1. Is there any way to make the side panels sticky closed. I'll often drift into the hot zone and accidentally activate the panel. I'd like to not have them "fly over" active.
I don't have enough experience to help you with the rest, but this one is relatively simple. Right-click on the black border between the outer edge of a panel and the window border, and select "Auto hide." This will make the panels disappear automatically, but not reappear automatically; you'll have to click to bring them back, though they'll still disappear when you move away.