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Xfce Has Polish, Simplicity, and Speed-- Better Than Gnome and KDE?

Steady Improvements, Polish and Refinement

  • March 11, 2009
  • By Bruce Byfield

A few years ago, Xfce had a reputation as a lightweight desktop that made few concessions to inexperienced users. However, the Xfce 4 series of releases have shown steady improvements in usability, and version 4.6 is no exception.

Although Xfce 4.6 has almost no completely new programs or features, it adds dozens of enhancements to features already present and continues the improvements in desktop usability that have marked the last few releases. The result is the most usable version of Xfce yet, and it is all the more pleasing for losing little -- if any -- of the speed and simplicity of earlier versions.

Xfce 4.6 is available as source code from the project website. You can compile the source code yourself or, somewhat unusually, you can install a graphical installer to assist you.

Alternatively, you can use the links on the download page to find binaries for Debian, Mandriva, openSUSE, and Xubuntu. However, be sure to research your binaries of choice thoroughly before using them, because they are in varying degrees of readiness. The Debian packages, for example, include one conflict that has yet to be resolved. Others may still have pre-release versions of 4.6.

Improved features

While little is completely new in 4.6, many features show a continued evolution. In some cases, the evolution is toward greater simplicity.

For example, where the clock in version 4.4.2 offered customized setting of display lines and the mouseover tooltip, but might have confused inexperienced users, preferences for the clock in 4.6 are reduced to the type of clock, the tooltip format for the date, and the time format -- all of which are configurable from drop-down lists.

Similarly, Xfce's sound mixer and application finder (which, unlike in KDE remains independent of the main menu) have undergone GUI changes that make their layout easier to perceive in a glance.

Some of these changes are as simple as the addition of a radio button, but, if you compare these two applications in 4.4.2 and 4.6, the difference is a succinct case-study in usability design. In the case of the mixer, these changes include a complete rewriting of the application, according to the 4.6 online tour.

In other cases, utilities have evolved new features. The system tray, now renamed more accurately as notification area, now offers the options to display icons in multiple rows, and to hide icons; if you do decide to hide icons, the notification area includes an arrow to expand it display. The logout menu now includes Suspend and Hibernate options, while the Thunar file manager is especially rich in new features, including translucent icons for unmounted drives, and support for encrypted filesystems.

The greatest number of changes per square centimeter are probably in the Settings Manager. Version 4.6 adds accessibility, removable drives, and calendar features. Session and startup options are especially enhanced, having gone from a simple dialog with a few options for logging in and out and for starting GNOME and KDE services when logging in (so that they start more quickly when you use them) to options for autostarting applications, and options for how to restart core desktop utilities if they crash.

In much the same way, the Desktop options have not only been rearranged on their tabs, but joined by options for the main menu and windows menus.

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