Xfce desktop environment
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
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
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