February 7, 2007

ROX Desktop provides light, quirky alternative to GNOME and KDE

Author: Bruce Byfield

The ROX Desktop is a lightweight alternative to GNOME or KDE built around the ROX-Filer file manager. The project's name is an abbreviation of "RISC OS on X." The ROX Desktop's performance is reminiscent of IceWM, and it's noticeably faster opening programs than GNOME or KDE. However, its speed comes at the expense of a needlessly redundant default configuration, and some users may balk at some of the assumptions its design makes about how they prefer to work.

The ROX Desktop is not part of most distributions. However, unlike many projects, it maintains not only the usual source code and tarred binaries, but also a large number of packages for major distributions, including Debian, Fedora, Gentoo, Mandriva, Slackware, and openSUSE. There is even a Windows version. The project seems somewhat cavalier about adding version numbers to its packages, but if you follow the directions on the Web site, you should have no trouble installing the latest version. On my Debian system, ROX Desktop installed without problems, and was available for selection the next time I was at the login screen. Uninstallation was equally trouble-free.

A desktop by any other name


ROX Desktop - click to enlarge

The ROX Desktop opens by default with a panel on the bottom edge, and a cluster of icons on the top left of the desktop -- or "pinboard," as ROX developers prefer to call it. One of the default icons on the panel is for a diskette drive, which seems obsolete these days, but the retro perspective isn't entirely undesirable, since it includes placing a terminal icon on the desktop. The desktop also includes icons for mail and Web browsing, as well as ones for the file manager, applications (although "system utilities" would be a more accurate description), and configuration.

Other icons on the panel include one file manager view for the entire system and one for the current account's home directory -- a division that should delight anyone who, like me, is impatient with the attempt to combine the two views in GNOME's Nautilus. Strangely, no menu icon is included, although you can quickly add one by selecting Applications -> Applets -> Menu. Logging in and out of the ROX desktop is handled, not from a menu, but a separate icon. Separate icons are also given for sound cards and other device handlers, instead of combining them. Rounding off the icons is a tasktray (although minimized windows also appear as icons on the right of the screen), a workspace switcher, a clock, and a trash bin. Most of these items cannot be moved or deleted, although applets you add yourself can be, as can the panel itself.

Just as GNOME is built around Nautilus, so the ROX desktop is build around ROX-Filer, a single-panel file manager. Personally, I miss having a tree view, but ROX-Filer's responsiveness and the minimalist display that hides many actions in a right-click menu are sufficiently different to have an appeal of their own. Unusual among file managers, ROX-Filer includes options for both relative and absolute links, setting run actions for individual files. Its Find utility is a simple dialog for entering a search expression that makes few concessions to a user's knowledge. Right-click on the desktop, and you will find dozens of options for both ROX-Filer itself and how it interacts with the desktop.

One noticeable feature of the ROX Desktop is extensive use of drag and drop rather than selection from a file manager. The dialog for changing the wallpaper, for example, instructs users to "Drop an image here" and has no provision for finding a file; presumably, you use it in conjunction with an open ROX-Filer window. Similarly, you can archive selected files simply by dropping them on the Archive icon in the Applications folder.

Making a window active does not move it to the top of the windows open on the desktop -- a feature I did not like. According to the blog of Thomas Leonard, one of the main developers with the project, this behavior is not a design flaw but his personal preference.

In many respects, the ROX Desktop is comparable to GNOME or KDE, down to a wide set of options available in the default Configuration folder. Where options require root privileges, a login dialog conveniently opens. However, because of the ROX Desktop's tendency to modular design, you may need to search to find some configuration options. The language setting for the desktop, for example, is set from ROX-Session, not the configuration folder. To customize some items, such as the desktop font, you need to search the project site for information.

Just as importantly, the project does not seem to have paid as much attention to user-centric or ergonomic design as its heavyweight counterparts. Many of its design flaws can be corrected by customization or are irrelevant after the initial configuration, but many users may find the ROX Desktop less ready to use at first login than rival desktop environments.

Utilities and software installation

The ROX Desktop relies partly on GNOME and KDE for applications. On my Debian system, its default mail program is Thunderbird and its default Web browser is Konqueror.

However, the desktop also has a number of unique programs. In addition to the ROX-Filer, which the desktop is built around, they include more than a dozen applets, a simple editor, and a graphical interface for the tail command. The window manager, OroboROX, comes with a dozen themes. ROX-Session offers features that experienced users will appreciate, such as an option for selecting the exact command for halting or rebooting or for displaying message logs when errors occur.

On Debian, the ROX Desktop includes an icon for the Synaptic package manager. However, the desktop is also integrated with Zero Install, an alternative package system that you can use to install software only to the current account by entering the URL. Users have the option of updating their accounts with the latest software versions when they open a program such as OroboROX, or of adding new software by selecting the AddApp application from the Configuration folder. Basically, you can use Synaptic to install basic system files and utilities and Zero Install for programs associated with the ROX Desktop and for general desktop software, although the number of applications available using Zero Install is somewhat limited right now.

Leonard, who is also the lead developer of Zero Install, suggests on the project's Web site that Zero Install is more flexible, freer, and more secure than native package systems. However, since Zero Install does not support system-wide installs, it could also make for considerable redundancy, with every user account having a separate copy of the same software. Also, of course, system administrators may not want users to be able to install their own software -- no matter how little damage an installation might do to a system -- especially if they are concerned about disk space on a common server.

Designed for experienced users

Unlike GNOME and KDE, the ROX Desktop does not seemed designed to give users much choice about how they work. Rather, it offers an idiosyncratic set of choices for users to abide by. For this reason, what you think of the ROX Desktop will likely depend on how closely these choices mirror your own preferences.

Fortunately, the choices are consistent enough that a profile of a satisfied user is easy to build. The ROX Desktop is unlikely to appeal to new users, because so much of ROX-Filer's power is hidden away, and some options, such as Count (file size) are frankly likely to baffle them. Instead, the ideal user is likely to be one with some experience of Unix-like operating systems, with some familiarity with the command line, and an impatience with the abundance of features in GNOME and KDE and the performance overhead that they can sometimes cause. The ideal user should also prefer a minimalist desktop and a series of small applications rather than a single, centralized one.

If this description sounds like you, then the ROX Desktop is worth your consideration. Otherwise, you will probably need to use it for some time before you feel comfortable with it. Any user can appreciate the speed of the ROX Desktop, but if you're not at least an intermediate user or willing to consider new habits, you may decide that the speed is not worth all the quirkiness.