As a rule, the Linux desktop discussion is dominated by the two heavyweight
desktop environments -- KDE and GNOME. The term "heavyweight" applies to
the respective "market share" of those desktops as well as the resources
required to run either desktop. Linux users who wish to utilize a slightly
slimmer desktop environment, without compromising features, may find the
Xfce desktop environment
alternative. With the release of the
Xfce 4.2 release candidate, we decided to take a look at Xfce and provide a
rundown of some of its more interesting features.
As the Xfce website states, Xfce is "a lightweight desktop
environment for unix-like operating systems." Xfce started out as a
Common Desktop Environment
(CDE) clone, but has evolved into a unique desktop environment that's much
more interesting (at least to this writer) than CDE.
The site os-cillation has
GUI installers for Xfce 4.2RC1. To the best of this writer's knowledge,
Xfce is the first desktop with its own GUI installer. There are four
installers available; The base Xfce installer, the Gtk+ engine for Xfce
installer, the Xfce Goodies installer and an installer for the Terminal
term emulator from os-cillation. We chose to go the "kitchen sink" route,
and installed everything available. However, only the base package should
be required to use Xfce.
Installing Xfce with the GUI installers is a breeze, at least as long as
the target system has all of the requisite software that Xfce requires to
build. We built Xfce on two systems, a SUSE 9.2 system and a Ubuntu Linux
system. The SUSE build went off without a hitch after installing the
packages mentioned on the installer page.
The Ubuntu build failed a few times due to missing dependencies. This was
easily fixed, though it was a minor annoyance having to apt-get the
required libraries and re-start the install only to have it fail a few
minutes later at a different point. At start time, the GUI installer
identifies a few major components that are required to proceed, but doesn't
display a comprehensive list of dependencies.
After the installation, it was time to exit the session in progress and log
into Xfce. The first thing one will notice about Xfce is that it's much
faster to load than KDE or GNOME. For users with systems with processors
faster than 2 GHz and an abundance of RAM, this won't be a huge incentive
to use Xfce. However, Xfce is a bit snappier than GNOME or KDE, and a great
choice for older systems with less horsepower.
Many Linux users have probably run across GNOME and KDE applications that
are written in such a way that they require services from their native
desktop environments to function. For users that depend on applications
that require GNOME or KDE services, Xfce can be configured to run GNOME
or KDE services when it starts. This will slow down Xfce start time, but
it's a handy feature for anyone who needs specific applications that won't
otherwise cooperate with Xfce. Xfce's session settings, by default, do not
allow Xfce to manage remote X applications.
The Xfce panel is highly configurable. By default, it includes launchers
for the Xfce help system, Xfce configuration settings, Mozilla browser,
Mozilla mail, XMMS, the Xfce "fast file manager" (Xffm), a graphical pager,
terminal launcher and buttons to log out or lock your X session. Users can
add launchers, remove launchers, change the orientation of the panel from
horizontal to vertical and so on. The pager also allows the user to move
windows from one desktop to another simply by dragging the window's outline
in the pager to a different desktop. The Xfce Goodies package includes
several useful plugins for the panel, including CPU and network monitors, a
"show desktop" plugin and several
Xfce's file manager, Xffm is interesting, with quite a few handy
features. Xffm includes a SMB network browser, a "Book" tree to allow users
to bookmark frequently-visited directories, an fstab browser and a fairly
useful find utility (Xfglob4). The Xffm components can also be invoked by
themselves, so a user can call just the SMB browser by running
xfsamba4 or browse only the bookmarked directories files with
xfbook4. Xffm also makes it easy to rename files, create
symlinks and even "scramble" files. The Xffm interface seems a bit clunky,
but this writer doesn't often use file managers anyway.
Xfce is modular, meaning that the user can choose to drop components from
the desktop if they are unwanted. Don't want to run the Xfce panel? No
problem. Want to skip the GTK Theme Engine? That's an option as well. Users
may also run various Xfce components under other window managers / desktop
environments, if they prefer.
Does the world need yet another terminal emulator? This writer prefers to
just use the venerable xterm, but others want a little more from their
terminal emulator. The version of Terminal available from os-cillation for
Xfce is only at version 0.1.10, but it seems stable enough for everyday
use. Terminal has a few features not available in xterm, such as tabs for
multiple terminal instances and transparency or a user-defined background
image. Xfce also includes an xterm-like terminal called xfterm4, which is
the default Xfce terminal.
Some of Xfce's features are not immediately visible. For example, Xfce
supports Freedesktop.org Window Manager
hints, XDND (drag and
drop protocol) and several others. Xfce can also be configured in "kiosk
mode" where Xfce can be locked down to prevent users making changes to
the configuration of Xfce.
Another feature that this writer is particularly fond of is the ability to
switch desktops by using the mouse scrollwheel. Simply hover the mouse over
an "empty" space on the desktop and scroll. This feature is available in
KDE as well, but it seems to have appeared in Xfce first.
In short, Xfce 4.2 seems to be ready for prime time. We used the release
candidate for several days with no problems to speak of. It's an excellent
desktop environment for users who want a clean, fast and attractive
Comments (30 posted)
Your editor spends a lot
of time dealing with PDF files. The
proliferation of "profit through litigation" business models has not helped
in this regard, but, even without the legal profession's contributions,
much text of interest comes in the PDF format. As a result, a great deal
of your editor's time is
spent working in PDF viewers. PDF viewing hassles can rival the holiday
season in their ability to make an editor
grumpy. There is little to be done about
the latter, so it seems like a good time to review the state of the art in
free PDF viewers. Maybe, in that realm, something better can be found.
In theory, PDF viewers require little in the way of features. They should
present the contents of a file in a quick and readable manner, allow
navigation through the file, support printing of (parts of) a PDF file,
etc. So it should not be that hard to get things right. One would think.
In practice, your editor has found that the quality of the available PDF
viewers varies significantly, both in terms of the interface they provide
and how well they simply work.
There are two base platforms upon which PDF viewers are built. Some are
front ends to the ghostscript
utility. Ghostscript is a large, complex, and not entirely bug-free
utility (it is also a crucial part of many Linux systems); its strengths
and shortcomings will be reflected in any PDF viewers built on it. Most
other viewers are built on xpdf. We'll start with the ghostscript-based
GNOME Ghostview (ggv)
The GNOME PDF viewer of long standing is ggv. Interestingly, this utility
seems to lack a web site, though there is an
online manual available which is only slightly out of date. The most
recent ggv release was in September of 2004, as part of the GNOME 2.8
package. It is a ghostscript-based viewer.
The ggv screen includes a left-hand side bar which allows instant access to
any page in the document. Pages can also be marked, either directly with a
mouse click or with buttons which mark all pages, or just the even or odd
There is an option which can be used to print only the pages which have
been marked. The "print" button in the menu bar, however, just dumps the
entire file into the print subsystem without providing any opportunity for
the user to redirect the job or cancel the operation entirely. Your
editor, who prefers to fire up his monster duplexing laser printer for the
rare large print job, gets grumpy indeed at utilities which throw output at
the little inkjet printer without even asking. One should not be able to
dump hundreds of pages onto a printer with a single click.
ggv does not take a whole lot of clues from the document regarding its
orientation; a file which looks to be in portrait mode, but which has pages
that are wider than they are tall, can be presented (and printed!) in the
wrong orientation. The window size is always whatever the user used the
last time around, and does not react to the orientation of the document.
It is possible to ask ggv to zoom the document to fit within the window it
has (a nice feature), but doing so disables the manual zoom operations
(which is not). The scrollwheel may be used to move within a single page,
but it will not scroll between pages, making it mostly useless.
Every now and then your editor encounters a document which ggv is unable to
render. With such documents, the usual result is a blank window, which is
not particularly edifying.
The visual quality of ggv's output is good; it runs ghostscript in a
high-quality, antialiased mode. There is a reasonable set of configuration
options for a number of aspects of ggv's operation, including how it uses
ghostscript. If it were not for occasional reliability
problems and a number of user interface issues, it would be a contender for
this editor's favor.
The KDE contribution in the PDF viewer arena is kghostview,
shipped as part of the kdegraphics package. Like ggv, kghostview uses
ghostscript as a back end; as a result, it tends to fail on the same PDF
files that confuse ggv. In many ways, kghostview comes across like ggv
with a KDE look; it provides many of the same features. There are some
Like ggv, kghostview provides a navigation bar on the left side; it also
allows for the marking of articles. The kghostview version is different,
however, in that it includes thumbnail images of each page. These
thumbnails take space, making it more likely that the user will have to
scroll the navigation bar. They are, however, very nice to have when one
is looking for a specific page - the beginning of a section, say, or the
end of an interminable table of contents. The thumbnails, alone, make
kghostview a nicer tool to use than ggv.
kghostview has a friendlier interface for printing, allowing just about any
behavior to be configured. Among other things, kghostview can do 2-up or
4-up printing, which can be useful for many documents. Printing can be
restricted to marked pages. And, crucially, nothing is actually sent to
the printer until the user has confirmed the operation.
Scrolling through the document with the scrollwheel is supported. If the
user scrolls several pages, the application does the right thing - it does
not take the time to render the pages in the middle. A single keystroke
will fit the rendered document into the current window without disabling
the regular zoom operations. If you are currently only viewing part of a
page, you can drag a box around in a special thumbnail image to move to any
part of that page.
In general, the interface provided by kghostview is as nice as any PDF
viewer your editor has been able to find. It is clearly a tool which has
received some serious thought - and use - by its developers.
differs from the viewers we
have seen thus far in that it is not based on ghostscript; instead, it
contains its own PDF interpreter and rendering engine. A couple of the immediate consequences
of that difference are (1) xpdf is rather faster than the
ghostscript-based viewers, and (2) xpdf can often display documents
which are not viewable with the other tools. In other words, xpdf is an
important tool for those of us who end up working with PDF files often.
It is worth noting that, unlike the ghostscript-based viewers, xpdf (and
others built on it) cannot handle PostScript files. That is a fundamental
limitation, but, perhaps, also the source of xpdf's speed and robustness.
Compared to the GNOME and KDE viewers, xpdf is a minimalist tool. There
are no menu bars, no fancy configuration widgets, and no navigation side
bars. A small set of buttons at the bottom of the screen allows for
movement through the file, including the ability to go to an absolute page
number. A small menu gives a set of zoom options, including a couple of
"fit to page" modes. Your editor notes that, when "fit to page" is
enabled, the application responds poorly when its window is resized; it
fails to skip intervening X resize events, and thus has to render the page
If you drag the corner of an xpdf window around for a few seconds, you can
end up waiting for some time before it catches up.
The apparent simplicity of the xpdf interface hides a couple of vastly
useful features. One of those is a "find in text" button,
cleverly disguised as a pair of binoculars. If you have ever tried to find
a particular string in a PDF file, this capability is priceless. Equally
useful, if you are one of those strange people who writes articles about
things found in PDF files, is the ability to cut and paste text from those
files. Both of these functions silently fail if the file's text is in an
image format - as is the case with many scanned legal documents. But, when
they work, they are highly useful.
According to its web site, xpdf has the ability to work with encrypted PDF
documents. Your editor, not having any such documents sitting around, was
not able to try out that capability.
Navigation through PDF files is quick and straightforward, though it would
be nice to have a side bar for going directly to pages. xpdf maintains a
navigation history which can be useful for bouncing back and forth between
specific pages. The scrollwheel works as one would expect. Printing
support is minimal, but it has the features one really needs: the ability
to print a (contiguous) subset of the file, and to specify which printer is
to be used.
GNOME-based PDF viewer built upon xpdf. As such, it shares the robustness
and speed of xpdf. The gpdf developers, however, have added some new
features of their own - and left others out.
gpdf provides a rather confusing toolbar at the top of the page. It is far
from clear, for example, how the buttons marked "next" and "previous"
differ from those marked "forward" and "back". There are two
downward-pointing arrows; experimentation shows that one brings up a file
history menu, while the other contains anything which doesn't fit in the
toolbar at the current window width. There is a side bar in gpdf. It
looks as if, someday, it is meant to contain page thumbnails, but, with
gpdf 2.8.0, it renders pages as blank white rectangles with drop shadows.
For whatever reason, it uses a two-column format, requiring the user to
make the side bar very wide, or to do a bunch of horizontal scrolling.
gpdf uses the GNOME printing widget, so it provides a higher degree of
control over printing than xpdf. It can put multiple PDF file pages onto
each printed page. Better printing support is a definite improvement over
On the other hand, gpdf lacks xpdf's scrollwheel support. It does not
provide the "find in text" and "cut and paste" capabilities, which, it
seems, are unique to xpdf. It is not clear why those features are missing;
one might guess that gpdf forked the xpdf code base before they were
The first impression one gets of kpdf is that it looks much like
kghostview. It has essentially the same icon layout, and a very similar
side bar with page thumbnails. kpdf, however, is an entirely different
application, built on xpdf. Like gpdf, it seems to have left out many of
the unique xpdf features.
kpdf is a relatively immature work. Its rendering is poor, by far the
worst of any of the PDF viewers reviewed. Somehow, kpdf does not appear to
understand font information well, leading to strange spacing between
letters on both Fedora and Debian platforms. kpdf is speedy, however, and
many of the important features are there.
It does appear that further work is being done with kpdf, at least if one
goes by some screenshots
linked to by KDE.News. The images suggest that the current development
version supports multiple-page displays, string searches, and more. A future
kpdf could well be be best PDF viewer of them all; the current version is
too unfinished to be usable, however.
This review has concerned itself with free PDF viewers. No review of this
application space can really get away with ignoring Adobe
Reader (acroread), however. This tool is certainly not free software,
but there is a free-beer version available for x86 Linux systems. It is an
old version; Adobe Reader 6 is not available for Linux. Even the
older version, however, has its value. Occasionally a PDF file will come
along that is so strange that no free viewer can cope with it. Acroread
can be counted upon to work in such situations. It is, thus, one of
exactly two proprietary programs on your editor's system.
Happily, free PDF viewers have come far enough along that having to fall
back to acroread is a rare event.
The free PDF viewer state of the art has advanced in recent years, which is
a good thing. This is an area where, for quite some time, the free
alternatives lagged far behind. Now we have a wealth of viable programs to
choose from. Too many, perhaps. Your editor might like it better if the
development community would come together on, say, two viewers, and
cooperate on making those two the best they can be. The history of these
projects suggests that will not happen, however. There are two rendering
engines (ghostscript and xpdf), multiplied by two desktop systems.
Crossing those lines can be hard. We are likely to have a large set of
actively-developed PDF viewers for some time yet.
Comments (70 posted)
This Intent To Package posting
guaranteed to raise a bit of a fuss. The program involved is hot-babe
, a graphical CPU
utilization monitor. It works by displaying a typical Bruno Bellamy drawing
minimally-clad, maximally-endowed woman. As the CPU gets busier ("hotter"), the woman
undresses to compensate. Your editor, whose journalistic ethics required
that he investigate this utility, found it to be an amusing addition to the
desktop - for about five minutes, or until the children walk in, whichever
The Debian developers raised the obvious, predictable objection to
the inclusion of this utility: the associated images were covered by a
Once that little issue was cleared up (the artist made the drawings
available under the Artistic License), the way was cleared for the other
predictable argument: should a utility seen by some as pornographic be part
of the Debian distribution? On the face of it, there would appear to be
little basis for keeping it out. The Debian standards for software require
that it be free; there is nothing in the software guidelines or
social contract about not being offensive to anybody.
There is no doubt that inclusion of hot-babe into Debian is asking for
certain kinds of trouble. The imagery involved is no worse than that found
on many European billboards, but it will go against many American
"community standards" and is completely out of line by the standards of
many other parts of the world. Including hot-babe in Debian will render
the distribution unsafe for work environments in many places, will
complicate the work of those trying to deploy it in libraries and schools,
and will simply offend a certain number of the distribution's users.
Then again, the same could be said of fortunes-off,
James Bible, or the Anarchist
FAQ, all of which are already part of Debian. Some people are probably
offended by fsck, Doom, or the emacs Zippy quotes file. Your
editor, offended by illegible text, immediately and violently disables
"color ls" on every system he installs. Creating
an offense-free distribution can be a hard task even for companies which
adopt that goal explicitly; it's pretty much impossible for a
distribution which values freedom, and which has dedicated itself to
becoming the biggest collection of free software around.
Unless the Debian Project changes its social contract to allow the
exclusion of packages on moral grounds, tools like hot-babe will find a
home there. Debian is, increasingly, the master repository for a family of
distributions; it should probably be as inclusive as possible. Most of the
distributions built on top of Debian, such as Linspire, Xandros, Skolelinux, LinEx, or Ubuntu, apply some discretion in the
packages they select. They are unlikely to include tools like hot-babe,
and, thus, may be considered safer versions to use in situations where
somebody may get offended.
Well, OK, perhaps we can't be too sure with Ubuntu.
Linux developers and distributors clearly must be sensitive to the needs
and feelings of their users. The needs that come first and foremost for
Debian users are freedom and quality. Applying any other sort of filter to
Debian would change that distribution in a fundamental way.
The nice thing about Linux is that distributions can be made for a wide
variety of audiences. A safe-for-schools version of Debian can be
distributed without imposing additional standards on Debian itself. Linux
can be configured to meet the tastes, morals, and standards of almost any
group of users, without inflicting those standards on others. That is
freedom at its best, and how it should be.
Except that your editor really would like to see color ls abolished
Comments (55 posted)
Page editor: Jonathan Corbet
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