Getting Started

Welcome to the elementary developer guide! This book was created to teach you all about creating and distributing apps for elementary OS. The introduction will make sure that you have all the tools for the job and a solid understanding of what this book is about. Some of you may feel confident enough to jump straight into coding. If that's the case, you might want to skip ahead and start writing your first app.

However, we strongly recommend to at least skim through this preparation step. Having the right setup is going to help you reach your goals faster, and having a solid foundation is going to help you throughout the rest of this book.

What We Will And Won't Cover

We're going to assume that you have absolutely no experience in writing apps for elementary OS. But we will assume some basic programming knowledge, and hopefully a little experience in Vala or at least similarly syntaxed languages. If you're not familiar with Vala, we highly encourage you to brush up on it before coming here.

We’re also not covering design too much in this guide; that’s what the Human Interface Guidelines (HIG) are for, and you’re highly encouraged to take a look there before beginning your app. We're going to assume you have a basic knowledge of (or at least a quick link to) the HIG and focus on coding. However, elementary OS is all about great design and stellar consistency. It’s important you grasp these concepts before moving on.

In this book, we're going to talk about building apps using GTK+, Granite, and other tech available in elementary OS, setting up a build system, hosting your code for collaborative development, working with translations, a few other bits and pieces, and finally packaging and distributing your new app.

The Basic Setup

Before we even think about writing code, you'll need a certain basic setup. This chapter will walk you through the process of getting set up. We will cover the following topics:

We’re going to assume that you’re working from a clean installation of elementary OS Loki or later. This is important as the instructions you’re given may reference apps that are not present (or even available) in other GNU/Linux based operating systems like Ubuntu. It is possible to apply the principles of this guide to Ubuntu development, but it may be more difficult to follow along.


GitHub is an online platform for hosting code, reporting issues, tracking milestones, making releases, and more. If you're planning to publish your app through AppCenter, you'll need a GitHub account. If you already have an account, feel free to move on to the next section. Otherwise, sign up for a GitHub account and return when you're finished.


To download and upload to GitHub, you'll need the Terminal program git. Git is a type of revision control system that allows multiple developers to collaboratively develop and maintain code while keeping track of each revision along the way.

If you're ready, let's get you set up to use Git:

  1. Open the Terminal and install Git

    sudo apt install git
  2. We need to inform Git who we are so that when we upload code it is attributed correctly. Inform Git of your identity with the following commands

    git config --global "Your Name"
    git config --global "[email protected]"
  3. To authenticate and transfer code securely, you’ll need to generate an SSH key pair (a kind of fingerprint for your computer) and import your public key to GitHub. Type the following in Terminal:

    ssh-keygen -t rsa
  4. When prompted, press Enter to accept the default file name for your key. You can choose to protect your key with a password or press Enter again to use no password when pushing code.

  5. Now we're going to import your public key to GitHub. View your public SSH key with the following command, then copy the text that appears

    cat ~/.ssh/
  6. Visit your SSH keys page and click the green button in the upper right-hand corner that says "New SSH key". Paste your key in the "Key" box and give it a title.

We're all done! Now you can download source code hosted on GitHub and upload your own code. We'll revisit using git in a bit, but for now you're set up. For a more in-depth intro to Git, we recommend Codecademy's course on Git.

Developer "SDK"

At the time of this writing, elementary OS doesn't have a full SDK like Android or iOS. But luckily, we only need a couple simple apps to get started writing code.


The first piece of our simple "SDK" is the code editor Scratch. This comes by default with elementary OS. It comes with some helpful features like syntax highlighting, auto-save, and the Folder Manager extension. There are other extensions for Scratch as well, like the Outline, Terminal or Devhelp extensions. Play around with what works best for you.


We’re going to use Terminal in order to compile our code, push revisions to GitHub (using git), and other good stuff. Throughout this guide, we’ll be issuing Terminal commands. You should assume that any command is executed from the directory “Projects” in your home folder unless otherwise stated. Since elementary OS doesn’t come with that folder by default, you’ll need to create it.

Open Terminal and issue the following command:

mkdir Projects

Development Libraries

In order to build apps you're going to need their development libraries. We can fetch a basic set of libraries and other development tools with the following terminal command:

sudo apt install elementary-sdk

And with that, we're ready to dive into development! Let's move on!

Hello World

The first app we’ll create will be a basic and generic “Hello World”. We’ll walk through the steps of creating folders to store our source code, compiling our first app, and pushing the project to a Git branch. Let’s begin.

Setting Up

Apps on elementary OS are organized into standardized directories contained in your project's "root" folder. Let's create a couple of these to get started:

  1. Create your root folder called "gtk-hello"
  2. Create a folder inside that one called "src". This folder will contain all of our source code.

Later on, We'll talk about adding other directories like "po" and "data". For now, this is all we need.


Now what you've been waiting for! We're going to create a window that contains a button. When pressed, the button will display the text "Hello World!" To do this, we're going to use a widget toolkit called GTK+ and the programming language Vala. Before we begin, we highly recommend that you do not copy and paste. Typing each section manually will help you to practice and remember. Let's get started:

  1. Create a new file in Scratch and save it as "gtk-hello.vala" inside your "src" folder

  2. First we create a special class called a Gtk.Application. Gtk.Application is a class that handles many important aspects of a Gtk+ app like uniqueness and the ID you need to identify your app to the notifications server. If you want some more details about Gtk.Application, check out Valadoc. For now, type the following in your "gtk-hello.vala".

    public class MyApp : Gtk.Application {
        public MyApp () {
            Object (
                application_id: "com.github.yourusername.yourrepositoryname",
                flags: ApplicationFlags.FLAGS_NONE
        protected override void activate () {
            var main_window = new Gtk.ApplicationWindow (this);
            main_window.default_height = 300;
            main_window.default_width = 300;
            main_window.title = "Hello World";
            main_window.show_all ();
        public static int main (string[] args) {
            var app = new MyApp ();
            return (args);

    You'll notice that most of these property names are pretty straightforward. Inside MyApp () we set a couple of properties for our Gtk.Application object, namely our app's ID and flags. The first line inside the activate method creates a new Gtk.ApplicationWindow called main_window. The second line sets the window title that you see at the top of the window. We also must give our window a default size so that is does not appear too small for the user to interact with it. Then in our main () method we create a new instance of our Gtk.Application and run it.

    Ready to test it out? Fire up your terminal and make sure you're in "~/Projects/gtk-hello/src". Then execute the following commands to compile and run your first Gtk+ app:

    valac --pkg gtk+-3.0 gtk-hello.vala

    Do you see a new, empty window called "Hello World"? If so, congratulations! If not, read over your source code again and look for errors. Also check the output of your terminal. Usually there is helpful output that will help you track down your mistake.

  3. Now that we've defined a nice window, let's put a button inside of it. Add the following to your application at the beginning of the activate () function:

    var button_hello = new Gtk.Button.with_label ("Click me!");
    button_hello.margin = 12;
    button_hello.clicked.connect (() => {
        button_hello.label = "Hello World!";
        button_hello.sensitive = false;

    Then add this line right before main_window.show_all ():

    main_window.add (button_hello);

    Any ideas about what happened here? We've created a new Gtk.Button with the label "Click me!". Then we add a margin to the button so that it doesn't bump up against the sides of the window. We've said that if this button is clicked, we want to change the label to say "Hello World!" instead. We've also said that we want to make the button insensitive after it's clicked; We do this because clicking the button again has no visible effect. Finally, we add the button to our Gtk.ApplicationWindow and declare that we want to show all of the window's contents.

    Compile and run your application one more time and test it out. Nice job! You've just written your first Gtk+ app!

Pushing to GitHub

After we do anything significant, we must remember to push our code. This is especially important in collaborative development where not pushing your code soon enough can lead to unintentional forks and pushing too much code at once can make it hard to track down any bugs introduced by your code.

  1. First we need to create a new repository on GitHub. Visit the new repository page and create a new repository for your code.

  2. Open Terminal and make sure you're in your project's root directory "~Projects/gtk-hello", then issue the following commands
git init
git add src/gtk-hello.vala
git commit -m "Create initial structure. Create window with button."
git remote add origin [email protected]:yourusername/yourrepositoryname.git
git push -u origin master

Remember to replace yourusername with your GitHub username and yourrepositoryname with the name of the new repository you created.

With these commands, we've told git to track revisions in this folder, that we'd like to track revisions on the file "gtk-hello.vala" specifically, we've committed our first revision and explained what we did in the revision, and then we've told git to push your code to GitHub.


Let's recap what we've learned to do in this first section:

Feel free to play around with this example. Make the window a different size, set different margins, make the button say other things. When you're comfortable with what you've learned, go on to the next section.

A Note About Libraries

Remember how when we compiled our code, we used the valac command and the argument --pkg gtk+-3.0? What we did there was make use of a "library". If you're not familiar with the idea of libraries, a library is a collection of methods that your program can use. So this argument tells valac to include the GTK+ library (version 3.0) when compiling our app.

In our code, we've used the Gtk "Namespace" to declare that we want to use methods from GTK+ (specifically, Gtk.Window and Gtk.Button.with_label). Notice that there is a hierarchy at play. If you want to explore that hierarchy in more detail, you can check out Valadoc.

Our First App

In the previous chapter, we created a simple "Hello World!" app to show off our vala and Gtk skills. But what if we wanted to share our new app with a friend? They'd have to know which packages to include with the valac command we used to build our app, and after they'd built it they'd have to run it from the build directory like we did. Clearly, we need to do some more stuff to make our app fit for people to use, to make it a real app.

Hello (again) World!

To create our first real app, we're going to need all the old stuff that we used in the last example. But don't just copy and paste! Let's take this time to practice our skills and see if we can recreate the last example from memory. Additionally, now that you have the basics, we're going to get a little more complex and a little more organized:

  1. Create a new folder in "~/Projects" called "hello-world" and put our last project in that folder. Now create a new folder inside "~/Projects/hello-world" called "hello-again". We're doing this because our first "gtk-hello" and "hello-again" are two branches of the same "hello-world" project. As you get more into collaborative development, you're going to have lots of branches. This method will help you stay organized.

  2. Now go into "hello-again" and create our directory structure including the "src" folder.

  3. Create "hello-again.vala" in the "src" folder. This time we're going to prefix our file with a small legal header. More about legal stuff later. For now you can copy the GPL header from our reference documentation. Be sure to assign the copyright to yourself at the top of the header and change the author to you at the bottom of the header.

  4. Now, let's create a Gtk.Application, a Gtk.ApplicationWindow, and set the window's default properties. Refer back to the last chapter if you need a refresher.

  5. For the sake of time let's just put a Gtk.Label instead of a Gtk.Button. We don't need to try to make the label do anything when you click it.

    var label = new Gtk.Label ("Hello Again World!");

    Don't forget to add it to your window and show the window's contents:

    main_window.add (label);
    main_window.show_all ();
  6. Build "hello-again.vala" just to make sure it all works. If something goes wrong here, feel free to refer back to the last chapter and remember to check your terminal output for any hints.

  7. Initialize the branch, add your files to the project, and write a commit message using what you learned in the last chapter. Lastly, make sure you've created a new repository for your project on GitHub push your first revision with git:

    git remote add origin [email protected]:yourusername/yourrepositoryname.git
    git push -u origin master

Everything working as expected? Good. Now, let's get our app ready for other people to use.

The .desktop File

Every app comes with a .desktop file. This file contains all the information needed to display your app in the Applications menu and in the Dock. Let's go ahead and make one:

  1. In your project's root, create a new folder called "data".

  2. Create a new file in Scratch and save it in the "data" folder as "com.github.yourusername.yourrepositoryname.desktop". This naming scheme is called Reverse Domain Name Notation and will ensure that your .desktop file has a unique file name.

  3. Type the following into your .desktop file. Like before, try to guess what each line does.

    [Desktop Entry]
    Name=Hello Again
    GenericName=Hello World App
    Comment=Proves that we can use Vala and Gtk

    The first line declares that this file is a "Desktop Entry" file. The next three lines are descriptions of our app: The branded name of our app, a generic name for our app, and a comment that describes our app's function. Next, we categorize our app. Then, we say what command will execute it. Finally, we give our app an icon (a generic one included in elementary OS) and let the OS know that this isn't a command line app. For more info about crafting .desktop files, check out this HIG entry.

  4. Finally, let's add this file to git and commit a revision:

    git add data/com.github.yourusername.yourrepositoryname.desktop
    git commit -am "Add a .desktop file"
    git push


Every app also comes with an .appdata.xml file. This file contains all the information needed to list your app in AppCenter.

  1. In your data folder, create a new file called "com.github.yourusername.yourrepositoryname.appdata.xml". Just like with the .desktop file, we use RDNN to avoid file naming collisions.

  2. Type the following into your .appdata.xml file

    <?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
    <!-- Copyright 2017 Your Name <[email protected]> -->
    <component type="desktop">
      <name>Your App's Name</name>
      <summary>A Catchy Tagline</summary>
        <p>A quick summary of your app's main selling points and features. Just a couple sentences per paragraph is best.</p>

These are all the mandatory fields for displaying your app in AppCenter. There are plenty of other optional fields that you can read about here.

There are also some special custom fields for AppCenter to further brand your listing. Specifically, you can set a background color and a text color for your app's header and banner. You can do so by adding the following keys inside the component tag:

     <value key="x-appcenter-color-primary">#603461</value>
     <value key="x-appcenter-color-primary-text">rgb(255, 255, 255)</value>
     <value key="x-appcenter-suggested-price">5</value>

You can specificy colors here in either Hexidecimal or RGB. The background color will automatically be given a slight gradient in your app's banner.

You can also specify a suggested price in whole USD. Remember though that AppCenter is a pay-what-you-want store. This is not a price floor. Users will still be able to choose any price they like, including 0.

Since we're going to be putting our app out into the wild, we should include some information about who wrote it and the legal usage of its source code. For this we need a new file in our project's root folder: COPYING.

The COPYING file contains a copy of the license that your code is released under. For elementary OS apps this is typically the GNU General Public License (GPL). Remember the header we added to our source code? That header reminds people that your app is licensed and it belongs to you. You can choose other licenses like the MIT license as well, but for this example let's stick to the GPL.

Mark Your Progress

Did you remember to add these files to git and commit a revision? Each time we add a new file or make a significant change it's a good idea to commit a new revision and push to GitHub. Keep in mind that this acts as a backup system as well; when we push our work to GitHub, we know it's safe and we can always revert to a known good revision if we mess up later.

Now that we've got all these swanky files laying around, we need a way to tell the computer what to do with them. Ready for the next chapter? Let's do this!

The Build System

The next thing we need is a build system. The build system that we're going to be using is called CMake. We already installed the cmake program at the beginning of this book when we got the build dependencies for Granite Demo. What we're going to do in this step is create the files that tell Cmake how to install your program. This includes all the rules for building your source code as well as correctly installing your .desktop file and the binary app that results from the build process.

Create a new file in your project's root folder called "CMakeLists.txt". Since this file is a bit long, we've included some comments along the way to explain each section. You don't have to copy those, but type the rest into that file:

    # project name
    project (com.github.yourusername.yourrepositoryname)

    # the oldest stable cmake version we support
    cmake_minimum_required (VERSION 2.6)

    # tell cmake where its modules can be found in our project directory

    # where we install data directory (if we have any)

    # what to call that directory where we install data too
    set (PKGDATADIR "${DATADIR}/com.github.yourusername.yourrepositoryname")

    set (EXEC_NAME "com.github.yourusername.yourrepositoryname")
    set (RELEASE_NAME "A hello world.")
    set (VERSION "0.1")
    set (VERSION_INFO "whats up world")

    # we're about to use pkgconfig to make sure dependencies are installed so let's find pkgconfig first

    # now let's actually check for the required dependencies
    pkg_check_modules(DEPS REQUIRED gtk+-3.0)


    # make sure we have vala
    find_package(Vala REQUIRED)
    # make sure we use vala
    # make sure it's the desired version of vala
    ensure_vala_version("0.16" MINIMUM)

    # files we want to compile
    vala_precompile(VALA_C ${EXEC_NAME}

    # tell what libraries to use when compiling

    # tell cmake what to call the executable we just made
    add_executable(${EXEC_NAME} ${VALA_C})

    # install the binaries we just made

    # install our .desktop file so the Applications menu will see it
    install (FILES ${CMAKE_CURRENT_SOURCE_DIR}/data/com.github.yourusername.yourrepositoryname.desktop DESTINATION ${DATADIR}/applications/)

    # install our .appdata.xml file so AppCenter will see it
    install (FILES ${CMAKE_CURRENT_SOURCE_DIR}/data/com.github.yourusername.yourrepositoryname.appdata.xml DESTINATION ${DATADIR}/metainfo/)

And you're done! Your app now has a real build system. Don't forget to add these files to git and push to GitHub. This is a major milestone in your app's development!

Building and Installing with CMake

Now that we have a build system, let's try it out:

  1. Create a new folder in your project's root folder called "build"

  2. Change into this directory in terminal and execute the following command:

    cmake -DCMAKE_INSTALL_PREFIX=/usr ../

    This command tells cmake to get ready to build our app using the prefix "/usr". The cmake command defaults to installing our app locally, but we want to install our app for all users on the computer.

  3. Build your app with make and if successful install it with sudo make install:

    sudo make install

If all went well, you should now be able to open your app from the Applications menu and pin it to the Dock. If you were about to add the "build" folder to your git repository and push it, stop! This binary was built for your computer and we don't want to redistribute it. In fact, we built your app in a separate folder like this so that we can easily delete or ignore the "build" folder and it won't mess up our app's source code.

We'll revisit CMake again later to add some more complicated behavior, but for now this is all you need to know to give your app a proper build system. If you want to explore CMake a little more on your own, you can always check out CMake's documentation.


Let's review all we've learned to do:

That's a lot! You're well on your way to becoming a bonified app developer for elementary OS. Give yourself a pat on the back, then take some time to play around with this example. Change the names of files and see if you can still build and install them properly. Ask another developer to clone your repo from GitHub and see if it builds and installs cleanly on their computer. If so, you've just distributed your first app! When you're ready, we'll move onto the next section: Packaging.

Adding Translations

Now that you've learned about CMake, the next step is to make your app able to be translated to different languages. The first thing you need to know is how to convert strings in your code into translatable strings. Here's an example:

    stdout.printf ("Not Translatable string");
    stdout.printf (_("Translatable string!"));

    string normal = "Another non-translatable string";
    string translated = _("Another translatable string");

See the difference? We just added _() around the string! Well, that was easy!

  1. Go back to your project and make all your strings translatable by adding _()

  2. Add the following lines in the "CMakeLists.txt" file you created a moment ago:

    # Translation files
    add_definitions (-DGETTEXT_PACKAGE=\"${GETTEXT_PACKAGE}\")
    add_subdirectory (po)
  3. Create a directory named "po" on the root folder of your project. Inside of your po directory you will need to create another CMakeLists.txt file. This time, it's contents will be:

    include (Translations)
  4. On your build directory execute the following commands:

    cmake -DCMAKE_INSTALL_PREFIX=/usr ../
    make pot
  5. Don't forget to add this new directory and it's contents to git

    git add po/
    git commit -am "Add translation files"
    git push

That's it! CMake will automatically add all the string marked with _() into a .pot template file, and a file for each available language where you'll place the translatable strings.


While having a build system is great, our app still isn't ready for regular users. We want to make sure our app can be built and installed without having to use Terminal. What we need to do is package our app. To do this, we use the Debian packaging format (.deb) on elementary OS. This section will teach you how to package your app as a .deb file, which is required to publish apps in AppCenter. This will allow normal people to install your app and even get updates for it when you publish them.

Practice Makes Perfect

If you want to get really good really fast, you're going to want to practice. Repetition is the best way to commit something to memory. So let's recreate our entire Hello World app again from scratch:

  1. Create a new branch folder "hello-packaging"
  2. Set up our directory structure including the "src" and "data" folders.
  3. Add your Authors, Copying, .desktop, and source code.
  4. Now set up the CMake build system.
  5. Test everything!

Did you commit and push to GitHub for each step? Keep up these good habits and let's get to packaging this app!

Debian Control

Now it's time to create the rules that will allow your app to be built as a .deb package. Let's dive right in:

  1. Like CMake, elementary maintains a simple version of the "debian" folder that contains all the files we need for packaging. Let's grab a copy of that with git:

    git clone [email protected]:elementary/debian-template.git
  2. Copy the "debian" folder from that branch into your "hello-packaging" folder.

  3. Open the file called "changelog" and make it look like below:

    hello-packaging (0.1) precise; urgency=low
      * Initial Release.
     -- Your Name <[email protected]>  Tue, 9 Apr 2013 04:53:39 -0500

    The first line contains your app's binary name, version, OS codename, and how urgently your package should be built. Remember that your app's binary name is lowercase and does not contain spaces. After the * is a list of your changes. Finally, you include your name, email address, and the date. For more information about the debian changelog, make sure to read the documentation.

  4. Open the file called "control" and make it look like below:

    Source: com.github.yourusername.yourrepositoryname
    Section: x11
    Priority: extra
    Maintainer: Your Name <[email protected]>
    Build-Depends: cmake (>= 2.8),
                   debhelper (>= 8.0.0),
                   valac-0.26 | valac (>= 0.26)
    Standards-Version: 3.9.3
    Package: com.github.yourusername.yourrepositoryname
    Architecture: any
    Depends: ${misc:Depends}, ${shlibs:Depends}
    Description: Hey young world
     This is a Hello World written in Vala using CMake build system.
  5. Open the file called "copyright". We only need to edit what's up top:

    Upstream-Name: hello-packaging
    Files: src/* data/* cmake/* debian/*
    Copyright: 2013 Your Name <[email protected]>
    License: GPL-3.0+

That wasn't too bad right? We'll set up more complicated packaging in the future, but for now this is all you need. If you'd like you can always read more about Debian packaging.

Creating Layouts

Now that you know how to code, build, and package an app using Vala, Gtk, CMake, and Debian packaging, it’s time to learn a little bit more about how to build out your app into something really useful. The first thing we need to learn is how to lay out widgets in our window. But we have a fundamental problem: We can only add one widget (one “child”) to Gtk.Window. So how do we get around that to create complex layouts in a Window? We have to add a widget that can contain multiple children. One of those widgets is Gtk.Grid.

Widgets as Subclasses of Other Widgets

Before we get into Gtk.Grid, let’s stop for a second and take some time to understand Gtk a little better. At the lower level, Gtk has classes that define some pretty abstract traits of widgets such as Gtk.Container and Gtk.Orientable. These aren’t widgets that we’re going to use directly in our code, but they’re used as building blocks to create the widgets that we do use. It’s important that we understand this, because it means that when we understand how to add children to a Gtk.Container like Gtk.Grid, we also understand how to add children to a Gtk.Container like Gtk.Toolbar. Both Grid and Toolbar are widgets that are subclasses of the more abstract class Gtk.Container.

If you want to understand more about these widgets and the parts of Gtk that they subclass, jump over to Valadoc and search for a widget like Gtk.Grid. See that big tree at the top of the page? It shows you every component of Gtk that Gtk.Grid subclasses and even what those components subclass. Having a lower level knowledge of Gtk will help you to implement widgets you haven’t worked with before since you will understand how their parent classes work.


Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get back to our Window and Gtk.Grid. Since you’re a master developer now, you can probably set up a new project complete with CMake, push it to GitHub, and set up Debian Packaging in your sleep. If you want the practice, go ahead and do all of that again. Otherwise, it’s probably convenient for our testing purposes to just play around locally and build from Terminal. So code up a nice Gtk.Window without anything in it and make sure that builds. Ready? Let’s add a Grid.

Just like when we add a Button or Label, we need to create our Gtk.Grid. As always, don’t copy and paste! Practice makes perfect. We create a new Gtk.Grid like this:

var grid = new Gtk.Grid ();
grid.orientation = Gtk.Orientation.VERTICAL;

Remember that Button and Label accepted an argument (a String) in the creation method (that’s the stuff in parentheses and quotes). As shown above, Gtk.Grid doesn’t accept any arguments in the creation method. However, you can still change the grid’s properties (like orientation) as we did on the second line. Here, we’ve declared that when we add widgets to our grid, they should stack vertically.

Let’s add some stuff to the Grid:

grid.add (new Gtk.Label (_("Label 1")));
grid.add (new Gtk.Label (_("Label 2")));

Super easy stuff, right? We can add the grid to our window using the same method that we just used to add widgets to our grid:

main_window.add (grid);

Now build your app and see what it looks like. Since we’ve given our grid a Gtk.Orientation of VERTICAL the labels stack up on top of each other. Try creating a Gtk.Grid without giving it an orientation. By default, Gtk.Grid’s orientation is horizontal. You really only ever have to give it an orientation if you need it to be vertical.

Functionality in Gtk.Grid

Okay, so you know all about using a Gtk.Grid to pack multiple children into a Window. What about using it to lay out some functionality in our app? Let’s try building an app that shows a message when we click a button. Remember in our first “Hello World” how we changed the label of the button with button.clicked.connect? Let’s use that method again, but instead of just changing the label of the button, we’re going to use it to change an empty label to a message.

Let’s create a Window with a vertical Grid that contains a Button and a Label:

var grid = new Gtk.Grid ();
grid.orientation = Gtk.Orientation.VERTICAL;
grid.row_spacing = 6;

var button = new Gtk.Button.with_label ("Click me!");
var label = new Gtk.Label (null);

grid.add (button);
grid.add (label);

main_window.add (grid);

This time when we created our grid, we gave it another property: row_spacing. We can also add column_spacing, but since we’re stacking widgets vertically we’ll only see the effect of row_spacing. Notice how we can create new widgets outside the grid and then pack them into the grid by name. This is really helpful when you start using different methods to change the properties of your widgets.

Now, let’s hook up the button to change that label. To keep our code logically separated, we’re going to add it below main_window.add (grid);. In this way, the first portion of our code defines the UI and the next portion defines the functions that we associated with the UI:

button.clicked.connect (() => {
    label.label = _("Hello World!");
    button.sensitive = false;

Remember, we set the button as insensitive here because clicking it again has no effect. Now compile your app and marvel at your newfound skills. Play around with orientation and spacing until you feel comfortable.

The Attach Method

While we can use Gtk.Grid simply to create single row or single column layouts with the add method, we can also use it to create row-and-column-based layouts with the attach method. First we’re going to create a new Gtk.Grid and set both column and row spacing, then we’ll create all the widgets we want to attach to our grid, and finally we’ll attach them.

var layout = new Gtk.Grid ();
layout.column_spacing = 6;
layout.row_spacing = 6;

var hello_button = new Gtk.Button.with_label (_("Say Hello"));
var hello_label = new Gtk.Label (null);

var rotate_button = new Gtk.Button.with_label (_("Rotate"));
var rotate_label = new Gtk.Label (_("Horizontal"));

Make sure to give the Grid, Buttons, and Labels unique names that you’ll remember. It’s best practice to use descriptive names so that people who are unfamiliar with your code can understand what a widget is for without having to know your app inside and out.

// add first row of widgets
layout.attach (hello_button, 0, 0, 1, 1);
layout.attach_next_to (hello_label, hello_button, Gtk.PositionType.RIGHT, 1, 1);

// add second row of widgets
layout.attach (rotate_button, 0, 1, 1, 1);
layout.attach_next_to (rotate_label, rotate_button, Gtk.PositionType.RIGHT, 1, 1);

main_window.add (layout);

Notice that the attach method takes 5 arguments:

  1. The widget that you want to attach to the grid.
  2. The column number to attach to starting at 0.
  3. The row number to attach to starting at 0.
  4. The number of columns the widget should span.
  5. The number of rows the widget should span.

You can also use attach_next_to to place a widget next to another one on all four sides. Don’t forget to add the functionality associated with our buttons:

hello_button.clicked.connect (() => {
    hello_label.label = _("Hello World!");
    hello_button.sensitive = false;

rotate_button.clicked.connect (() => {
    rotate_label.angle = 90;
    rotate_label.label = _("Vertical");
    rotate_button.sensitive = false;

You’ll notice in the example code above that we’ve created a 2 x 2 grid with buttons on the left and labels on the right. The top label goes from blank to “Hello World!” and the button label is rotated 90 degrees. Notice how we gave the buttons labels that directly call out what they do to the other labels.


Let’s recap what we learned in this section:

Now that you understand more about Gtk, Grids, and using Buttons to alter the properties of other widgets, try packing other kinds of widgets into a window like a Toolbar and changing other properties of Labels like width_chars and ellipsize. Don’t forget to play around with the attach method and widgets that span across multiple rows and columns. Remember that Valadoc is super helpful for learning more about the methods and properties associated with widgets.


By now you've probably already seen the white notification bubbles that appear on the top right of the screen. Notifications are a simple way to notify a user about the state of your app. For example, they can inform the user that a long process has been completed or a new message has arrived. In this section we are going to show you just how to get them to work in your app. Let's begin by making a new project!

Making Preparations

  1. Create a new folder inside of "~/Projects" called "notifications-app"
  2. Create a file inside called notify-app.vala
  3. Create a CMakeLists.txt file. If you don't remember how to set up CMake, go back to the previous section and review.
  4. Remember how to make a .desktop file? Excellent! Make one for this project, but this time, since your app will be displaying notifications, add X-GNOME-UsesNotifications=true to the end of the file. This is needed so that users will be able to set notification preferences for your app in the system's notification settings.

When using notifications, it's important that your desktop file has the same name as your application's ID. This is because elementary OS uses desktop files to find extra information about the app who sends the notification such as a default icon, or the name of the app. If you don't have a desktop file whose name matches the application id, your notification might not be displayed. To keep things simple, we'll be using the same RDNN everywhere.

Yet Another Application

In order to display notifications, you're going to need another Gtk.Application with a Gtk.ApplicationWindow. Remember what we learned in the last few sections and set up a new Gtk.Application!

Now that we have a simple window, let's use what we learned in creating layouts and make a grid containing one button that will show a notification.

In between var main_window... and ();, write the folowing lines of code:

var grid = new Gtk.Grid ();
grid.orientation = Gtk.Orientation.VERTICAL;
grid.row_spacing = 6;

var title_label = new Gtk.Label (_("Notifications"));
var show_button = new Gtk.Button.with_label (_("Show"));

grid.add (title_label);
grid.add (show_button);

main_window.add (grid);
main_window.show_all ();

Since we're adding translatable strings, don't forget to update your translation template by running make pot.

Sending Notifications

Now that we have a Gtk.Application we can send notifications. Let's connect a function to the button we created and use it to send a notification:

show_button.clicked.connect (() => {
    var notification = new Notification (_("Hello World"));
    notification.set_body (_("This is my first notification!"));
    this.send_notification ("", notification);

Okay, now compile your new app. if everything works, you should see your new app. Click the "Send" button. Did you see the notification? Great! Don't forget to commit and push your project in order to save your branch for later.

Additional Features

Now that you know how to send basic notifications, let's talk about a couple of ways to make your notifications better. Notifications are most useful when users can identify where they came from and they contain relevant information. In order to make sure your notifications are useful, there are three important features you should know about: setting an icon, replacing a notification, and setting priority.


In order to make sure users can easily recognize a notification, we should set a relevant icon. Right after the var notification = New Notification line, add:

var icon = new GLib.ThemedIcon ("dialog-warning");
notification.set_icon (icon);

That's it. Compile your app again, and press the "Send" button. As you can see, the notification now has an icon. Using this method, you can set the icon to anything you'd like. You can use gtk3-icon-browser to see what system icons are available.


We now know how to send a notification, but what if you need to update it with new information? Thanks to the notification ID, we can easily replace a notification. The notification ID should be the same as the app ID that we set in Gtk.Application.

Let's make the replace button. This button will replace the current notification with one with different information. Let's create a new button for it, and add it to the grid:

var replace_button = new Gtk.Button.with_label (_("Replace"));
grid.add (replace_button);

replace_button.clicked.connect (() => {
    var notification = new Notification (_("Hello Again"));
    notification.set_body (_("This is my second Notification!"));

    var icon = new GLib.ThemedIcon ("dialog-warning");
    notification.set_icon (icon);

    this.send_notification ("com.github.yourusername.yourrepositoryname", notification);

Very easy right? Let's compile and run your app again. Click on the buttons, first on "Show", then "Replace". See how the text on your notification changes without making a new one appear?


Notifications also have priority. When a notification is set as URGENT it will stay on the screen until either the user interacts with it, or you withdraw it. To make an urgent notification, add the following line before the this.send_notification () function

notification.set_priority (NotificationPriority.URGENT);

URGENT notifications should really only be used on the most extreme cases. There are also other notification priorities.


Let's review what all we've learned:

As you could see, sending notifications is very easy thanks to Gtk.Application. If you need some further reading on notifications, Check out the page about Glib.Notification in Valadoc.

System Integration

Applications can show additional information in the dock as well as the application menu. This makes the application feel more integrated into the system and give user it's status at a glance. See HIG for Dock integration for what you should do and what you shouldn't.

For this integration you can use Unity's Launcher API. This API is used accross many different distributions and is widely supported by third party applications.

The Launcher API documentation also provides how the library works internally as well as implementation examples for Python and C if you wish to use any other language for your application than Vala.

Current Launcher API support:

Service Badge Counter Progress Bar Static Quicklist Dynamic Quicklist
Application menu Yes No Yes No
Dock Yes Yes Yes Yes

Setting Up

Before writing the code, you must first install the libunity library, you can do it by executing the following command in your terminal:

sudo apt install libunity-dev

Now it is time to incorporate the Unity library into your project. To your build system add an additional unity package to your vala_precompile CMake call:

  vala_precompile (my_project

and to the pkg_check_modules call as well:

  pkg_check_modules (DEPS REQUIRED ... unity)

After that you can clear your build directory and build your project again, there should be no errors when building.

Using the Launcher API

Once you've set up libunity in your build system it's time to write some code.

The first thing you'll need to use the API is your application desktop ID. This is usually the filename of your application entry that is installed in the /usr/share/applications directory like: com.github.username.application.desktop. Keep in mind that if you're generating the desktop file with a build system, the desktop ID is the final basename of the file generated by your build system and not a string ending with .in or any other type of extension.

You can retrieve a new Unity.LauncherEntry instance by calling a static Unity.LauncherEntry.get_for_desktop_id function:

var entry = Unity.LauncherEntry.get_for_desktop_id ("my-desktop-id.desktop");

This entry instance allows you to modify your entry so that it shows additional information e.g: on the dock. It is up to you, where in the code you want to retrieve this entry, the function is static so there is no problem accessing it. Usually it's your application or main window class.

Showing a 12 number in the badge is as easy as:

entry.count_visible = true;
entry.count = 12;

Keep in mind you have to set the count_visible property to true, and use an int64 type for the count property.

The same goes for showing a progress bar, here we show a progress bar showing 20% progress:

entry.progress_visible = true;
entry.progress = 0.2f;

As you can see the type of progress property is double and is a range between 0 and 1: from 0% to 100%.

Dynamic Quicklists

Dynamic quicklists are a way to provide the user with dynamic quick menu entries to access some kind of feature in your app. These are shown e.g: right-clicking an open instance of the settings app in the dock. Note that dynamic menu entries can be only provided by a running application or processes. If you always want to expose quick actions in e.g: the applications menu, see Static Quicklists.

Here's a simple example of how to make use of dynamic quicklists in Vala:

// Create a root quicklist
var quicklist = new Dbusmenu.MenuItem ();

// Create root's children
var item1 = new Dbusmenu.MenuItem ();
item1.property_set (Dbusmenu.MENUITEM_PROP_LABEL, "Item 1");
item1.item_activated.connect (() => {
    message ("Item 1 activated");

var item2 = new Dbusmenu.MenuItem ();
item1.property_set (Dbusmenu.MENUITEM_PROP_LABEL, "Item 2");
item1.item_activated.connect (() => {
    message ("Item 2 activated");

// Add children to the quicklist
quicklist.child_append (item1);
quicklist.child_append (item2);

// Finally, tell libunity to show the desired quicklist
entry.quicklist = quicklist;

Please see the Dbusmenu.Menuitem API for more details and features.

Static Quicklists

The main difference between dynamic and static quicklists is that static ones cannot be changed at runtime. Static quicklists do not involve writing any code or using any external dependencies.

Static quicklists are stored within your .desktop file. These are so called "actions". You can define many actions in your desktop file that will always show as an action in the application menu as well as in the dock.

The format is as follows:

[Desktop Action ActionID]
Name=The name of the action
Icon=The icon of the action (optional)
Exec=The path to application executable and it's command line arguments (optional)

Let's take a look at an example of an action that will open a new window of your application:

[Desktop Entry]
Name=Application name

[Desktop Action NewWindow]
Name=New Window
Exec=application-executable -n

Note that adding -n or any other argument will not make your application magically open a new window. It is up to your application to handle and interpret command line arguments. The GLib.Application API provides many examples and an extensive documentation on how to handle these arguments, particularly the command_line signal.

Please take a look at a Additional applications actions section for a detailed description of what keys are supported and what they do.

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