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The StartX Files: X Is For Xim--Just Kidding, It's For Xfce - page 2

More fish in the sea

  • February 20, 2001
  • By Brian Proffitt

It was probably an accident that I had mentioned this week's GUI environment in that very first column. But Xfce was the desktop environment that had really gotten the ball rolling:

"Of particular interest is one that a reader pointed out to me last week called Xfce. This is a GTK+-based window manager that is made to resemble the CDE environment for UNIX, and having played around on that platform once upon a time, I can tell you that this is certainly a valid claim," I wrote, "After it was recommended to me, I checked it out and found it to be a nice little environment that kept everything smoothly organized and accessible."

Because I had gotten the not-so-clever idea of moving through these managers and environments in alphabetical order, Xfce was immediately relegated to the back of the line, much to the chagrin of Xfce lead developer Olivier Fourdan.

Maybe its one of those circle of life things. Maybe I need to stop watching Disney movies so much with my kids.

Xfce, and its attendant window manager Xfwm, are both well put-together additions to the family of X environments. What will draw the eye of the beginning user is the main panel, which unobtrusively sits at the bottom of the desktops.

I know what you're thinking: a panel is just a panel, and you would be right. But one of the things that makes panel use appealing is not the stuff that's on the panel by default, but rather how easy can the panel be customized to a user's particular needs.

To me, the sign of a good intuitive interface tool like a panel is how fast I can learn to customize it. For Xfce, I was able to change the buttons on the panel and the adjoining popup menus in less than a minute after playing with it.

An easy-to-use panel is not the only think Xfce brings to the GUI table, of course. The virtual desktops are simple to navigate and shove windows into. Drag and drop functionality is also present in this desktop environment, which worked pretty well for me.

Because Xfce is a desktop environment, it does include some of its own native apps, including XFTree, a pretty capable file manager; XFPager, which can manage up to 12 desktops; and XFbd, a simple little background manager. There are more features, of course, including debugger and difference tools for developers. I missed the presence of a good PIM, but the GNOME compliancy gave me several options to use besides a native Xfce PIM.

All of this is pretty much standard fare, of course, for some of the "heavyweight" desktop environments, so you may be wondering what the big deal here is.

What has impressed me so much with Xfce is the way everything fits together. Apps and configuration applets can be accessed from the panel, pop-up menus, or the desktop menu. Finding files and applications is ridiculously easy, too. I had no trouble adjusting to Xfce for daily use, which I cannot say about other environments.

The other impressive factor going for Xfce is its size: Xfce manages to pull all of this off with far less of a memory footprint than the big two. According to Fourdan, if you run KDE or GNOME with just the same tools found in Xfce, it comes out to double Xfce's memory usage.

"If you're talking about window managers alone, Xfwm uses a little bit more memory than Icewm or Fvwm," Fourdan added, "but only two-thirds of the memory used by Sawfish or Enlightenment, and half of Kwm."

Xfce is fast, too. It loads in just seconds, and windows snap into place very quickly.

Xfce is just about four years old, and actually predates the window manager, according to Fourdan.

"I started Xfce in early 1997," he explained. "At first, only the Xfce panel was available and it could be used as a Fvwm module to take advantage of the virtual desktops. Xfwm came about a year later."

Fourdan, who works as a member on a research and development team by day, was for quite a while the only developer working on the Xfce environment. But that is no longer the case.

"I'm very glad now that three to four other people are submitting new applications such as the search tool (XFglob), the diff front-end (XFdiff), the loading of KDE and GNOME menus inside Xfwm (XFmenu), etc.," Fourdan stated. "I've recently moved the development part of Xfce to Sourceforge and seven developers are registered on the project."

For the immediate future, Fourdan plans to add layers to Xfce. "Xfce 3.7.3 will include support for layers, since Nautilus is using it to display its root window."

Fourdan's long-range plans include some far more ambitious goals.

"I'd like to add something really exciting in Xfce : voice control. I'll be using IBM Via Voice SDK to create a new module for Xfwm that will allow people to drive the window manager with a microphone. There will commands like "next" or "previous" to navigate between windows, and "raise" or "lower" to restack the windows," Fourdan said.

If you are looking for a decent, fast desktop environment, clearly you should give Xfce a spin. Best of all, it appears to be 100% politics-free!

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