces you drag icons to the Task Manager panel. Even changing icon positions on the dock must be done by moving icons around in this panel.

(click image to enlarge)

Another big annoyance with AWN over GNOME Do occurs every time you make any changes in the settings. By default, the changes reset the Style selection in the Preferences panel to Flat. So you have to reset your preference to one of the other five dock looks. These include 3D, Curved, Edgy and Floaty.

More of a quirk than an annoyance, AWN requires that you select the Launcher/Taskmanager Applet before program icons will "stick" to the dock. The icon for this applet shows only in the Applets panel list of active applets. It does not appear on the dock itself when you close the settings window.

This can be confusing and repetitious. A few times I had to redo the program settings. I was sure I had the Launcher/Taskmanager Applet selected. But when I reloaded AWN in a new computing session, only the Applets appeared on the dock.

Nice Eye Candy

When it comes to eye-popping visuals, it is a close tie between AWN and GNOME Do. Both apps produce a variety of icon movements and visual affects. Icons twirl, bounce, spin, magnify and glow. So the bottom line in choosing is simply a matter of preference.

One area, however, that AWN takes the lead is in its style choices. This is what won me over to AWN. Its 3D style choice shows the dock as a three-dimensional shelf. The icons actually appear to be upright on the shelf. As I said earlier, it all comes down to eye candy preferences.

Just like the Linux desktop panel, most dock apps offer a variety of choices for showing or hiding the dock. For some weird reason, AWN does not have an auto-hide option. This means that you can never fully block the dock from view.

However, the Intellihide option comes close. If you orient open windows to overlap the dock (which you can place at the top, bottom or either side of the screen), then the dock will fade or otherwise disappear (depending on your preference settings) after you stop hovering the mouse over it. For those keeping score, though, GNOME Do has both Auto-hide and Intellihide options.

Still Does Search

One reason I took so readily to GNOME Do is that tool's ability to find and launch applications and files by entering the first few letters of the item's name. Even with the Docky feature active, the search factor still worked.

So I was not too willing to give that up if I switched to AWN for its slightly better animation. That worry was misplaced.

AWN has a similar popup search window as part of its Cairo Main Menu Applet. That turned out to be the deal maker. I did not have to leave anything behind by switching from GNOME Do to AWN. My search for the ideal launching dock was finally over.

Simdock Sinister

I found Simdock to be frustrating and disappointing. The name portents its function as a "Simple Dock." But I found it too simplistic to be of much use.

Simdock is described by its developers as a fast and customizable dockbar that features a zoom effect (like OS X) and customized launchers. It is supposed to maximize performance on GNOME desktops but also works on KDE.

Perhaps its real benefit is for those users who can not run Compiz or 3D acceleration on their older hardware. Simdock does not require it.

Simple Shortfalls

If Simdock were my first exposure to dock apps in Linux, I probably would have written the category off as a failed effort.

It is fairly lame. It lacks pizazz and much in the way of animations.

It is a basic launch dock with minimalistic features. It manages open windows and launches programs.

Complicated Configuration

I am no newbie when it comes to evaluating hardware and software. I have always relied on a sixth sense about ease-of-use issues. If I cannot get something to work out of the box without grabbing the manual, I consider the product a dud.

Enter SimDock. It has no user tips or documentation, even online. And initial setup is a nightmare.

Simdock lacks customization options. It does not have drag-and-drop icon installation, either.

Not for Beginners

Adding programs to Simdock involves entering program name and launch command into a series of windows in the Add panel.

By itself, that is not difficult. But it should not be the only way to do it.

That process involves looking up program details by accessing Preferences/Preferred Applications from the main Linux desktop menu. The copy/paste feature should make the process foolproof.

Still, on several of my programs, Simple dock refused to accept the info or simply balked at launching when I clicked the added icon. This happened with all of the programs that run under WINE and some of the programs that were true Linux applications.

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