Moving the locked top panel in Ubuntu/GNOME

A new version of Ubuntu (Intrepid Ibex) is coming out this week, so I’m trying out the release candidate. Here’s an annoyance I hit and how to solve it. I keep a list of steps to perform after installing Ubuntu, and one of my steps is

Drag the bottommost taskbar/panel to the right and the topmost taskbar/panel to the bottom.

I like my “start menu” at the bottom of the screen like Windows does rather than at the top of the screen like Apple’s Mac OS X does. Dragging the bottom panel to the right works fine, but dragging the top panel to the bottom of the screen didn’t work! So I do what any GNOME user would do: I right-click the panel, select “Properties,” and try to set the Orientation from “Top” to “Bottom” in the General tab. Except I can’t.

Instead, I see the message “Some of these properties are locked down”. So I do a Google search for that exact phrase. There’s not many pages that match that phrase, and most of them are translation pages. Grr. That means that not many people have encountered this problem before. After a little query rejiggering, I search for [gnome panel properties locked down] and find this Ubuntu forum thread in which the person says

It sounds like your gnome-panel is locked down. You can remedy this from gconf-editor. Start it from the quick launch dialogue (ALT+F2) or from the terminal: [with the command] gconf-editor

Once the editor has opened, navigate to “apps” > “panel” > “global”, and uncheck the key called “locked_down”.

Great! That sounds easy. I fire up gconf-editor and navigate to that spot, only to find that apps/panel/global isn’t set to locked_down. Hmm. Maybe there’s another locked_down value that is superseding things somewhere else? I search for locked_down anywhere else in gconf-editor and find something at /schemas/apps/panel/global/locked_down, but the value for that is a “<schema>”, and when I try to edit that, gconf-editor helpfully tells me that “Currently pairs and schemas can’t be edited. This will be changed in a later version.” Grrr. So that schema might be affecting my locked-down panel, but I can’t edit it? This is roughly where I start cursing in my head.

But that’s okay, because I’m a computer science geek. If I have to find a “locked_down” text string in the underlying filesystem, I can do that. I search in all the delightful dot directories in my home directory, and I don’t find any mention of that string. Quick pop quiz: would it be in .dbus, .local, .config, .cache, .gconf, .gconfd, .gnome2, or .gnome2_private? Hey Ubuntu/GNOME developers, do I really need 29 (really!) dot directories after a fresh install?

By the time that I’ve sudo’ed to a root shell and I’m in /etc running “find .* type -f | xargs -i{} grep -i locked_down {}” that’s when I’m cussing out loud. So I take a deep breath, metaphorically step back, and head to the Google again. This time I search for [gnome lock top panel] and the #1 result is this Ubuntu bug which leads me to this GNOME bug.

Browsing those bugs makes it clear what happened. Some non-savvy users with really sensitive touch pads were accidentally dragging their panels all over. The solution was to lock the top panel. I can understand why that decision got made. The discussion on the thread didn’t contain the answer (they were talking about making ALT+drag move the panel and mentioned another discussion about this issue), but it made me rethink what I was doing. GNOME/Ubuntu people were shooting to make accidental drags impossible, but they must have made it possible to drag the panel somehow. So I go back to the panel, right-click on it, and carefully read through the options. Sure enough, there’s an option under the right-click menu: “Allow Panel to be Moved“.

I understand why GNOME or Ubuntu folks decided to lock the top panel: they wanted to avoid accidental click-and-dragging by novice users. And maybe it’s my responsibility to carefully study every new menu when I install a fresh version of Ubuntu, instead of just quickly working through the instructions that I’ve written for myself without scouting out every new option. But if I right-click on a panel and select Properties, it’s pretty utterly useless to tell me “Some of these properties are locked down” without giving me any help on where to unlock the properties. There has got to be some user interface principle that says “Giving people an error message without any pointer on how to fix the error is frustrating.”

Is Intrepid Ibex better in some ways? Absolutely. It identified my display resolution correctly on my Wal-Mart PC that I use as my canary for test driving before I install Ubuntu on an important computer. That’s a first. But for everything that works better in recent versions of Ubuntu, I worry that something else will break. That’s why I predicted that Apple would approach 20% market share this year and not Ubuntu. I still root for Ubuntu and want it to do well, so I’ll keep you posted on what I find as I play with Intrepid Ibex.

26 Responses to Moving the locked top panel in Ubuntu/GNOME (Leave a comment)

  1. Hi Matt,

    This has nothing to do with Ubuntu or SEO or even webmastering… but what’s going on with Google and the unannounced changes to the layout of our personal iGoogle customizations. They are absolutely interfering with the functionality of iGoogle and HIGHLY annoying. Imagine coming into your office and having all your files and furniture rearranged without notice… and into a less useful configuration. I hate when software companies try to think for you… “Oh you’ll love this!” Well, no, I don’t.

  2. The options is there if you right click, how much easier do you want it.

    Incidentally, KDE (KDE3, Mandriva 2008.1) gives you only the “unlock” and “help” options in the content menu if the panel is locked.

  3. That’s funny. I just saw the accidental “drag the task bar” maneuver in person the other day. My Dell mini was handed back to me with the task bar on the right and an “I’m not sure what happened. I somehow dragged it over there.”

  4. I dropped GNOME for Fluxbox some time ago. I kept Nautilus as file browser and the Update Manager though. GNOME is a good desktop for average users, but it can feel somewhat “stiff”. It makes the mind wrap around two levels of abstraction, the GNOME GUI idiosincrasy and the Linux command line. But, unlike Windows, under Linux it’s very rare to keep even the average user 100% of the time away of a terminal. So they get a desktop with a closed GUI idiosincrasy on top of a system for which most procedures are documented for the command line. For many users, either Ubuntu shifts to a full graphically interfaced system, they shift to the old terminal enviroment, or they learn to live with the “Is this done through a GUI or through a command line?” syndrome. Not that easy for those that never saw a C: prompt.

    In *box window managers there’s no need to figure how the high level GUI translates into low level procedures, because everything the GUI does has a low level expression. Like Nautilus scripts versus regular Nautilus menues –I wish all menues were expressed in scripts that I could look at low level.

  5. I can’t believe more people haven’t switched to Linux yet! 😉

    In all seriousness, it’s interesting to watch someone else share their problem solving techniques and the order in which they go about tackling issues. I don’t think I would have left the Google SERP with the first set of results you found. I think I would have modified the query – fine tuned it if you will, until I found the right result.

    You just gotta know how to use Google, Matt…

  6. Hi Matt, sorry for the OT. Are Google penalising the blog contest?

    Thank for your response. take care 🙂

  7. As what I’ve known, linux base OS are indeed have less chances of getting infected by viruses and if users tend to only want browsing internet and some paper work, well, linux wasn’t so bad at all. Am currently trying out the Ubuntu with the UE 1.8.

    On the bad side, some hardware drivers aren’t compatible yet and that’s only a few hardware device driver are not available. The rest, I think Linux base application are more than enough for normal daily usage. The best part is, its free.

  8. Graeme, my preference would be if I clicked on the panel and selected Properties, it would not lock the option in that deeper menu that novices won’t find. Second-best would be to have a message such as “Unlock the panel by right-clicking and select ‘(whatever the option is)’. There’s also (I feel) plenty of good feedback in my post about how dot directories could be more organized, gconf-editor could allow you to edit schemas, etc.

    Chip, thanks. I could have written a two-line post, but I wanted to show my thinking behind solving the problem (maybe we can improve Google’s search results, or some GNOME folks will be interested). Also, I wanted to do a post with all the relevant phrases so that my how-to-fix blog post will rank well if future people run into this issue. It seems polite to leave breadcrumbs for the next person who runs into this situation.

    Henrik Kibak, I personally really like the iGoogle changes, but it’s outside my field. I can understand the difficulty when you think you’ve got a much better layout, but not everyone will be happy with it. Supporting older layouts forever isn’t really practical, either. A couple options I would think of would be Greasemonkey on the client-side, or encouraging Google to give more template flexibility on the server-side so that people can customize their iGoogle page to look however they want.

  9. Thanks for sharing that solution. I’m not sure if I would have noticed that in the context menu either. I am currently not using Linux. I recently had to replace the hard drive in my laptop, so did a dual boot with Windows XP and Ubuntu. But I can’t get my dual monitors to configure in Linux. So I’m stuck with Windows for now because I’m really used to dual monitors. I hope someday Linux will be able to auto configure my dual monitors like Window does.

  10. chip dont forget that people on the whole want to use computers to do somthing just becuse somthing is free doesnt mean its automaticly better.

    I prefer Cubase or Live to Audacity for example and prefer wordpress to say moveable type.

  11. @Matt
    It worked:

    Not a bad way to give back, I might have to start doing this when I find solutions to unanswered problems.

  12. Chip: mission accomplished. 🙂 Of course, with 584 search results, there’s not a lot of competition for that phrase. But I like doing blog posts that I know will help other people down the line.

  13. What is so great about Linux?

  14. ok read your main article and it sounded like the great fix to my problem. however my right click menu does not have the simple “unlock” button. checking the global option its unlocked too… i was just trying to order things around a bit on my preloaded mini 9 but when i accidentally removed the stock “nm applet 0.6.6” (which is different from the add to panel network manager) (a great applet btw too) i reverted to custom dell desktop and back to get it and was incidentally locked out. how to get that open again? perhaps patched? i’m not a complete idiot with computers just a linux noob. and the mini 9 layout probably doesnt help either… thanks for the help.

  15. From Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines (2nd ed) p9:

    Provide direct, simple feedback that people can understand. Most people would not know what to do if they saw this message “The computer unexpectedly crashed. ID = 13.” It would be very helpful if the message spelled out exactly which situation caused the error — for example, not enough memory was available for the computer to complete the task — so that the user could understand how to avoid the situation in the future.

  16. Hi Matt,

    This is a great user experience story. Conventions are important. I haven’t tried Intrepid Ibex yet (been an Ubuntu user/fan since Warty Warthog!), but I think I would have had the same problem.

    I know I would glaze over the “Allow Panel To Be Moved” option and looked for “Properties” or “Lock The Taskbar” like in Windows. If it wasn’t there Google would be the next step.

    Anyway, glad you found the quick answer, and thanks for posting it!

  17. Seems like a great post for the Linux Haters Blog, a pity it’s not being updated anymore. I think you would like it though, it’s full of frustrated posts like these :

  18. I agree, user-interface not always the smoothest. I’m working with an ubuntu install that came with my Dell Mini 9.

    I managed to fix this with:

    adjusted the key named “orientation” to “right” (because I like panels on the right like no holy OS ever enables by default).

    so gconf-editor may have been able to help out after all…


  19. Thank you for pointing me to a solution.
    It’s very comforting to know, that someone who know a whole lot more on the topic can get a hung up as bad as myself.
    The previous poster, Chris had a preference of having the preference of having a top panel on the right. IMHO that’s just wrong/weird…. But hey, it gave me the solution to get it back to the the top the way to the top.

    adjust “orientation” from “right” to “top”
    Thank you all for sharing.

  20. Thank you Matt,

    I just had the same problem as you did, and I simply overlooked the Option to enable moving of panels. The message that some options were locked told me nothing; or to be more precise, I thought these options were disabled because of current bugs in the GNOME environment…

    Normally I am a shell guy, but now I decided to explore the X-Window environment, especially GNOME. But I still don’t feel comfortable. For example if you copy something with nautilus to an area which belongs to root, how do I do a sudo inside nautilus? Or how do I find files with a certain content? Normally I use (for simple files) find . | xargs grep bla…

    Ok. Maybe it will just take some time, but I feel that the Gnome-Environment is putting me into a straight jacket. I wont give up 🙂

    Greetings Gerry

    My world: echo “[la1+dsap10>x]sx0salxx” | dc
    Have fun by analysing…

  21. Hey, thanks so much for all this info! I had that same problem on my new 9″ Dell Inspiron… everything was locked down to the point of rediculousness… and there was no “Allow panels to be moved” message either. I did end up contacting Dell, and here is what resolved the bug for me:

    1.Reset GNOME PANELS:
    Method 1:
    step 1:Get into Terminal
    step 2:Just copy&paste this and hit enter after each and every line.
    gconftool-2 –shutdown
    rm -rf ~/.gconf/apps/panel
    pkill gnome-panel
    That worked… restored the default setting. Here was the other option, which we didn’t need to try:

    Method 2:
    Step 1:Get into Terminal.
    Step 2:Type in the following command and hit enter
    sudo apt-get install gnome-reset
    step 3:Run the program,it will give different options.Restore the necessary component.

    I was pretty impressed with Dell Customer Service, for whatever that’s worth!

  22. Fred Williams

    Thanks Matt.

    I was having a similar issue with Jaunty, but when you mentioned that some developers were thinking about using ALT+drag, I gave it a try and it worked. A pretty acceptable way of preventing accidental moving of the panels I think.

  23. I am damn frustrated..

    I had deleted the Top Panel all together as far as i remember.
    Now this Notification Area thing keeps annoying me, specially on Pidgin and media player alerts both of which are shows up quite often.

    I don’t know how it is still showing up.
    I am ok with removing the Notification area completely..
    Can you (or any visitor) help?

    Also I recently got a Laptop and the cursor position gets misplaced at Random when I am typing a Para. Could this be because of this?

    By the Way, I have seen a lot of you in the Webspace.
    Am glad for the opportunity to interact with you.

  24. Hi all…

    To solve this problem only do this:

    In ~/.gconf/apps/panel/toplevels/top_panel_screen0/background rename the file “” to “%gconf.xml” and voilá…

    All the panel properties are unlocked!

  25. I just had the opposite problem. We haven’t updated to a new distribution in years, and he told me that he’s been having problems where suddenly the menu bar shows up on the right side and he has no idea why. I did a Google search to find out how I could lock it down, and came up with your blog post. 😀

    [By the way, for anyone else who’s looking for that and accidentally ends up on this page, the best answer I’ve seen is to use gconfeditor to set the global lock down, like Matt details as his first red herring above.]

    Ben in Seattle

    P.S. “Schema” simply describes how a variable can be set and documents it. It’s not a variable, and can’t be set itself. I don’t know why gconfeditor shows schemas by default when you do a search as they’re pretty useless.

  26. Wow, thanks! After reading your story, I’m completely convinced you just saved me at least 2 hours of my life I would have otherwise spent scouring the internet in search of the solution! Much obliged indeed, sir!