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New Xfce beta focuses on usability

By Bruce Byfield on October 23, 2008 (7:00:00 PM)

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Xfce version 4.6 is shaping up to be more significant than most minor releases. Besides fixes and enhancements that are invisible to the casual user, the first revision in almost two years of GNU/Linux's third most popular desktop includes numerous changes to applications such as the calendar, mixer, and logout dialog, a new configuration engine, and usability changes to the desktop. Their combined effect is to increase the usability of Xfce without sacrificing any of the speed for which the desktop is well-known.

Code-named Fuzzy, the new beta is available as source code or as packages for the Intrepid Ibex release of Xubuntu. Although both these formats are released with the usual warnings that the beta may not be stable, in practice, this is a mature beta. It ran without problems on both machines I tested it on.

Applications

Besides Xfce's speed, the desktop environment's reputation rests on its specialized applications. Fuzzy makes no major change to Thunar, Xfce's lightweight file manager, or Xfce Appfinder, the convenient list of installed programs, but other programs are improved in minor ways. For example, the logout dialog is expanded to include options to suspend or hibernate the computer, or to switch users. Similarly, the Xfce mixer now supports simultaneous use of different sound systems such as ALSA and OSS, as well as multiple sound cards, and independent settings for various audio input and output sources.

So far, the greatest changes in single applications seem to be in the Orage calendar. Behind the scenes, Orage now has a man page. On the desktop, you can now add not only events, but also to-do notes and journal entries to a date. Within entries, you can also create color-coded categories to further organize your calendar. You can set alarms based on the end of an appointment, set a default alarm, or have alarms activated if Orage or the computer was turned off when you should have received it. You can now save appointments to separate files, and import text files from other sources to Orage. Such changes improve Orage almost out of recognition, uplifting it from a mediocre application to a much more convenient one.

New configuration tools

By far the largest changes in the beta are to settings. At the command-line level, a new program called xconf-query replaces the old MCS configuration system with one modeled on GNOME's gconf. This new system should please the expert users of Xfce, but is probably best avoided by beginning or intermediate users. When you consider that, to change the desktop wallpaper so that it uses an image called garden.png, you must enter a command like xfconf-query -c xfce4-desktop -p /backdrop/screen0/monitor0/image-path -s /home/john/garden.png , you understand that this tool is not for everybody.

Mercifully, the new configuration system is supported by a new graphical settings manager that anybody should be able to use. In version 4.6, the settings manager no longer uses menus. Instead, the dialog for a selected item slides out to replace the top-level dialog, and a Back button helps you to retrace your steps, much as in the settings dialog in KDE 4. This system is somewhat clumsy, even if it does minimize the number of windows open on the desktop, but since organization of features is via tabs after the first level, the chances of getting lost are minimized.

Looking through the settings manager, you will find that many existing controls are rearranged. User interface settings are now grouped under the more clearly named Appearance settings. Similarly, accessibility options are removed from the Mouse and Keyboard settings to form a category of their own, and Autostart moves from Sessions and Startup.

Many of these changes are simply rearrangements, but in a few cases they are accompanied by changes in features. For example, under Display Settings, controls for gamma correction are now removed -- probably because few users know what they are for -- but the options now include a rotated monitor display. Similarly, the Desktop options now include a setting for choosing the default icons.

You'll notice other changes in the Xfce desktop. To start with, Xfce has gone international, with support for more languages, and support for a variety of keyboard layouts that was missing from earlier releases.

However, what users will likely notice most is the addition of a right-click menu to the desktop. This new menu includes not only an entry for Desktop Settings, but options to create launchers, links, or folders -- a choice of options and nomenclature borrowed from GNOME. It's a simple addition, but a major improvement in usability over 4.4, in which these items were secreted away in the right-click menu of icons, where they were easy to overlook. At least 4.4 had desktop icons, which was more than you could say for earlier releases, but, with 4.6, the tools for adding them are now located where they can be found.

The best of both worlds

Xfce has always had the reputation of being a geeky desktop, designed for those who dislike what they perceive as the feature and hard drive bloat of KDE and GNOME -- and, perhaps, those who are uncertain about the idea of a desktop at all. Early Xfce releases fed into this reputation by depending on command line and text file configuration.

Something of this impression still lingers in the 4.6 beta, as xfconf-query shows. However, in the last release or two, Xfce has focused more on usability, borrowing from the best of KDE and GNOME while adding touches of its own. To its developers' credit, Xfce has become more user-friendly while managing to preserve the quickness that its advanced users value.

Not only do the dozens of small changes add up to a level of usability that users at any level of experience can value, but the 4.6 beta is even faster than 4.4. Individually, most of the changes in 4.6 may be minor, but the overall result promises to be one of the best user experiences available on the free desktop.

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for Linux.com.

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New Xfce beta focuses on usability

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 10.0.1.30] on October 23, 2008 09:17 PM
Are you sure that screenshot is XFCE? looks like a single XFCE application running in Gnome...

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Re: New Xfce beta focuses on usability

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 206.192.231.187] on October 26, 2008 11:14 PM
Yes that is Xfce

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New Xfce beta focuses on usability

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 72.237.174.94] on October 23, 2008 09:58 PM
Xubuntu's default XFCE configuration is designed to look as much like GNOME as possible. Dunno why.

I like xfce. If it only had a vfs file browser of some sort, it'd be perfect.

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New Xfce beta focuses on usability

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 81.237.247.113] on October 23, 2008 10:17 PM
"For example, the logout dialog is expanded to include options to suspend or hibernate the computer, or to switch users."

No, Ubuntu patched it to do this. The upstream Xfce does not currently do this. Also, Ubuntu also patched 4.4 to do this.

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New Xfce beta focuses on usability

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 189.24.2.241] on October 24, 2008 10:48 AM
I've compiled and added the first alpha of Xfce 4.6 to Goblinx a while ago and I'm using it daily. This second alpha (first beta) I could not compile yet because Terminal cannot compile with new VTE and I'm looking for patches. Xubuntu does not also have Terminal to download.

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Well, some opinions of mine...

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: unknown] on October 24, 2008 03:22 PM
Which might be useful -- or not...

First, thank you very much to all the XFCE crew -- because you rock, at least regarding the "small/simple is beautiful" philosophy. My very special big thanks go to Msr. Olivier Fourdan, because in the beginning he was dreaming alone and he did all by himself. And I was poor and could not afford new powerful PCs, so I and my wife back then used his work and it allowed us to use our cranky old PC.

Then, after some years using KDE, I am now experimenting again with XFCE. I still have to understand better this version 4 (I used version 3 back then), but some thoughts:

1. Screen realstate: Please, don't waste it. Not everybody works at 1900x1200. I now have a server running Xubuntu with an old 15" CRT monitor. 1024x768 is too much for it. Instead of two panels, why not leaving the desktop empty and have one or two special keys -- say, the two nuisances between [Alt Gr] and [Ctrl] -- and make them display two panels, one with "running programs" and the other "applications"?

2. Make integration better with the user preferred libs: if I choose KDE as a base, and somehow would see using XFCE as memory saving, it's a problem (for me) having to use Gnome libs. It all gets slower... I guess this is too much to ask, though (for all the work that would be involved). Years ago, I heard about an api compatibility layer (which was used years ago to make khtml compatible with fltk)...

3. Having been a developer myself (in another life), I understand perfectly that Linus is right in using C for the kernel; for all other uses, object-orientation beats procedural (this is so old!). Isn't gtk still procedural? Suggestion: Qt or Fltk. (though, agreed, this is too much hassle)

4. The configuration dialog in "Applications" is wider than 1024. This is not funny. :-( _______ I can afford a new monitor right now, once I hit the street. But my monitor will be probably donated to some poor school and this problem will remain...

5. Have I mentioned Fltk? :-)

Well, more rants to follow later... I just installed xfce over kubuntu (because the PC is somewhat old, too), maybe there are tweaks I still don't know to get things the way I want. Sorry if something was wrong and please correct me.

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Re: Well, some opinions of mine...

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 66.166.20.74] on October 24, 2008 07:35 PM
(Disclaimer: I'm an Xfce developer, so I'm certainly biased.)

"Screen realstate: Please, don't waste it. Not everybody works at 1900x1200. I now have a server running Xubuntu with an old 15" CRT monitor. 1024x768 is too much for it."
(and)
"The configuration dialog in 'Applications' is wider than 1024."

My laptop has a screen resolution of 1024x768; it's my primary machine and what I use to hack on Xfce. All the settings dialogs are well below that width. Height is our main issue; the one or two dialogs that could potentially be taller than 800 pixels have scroll bars as a temporary fix until they can be redesigned properly.

"...if I choose KDE as a base, and somehow would see using XFCE as memory saving, it's a problem (for me) having to use Gnome libs."

This doesn't make any sense to me. Xfce does not use GNOME libs. Xfce uses glib and gtk+, which are fundamental to its operation.

"Isn't gtk still procedural?"

Gtk+ has been object-oriented since at least 2001 or so. Yes, it uses C, with an OO layer written in C (which is at times a little clumsy and verbose), but it's definitely OO.

"Suggestion: Qt or Fltk"

That's pure crack. That would require a rewrite of the *entire* desktop environment, and wouldn't really fit with the goals of the developers at all. If you don't like Gtk+-based desktops, use KDE, E17, or one of the lighter-weight desktops that don't use Gtk+ or Qt. And Fltk? Really? Sorry, but I like my desktop to look decent.

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Re(1): Well, some opinions of mine...

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: unknown] on October 24, 2008 09:32 PM
> All the settings dialogs are well below that width. Height is our main issue; the one or two dialogs that could potentially be taller than 800 pixels have scroll bars as a temporary fix until they can be redesigned properly.

Indeed. I've written poorly, I was referring to the "Settings Manager" (this one: http://frugalware.org/images/screenshots/default/04_xfce_desktop.png ), the one which calls all dialogues (and these are rather small). The Settings Manager is the only one oversized. I've written about it 'cause I cannot resize it; it also has more elements than the one in the image I just provided.

Just to clarify things, I installed directly a Kubuntu CD (not Ubuntu and then aptgetting kubuntu). On the not so brisk KDE on my old PC (must be a Celeron 1.7MHz), I decided to apt-get xubuntu(-desktop). I don't know if this has something to do with anything. The rest is pretty much standard... other windows resize normally in XFCE.

> This doesn't make any sense to me. Xfce does not use GNOME libs. Xfce uses glib and gtk+, which are fundamental to its operation.

Yes, I'm wrong again. I wonder if it's the age... I meant gtk. I even go on afterwards ranting about this issue I have... can't you figure what I mean and pay less attention to what I write? 8-/

> it uses C, with an OO layer written in C (which is at times a little clumsy and verbose), but it's definitely OO.

This was a major PITA when I had to do the same line of programming many years ago. Maybe you all are on a better shape then I was then and so this is not such a big problem for the developers, after all.

> If you don't like Gtk+-based desktops, use KDE, E17, or one of the lighter-weight desktops that don't use Gtk+ or Qt.

On one hand, I worry about how being "clumsy and verbose" makes your work harder. Life being easier for developers sometimes ends up benefitting users, too.
On the other hand, Gnome is ok, etc. but its excessive cleanliness bothers me. But that's me; maybe most users have the opposite opinion.

For example, just yesterday I needed to know what device was associated with /media/disk. First of all, I couldn't identify my pendrive: I have a /boot partition and both look identical. I had to click on each one and _then_ XFCE renamed my pendrive as a 4G device. Once I found it, I went right-click, Properties and voilĂ ! No reference to whatever /dev/ it was.

Now I know it's easy to open a Konsole and type "mount" and, of course, XFCE being small, it even makes sense. It probably has another dialog which gives this info when I get more used to it.

> And Fltk? Really? Sorry, but I like my desktop to look decent.

Yep. This is a real problem. I even have to admit Gnome is very good-looking and probably beats KDE in this regard. But KDE apps all look more integrated, most probably because of Qt and that is a kind of beauty, too.

For me as a XFCE user, looks are great as they are now, but usability is really more important (I apologize to all for taking all this so off-topic). IMHO even ease-of-use loses to usability.

And being as lean as possible.

--------------


Thank you for your attention and taking the time to answer my rants... Unfortunately, there's more to come... ;-D

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More info:

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 189.120.35.33] on October 24, 2008 11:56 PM
1)
The Settings Manager window really won't resize horizontally, no matter what I do. It wants to have 4 columns. Period. This, if I may suggest, might be related to some heuristic to determine button size. Each button in that window has the size of the largest one. In my language, "Ajustes Especiais do Gerenciador de Janelas is way bigger than "Window Manager Tweaks". That might be the case. Or not.

2) I confused the icons for folder and device/volume because of their size, the (old) monitor and the default icon set -- Rodent is much better to see the difference. Also, Thunar opens upon pendrive insertion, which really solves things.

3) Is an option "Autorun programs in new media" really a good idea? We don't have viruses now, but one has to wonder...

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New Xfce beta focuses on usability

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 156.34.205.73] on October 25, 2008 03:57 AM
I didn't know this before, but when you upgrade xfce via the xubuntu-dev ppa, you have to manually install xfconf, and then restart X11 to get your gtk theme back. The beta is looking nice, but they REALLY need to work on the migration from MCS to xfconf; It looks like a lot is getting lost in translation (when I first got xfconf working, the cursor was gigantic and the panel was extremely messed up).

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New Xfce beta focuses on usability

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 69.62.144.54] on October 25, 2008 10:04 AM
Does this version allow me to configure the mouse to use 'single click' for all selections. I hated previous versions because activation was sometimes single-click, sometimes double-click...and there was NO way to change it.

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Re: New Xfce beta focuses on usability

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 192.168.32.1] on October 25, 2008 01:04 PM
Isn't that setting in "File Manager Settings"/Behavior Tab enough?

(XFCE 4.4.2 here)

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Re(1): New Xfce beta focuses on usability

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 213.96.102.74] on October 27, 2008 02:16 PM
Sort of. It works for thunar, but not on the save/open dialogs. those are always double click. At least in Xubuntu 8.04. Or maybe I'm missing something.

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New Xfce beta focuses on usability

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 24.248.89.66] on October 27, 2008 05:53 PM
Thank you to all the XFCE developers, XFCE helped me fall in love with Linux again.

I hope you can still set it so you can get the app menu to show up when clicking on the desktop.

My one new feature request (I know it's too late for 4.6) is to have an option so that the pager app icons show up in the middle click menu. I sometimes like running without any bars, and that's the only thing I can't get to through a menu.

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New Xfce beta focuses on usability

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 81.144.160.22] on October 28, 2008 10:24 AM
If the XFCE devs can make the gui not look like the graphics were done by a 12 year old then I might move across.

More functionality for Thunar would be amazing rather than Orage which I have no use for.

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