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Xfce Desktop: Less Lard, Less Bling, More Usability
Fast and User-Friendly
February 10, 2010
This is the first in a series of articles looking at some lightweight, but still fully-functional, desktop alternatives to KDE or Gnome. First up: Xfce. Xfce is designed to be lightweight and fully-functional, providing a full desktop environment whilst using minimal system resources; and it's modular, so you can choose exactly what you want to run.
The current Xfce umbrella package in both Debian stable and Ubuntu 9.10 is xfce4 (version 4.4 in Debian, and 4.6 in Ubuntu). After you've installed it, log out of X. If you're running gdm or a similar app as your login manager, check the bottom left of the screen for a "Sessions" option, and you can choose Xfce for your next session. When starting the session, you'll then be asked if you want to make this your default window manager.
The first thing I noticed was how fast it started up compared to Gnome. Admittedly my desktop is reasonably old, so the difference might show up less on a newer, faster machine, but it was a very pleasant surprise to be started up so quickly. I also tried it out over VNC on my local network, and running inside a virtual machine, and for speed alone, I'd rate it significantly better than Gnome or KDE. Once running, the speed and usability increase continued; things like the system menus and settings were noticably faster to come up than on Gnome or KDE.
There's a "Tips and Tricks" box displayed by default on startup (this can of course be switched off), from which I discovered that you can get a xfrun4 application launcher dialog box by hitting Alt+F2. This works as advertised, and is a nice shortcut for those who prefer the keyboard to the mouse. Other desktops do also have similar launchers available (e.g. gnome-do, which has other useful functions as well), but the Xfce one is simple and fast.
The update manager fires itself up automatically and seems to work well; you can look at the recommended updates in whatever detail you choose, and install with a single click. You can also turn it off via the Settings-Autostarted Applications menu item. If you want a seriously stripped-down desktop, you might feel that the default set of autostarted applications is too many; but for the majority of people, having the update notifier, print manager, network manager, and so on autostarted will be welcome.
The main menu panel is at the bottom; by default you get a general menu, and buttons for terminal, file manager, and the Gnome Web Browser. You can edit these (I changed the Web Browser link to Firefox) by right-clicking and choosing Properties. Again, applications started from here seem to come up very fast. There's also a panel at the top, which is taken up primarily by tabs for your active applications, as well as a workspace pager. By default, there are 4 workspaces, which you can move between with either the keyboard or the mouse wheel. You can of course customise, move, or delete all these panels and buttons.
From the eyecandy point of view, Xfce is more functional than it is pretty. However, there are a variety of skins available under the Settings-Window Manager Settings option, and you can of course change the background image. It's certainly not ugly, and it arranges windows well enough, but there isn't a focus on pretty effects. For older desktops, or if speed is your main concern, this may well not matter much.