February 20, 2007

Xfce 4.4: The best lightweight desktop environment

Author: Mayank Sharma

For years, the lightweight Xfce has been a popular desktop environment for Linux distributions running on older hardware, thanks to its lower demand on resources as compared to KDE and GNOME; it's an ideal desktop for machines with less than 256MB of memory. Until recently, however, using Xfce was a little laborious, but with its latest release last month, Xfce is a much more usable desktop environment.

Xfce is a mature application, with its first release in 1997. Over the years and through several versions, Xfce has added features and components such as drag and drop, a window manager, and multilingual support. It has several distributions built around it, including Zenwalk, based on Slackware, and Xubuntu, based on Ubuntu.

Xfce 4.4 is the first Xfce version with enough features to be comparable to GNOME and KDE. It has a real file manager called Thunar, nice SVG icons, and even some eye candy.

The easiest way to install Xfce is by using your distribution's package manager to get the appropriate binaries. The Xfce project also releases four easy-to-use graphical installers. For a basic Xfce installation you need the xfce4-4.4.0 installer, which includes the new Thunar file manager. The thunar-0.8.0-installer is for people who want to use the new file manager with an older version of Xfce. If you want to use Xfce's volume manager instead of GNOME's to manage devices like USB drives, use the thunar-bundle-0.8.0 installer. Finally, for a set of nice and usable plugins and artwork from the Xfce goodies project, get the xfce-goodies-4.4.0 installer.

The first change you'll notice in Xfce is the icons on the desktop. I like keeping icons on my desktops of files and application launchers that I regularly need and use. The new icons are prettier than ones for the same applications under GNOME on Ubuntu. But the only way to add new icons and launchers is to right-click on an existing item and choosing the appropriate action from under the Desktop submenu. In other desktop environments, you'd right-click on the desktop itself to create a folder/shortcut, but in Xfce, right-clicking on the desktop brings up the Xfce application menu. Strangely, sometimes the new folders that I created didn't show up until I logged in again to Xfce, but sometimes they showed up immediately. And I found another quirk: when I delete an icon for a file, folder, or launcher, nothing seems to happen. On a second try, Xfce complains that the resource doesn't exist, though I can see it on the desktop.

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If you rather prefer Xfce's original clean desktop look, you can make the icons on the desktop disappear through the Settings Manager. The Settings Manager also lets you tweak other common aspects of Xfce, such as the desktop, keyboard, mouse, user interface, splash screen, and panels. The granularity of control provided by individual components under the Settings Manager is impressive. Xfce includes help regarding some of the most commonly used components, such as the Window Manager, Sessions Manager, Preferred Applications, and Desktop Manager.

With Preferred Applications you can set up the default Web browser, email client, and terminal emulator Xfce should use of the ones available on the system. In previous versions of the software, setting up default applications required editing shell profiles. With Xfce 4.4 you can also set up applications to autostart when you log in to Xfce.

Thunar is hands-down the highlight of this release. It has an uncanny resemblance to GNOME's Nautilus file manager, and provides most of Nautilus' features, but isn't a big drain on RAM. Besides the regular features, such as file selection through wildcards, quick jump to locations, a tree view, and thumbnails, you can install several plugins that add functionality to Thunar. I particularly like the archive-plugin, with which you can create or extract archive files. Thunar also includes a bulk renamer that can rename multiple files based on specified criteria. It even supports regular expressions.

Another improvement in this version is the ability to have a lot of keyboard shortcuts grouped into different themes as per your taste. A keyboard theme consists of keyboard shortcuts for various activities. Having multiple themes lets you use the same key combination for different actions. So, for example, you can set up a Ctrl-V keyboard shortcut to paste text in the text keyboard theme and to bring up the volume control manager in the multimedia keyboard theme.

Xfce's panel infrastructure was completely rewritten for version 4.4. By default Xfce has two panels: the top panel contains the pager and minimized applications, while the bottom panel contains the Xfce applications menu and several launchers for the file manager, Web browser, text editor, and terminal emulator, along with a clock and the quit button. You can change the position of any of these panels, or add completely new panels and play around with their appearances. You can also add and remove plugins to any panel, which are similar to the applets in GNOME.

Behind the scenes, as a major improvement over previous versions, plugins can now run in a separate instance from the panel, which means that buggy plugins can't crash the whole panel. I decided to add a volume indicator and control plugin, but I couldn't find any similar to the network monitor applet in GNOME.

Xfce 4.4 also bundles its own Orage calendering and time management application. Orage supports most common time management tasks, such as setting up appointments and recurring alarms and tracking scheduled events. Unlike Xfce's previous calendering application, Orage is compatible with other calendering applications, since it stores data in the popular iCal format.

There are also several improvements to Xfce's window manager. It sports a new compositing manager, based on the composite extension introduced in Xorg 6.9. This allows Xfce to have some eye candy, such as transparent windows and window frame shadows. To enable the composite manager, add these lines to your xorg.conf file, which is normally under /etc/X11/:

Section "Extensions"
 Option "Composite" "true"
EndSection

You can tweak the composite manager settings from the Composite Tab under the Window Manager Tweaks options accessible through the Settings Manager. Enabling these settings didn't seem to slow down Xfce, at least visually.

Lastly, Xfce has made major changes to its terminal emulator application, called terminal. It can have multiple tabs and is very configurable. It's a nice emulator, but it didn't let me scroll the tab where it was busy downloading with wget.

Xfce 4.4 is a major step up from earlier releases. It might not be the lightest solution available, but it's the best balance between performance and usability. With all the new features, Xfce 4.4 is a strong candidate for being the desktop environment not only on older, low-end computers, but on newer machines as well.