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Xfce 4.4: The best lightweight desktop environment

By Mayank Sharma on February 20, 2007 (8:00:00 AM)

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For years, the lightweight Xfce has been a popular desktop environment for Linux distributions running on older hardware, thanks to its lower demand on resources as compared to KDE and GNOME; it's an ideal desktop for machines with less than 256MB of memory. Until recently, however, using Xfce was a little laborious, but with its latest release last month, Xfce is a much more usable desktop environment.

Xfce is a mature application, with its first release in 1997. Over the years and through several versions, Xfce has added features and components such as drag and drop, a window manager, and multilingual support. It has several distributions built around it, including Zenwalk, based on Slackware, and Xubuntu, based on Ubuntu.

Xfce 4.4 is the first Xfce version with enough features to be comparable to GNOME and KDE. It has a real file manager called Thunar, nice SVG icons, and even some eye candy.

The easiest way to install Xfce is by using your distribution's package manager to get the appropriate binaries. The Xfce project also releases four easy-to-use graphical installers. For a basic Xfce installation you need the xfce4-4.4.0 installer, which includes the new Thunar file manager. The thunar-0.8.0-installer is for people who want to use the new file manager with an older version of Xfce. If you want to use Xfce's volume manager instead of GNOME's to manage devices like USB drives, use the thunar-bundle-0.8.0 installer. Finally, for a set of nice and usable plugins and artwork from the Xfce goodies project, get the xfce-goodies-4.4.0 installer.

The first change you'll notice in Xfce is the icons on the desktop. I like keeping icons on my desktops of files and application launchers that I regularly need and use. The new icons are prettier than ones for the same applications under GNOME on Ubuntu. But the only way to add new icons and launchers is to right-click on an existing item and choosing the appropriate action from under the Desktop submenu. In other desktop environments, you'd right-click on the desktop itself to create a folder/shortcut, but in Xfce, right-clicking on the desktop brings up the Xfce application menu. Strangely, sometimes the new folders that I created didn't show up until I logged in again to Xfce, but sometimes they showed up immediately. And I found another quirk: when I delete an icon for a file, folder, or launcher, nothing seems to happen. On a second try, Xfce complains that the resource doesn't exist, though I can see it on the desktop.

Xfce desktop
Click to enlarge
If you rather prefer Xfce's original clean desktop look, you can make the icons on the desktop disappear through the Settings Manager. The Settings Manager also lets you tweak other common aspects of Xfce, such as the desktop, keyboard, mouse, user interface, splash screen, and panels. The granularity of control provided by individual components under the Settings Manager is impressive. Xfce includes help regarding some of the most commonly used components, such as the Window Manager, Sessions Manager, Preferred Applications, and Desktop Manager.

With Preferred Applications you can set up the default Web browser, email client, and terminal emulator Xfce should use of the ones available on the system. In previous versions of the software, setting up default applications required editing shell profiles. With Xfce 4.4 you can also set up applications to autostart when you log in to Xfce.

Thunar is hands-down the highlight of this release. It has an uncanny resemblance to GNOME's Nautilus file manager, and provides most of Nautilus' features, but isn't a big drain on RAM. Besides the regular features, such as file selection through wildcards, quick jump to locations, a tree view, and thumbnails, you can install several plugins that add functionality to Thunar. I particularly like the archive-plugin, with which you can create or extract archive files. Thunar also includes a bulk renamer that can rename multiple files based on specified criteria. It even supports regular expressions.

Another improvement in this version is the ability to have a lot of keyboard shortcuts grouped into different themes as per your taste. A keyboard theme consists of keyboard shortcuts for various activities. Having multiple themes lets you use the same key combination for different actions. So, for example, you can set up a Ctrl-V keyboard shortcut to paste text in the text keyboard theme and to bring up the volume control manager in the multimedia keyboard theme.

Xfce's panel infrastructure was completely rewritten for version 4.4. By default Xfce has two panels: the top panel contains the pager and minimized applications, while the bottom panel contains the Xfce applications menu and several launchers for the file manager, Web browser, text editor, and terminal emulator, along with a clock and the quit button. You can change the position of any of these panels, or add completely new panels and play around with their appearances. You can also add and remove plugins to any panel, which are similar to the applets in GNOME.

Behind the scenes, as a major improvement over previous versions, plugins can now run in a separate instance from the panel, which means that buggy plugins can't crash the whole panel. I decided to add a volume indicator and control plugin, but I couldn't find any similar to the network monitor applet in GNOME.

Xfce 4.4 also bundles its own Orage calendering and time management application. Orage supports most common time management tasks, such as setting up appointments and recurring alarms and tracking scheduled events. Unlike Xfce's previous calendering application, Orage is compatible with other calendering applications, since it stores data in the popular iCal format.

There are also several improvements to Xfce's window manager. It sports a new compositing manager, based on the composite extension introduced in Xorg 6.9. This allows Xfce to have some eye candy, such as transparent windows and window frame shadows. To enable the composite manager, add these lines to your xorg.conf file, which is normally under /etc/X11/:

Section "Extensions"
 Option "Composite" "true"
EndSection

You can tweak the composite manager settings from the Composite Tab under the Window Manager Tweaks options accessible through the Settings Manager. Enabling these settings didn't seem to slow down Xfce, at least visually.

Lastly, Xfce has made major changes to its terminal emulator application, called terminal. It can have multiple tabs and is very configurable. It's a nice emulator, but it didn't let me scroll the tab where it was busy downloading with wget.

Xfce 4.4 is a major step up from earlier releases. It might not be the lightest solution available, but it's the best balance between performance and usability. With all the new features, Xfce 4.4 is a strong candidate for being the desktop environment not only on older, low-end computers, but on newer machines as well.

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on Xfce 4.4: The best lightweight desktop environment

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Lightweight?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 20, 2007 11:28 PM
XFCE can't be lightweight, it uses GTK+.

They should port it to QT or something lighter...

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Re:Lightweight?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 20, 2007 11:43 PM
The 'L' in "FLTK" stands for "Light" so it might be lighter than GTK. I haven't done any comparisons to know though. Have there been any benchmarks or anything to see which toolkit is the most "lightweight"? I've never heard anywhere that QT is more lightweight than GTK.

Considering how far Xfce has progressed, it probably wouldn't be a good idea to start from scratch and rewrite though. It's looking great these days!

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Re:Lightweight?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 21, 2007 05:27 AM
Actually XFCE is completely rewritten between each major release. It has already been ported from XForms to GTK+. They could port it to a lighter toolkit for version 5.

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Re:Lightweight?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 21, 2007 12:05 AM
I guess you are trying to imply that Qt is less memory hungry compared to GTK+. I am afraid it is you, young Jedi, who is gravely mistaken. About a great many things.

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Re:Lightweight?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 21, 2007 05:24 AM
<a href="http://ktown.kde.org/~seli/memory/desktop_benchmark.html" title="kde.org">http://ktown.kde.org/~seli/memory/desktop_benchma<nobr>r<wbr></nobr> k.html</a kde.org>

<a href="http://zrusin.blogspot.com/2006/10/benchmarks.html" title="blogspot.com">http://zrusin.blogspot.com/2006/10/benchmarks.htm<nobr>l<wbr></nobr> </a blogspot.com>

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Re:Lightweight?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 22, 2007 10:34 PM
Those comparisons are useless.

They compare gnome and kde, not gtk+ and qt

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Re:Lightweight?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 23, 2007 04:15 AM
Only the first one does. Yet it still serves as a reference.

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Re:Lightweight?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 21, 2007 09:27 AM
not false,
a gtk based desktop burn approximativly 160mo (for gnome) and 120mo (Xfce4.4), when the qt baased desktop burn less than 90mo af ram on my old desktop.

other thing : you could see here some Xfce4.4 with Metisse 'ihm' :
<a href="http://club.mandriva.com/xwiki/bin/download/bubar/ReGenesis/metisse-xfce2.png" title="mandriva.com">http://club.mandriva.com/xwiki/bin/download/bubar<nobr>/<wbr></nobr> ReGenesis/metisse-xfce2.png</a mandriva.com>
<a href="http://club.mandriva.com/xwiki/bin/download/bubar/ReGenesis/metisse-xfce5.png" title="mandriva.com">http://club.mandriva.com/xwiki/bin/download/bubar<nobr>/<wbr></nobr> ReGenesis/metisse-xfce5.png</a mandriva.com>
<a href="http://club.mandriva.com/xwiki/bin/download/bubar/ReGenesis/metisse-xfce6.png" title="mandriva.com">http://club.mandriva.com/xwiki/bin/download/bubar<nobr>/<wbr></nobr> ReGenesis/metisse-xfce6.png</a mandriva.com>

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Re:Lightweight?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 21, 2007 11:55 AM

I don't see the same thing on any of the systems I work with. Xfce, when it starts, uses about 96-102 megs of RAM. I do not use Compiz/Beryl, nor the Xfce compositor. Aside from Glipper I do not start any background services that aren't started as daemons outside of X. Compared to this, the most basic KDE startup I could get used about 106 megs.


I think what you are getting at is KDE, not QT. KDE shares libraries more efficiently than Gnome-based applications do. But that is meaningless once you start using OpenOffice, Firefox, or anything non-QT/KDE in KDE.
I've found that when I mix QT/KDE with GTK/Gnome applications, Xfce wins over both, just slightly, maybe on the order of 10-30 megs.


Of course, Fluxbox, PekWM, and many others are less hoggish. FLTK and Enlightenment are two I have not tried in a while.. I'd like to hear about how they compare to Xfce in this regard.

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Re:Lightweight?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 21, 2007 10:27 AM
Dude, man. What 'choo been schmokin' and where can I get some. You are definitely on a serious trip.

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Nominated for silliest comment on Linux.com

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 21, 2007 03:24 PM

XFCE can't be lightweight, it uses GTK+.


Translation: "I have an irrational prejudice of some kind against GTK+."

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Re:Nominated for silliest comment on Linux.com

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 23, 2007 04:23 AM
You can't deny GTK+ is way too bloated and limited in comparison with QT.

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Re:Nominated for silliest comment on Linux.com

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 23, 2007 10:46 AM
I can deny it and I will. Qt is far more than a widget library. It's an application framework. A better comparison would be to compare Qt to Gtk plus libgnome, libghttp, etc. Being big and feature-full isn't a bad thing. Gtk is a rather extensive widget set that is moving towards becoming an application framework. In fact Gnome is slowly moving the more useful and generic things into gtk where they belong. That will make the Gnome/Gtk split a bit more comparable to how KDE/Qt is split. As it stands right now, many parts of GTK are lighter and faster than Qt. Other are not. Oddly enough, GTK's big advantage is that it's written in plain old C. This means it's extremely easy and efficient to bind it to any high-level programming language like C++, C#, Java, Python, etc. Qt also has these bindings but they are bindings on the C Qt bindings, which are thunks around the C++ API.

Currently, though, I base my choice of GTK on a couple of factors. One is it's easy to program for. Python with GTK rocks! The other reason is that I just like the look and feel of GTK way better. Qt feels clunky somehow. Can't explain it.

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Re:Nominated for silliest comment on Linux.com

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 24, 2007 11:32 PM
I completely Agree GTK is better

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Re:Lightweight?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on May 22, 2007 02:20 AM
QT is lightweight? Tell me then why KDE is a massive bloated pig? Not only that, but QT is hideous - apps written in QT look like they were designed at the Krusty the Klown school of UI design.

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The past and future of XFCE

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 21, 2007 12:33 AM
The last 2 minor releases have really been the only 2 "everyday usable" versions. The latest is great however! I've used it on older hardware for many years, but with the latest improvements, I'd consider it for new hardware too!

As with anything, as software matures it ALWAYS gets more and more bulky. I only wonder how much longer XFCE will be considered a lightweight desktop.

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Re:The past and future of XFCE

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 21, 2007 08:35 AM
I wonder too. At least we now seem to be having an additional<nobr> <wbr></nobr>/usr/libexec/gam_server and some gnome deps. Could just be me though, but still, it scares.

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Re:The past and future of XFCE

Posted by: Administrator on February 21, 2007 10:24 AM
That's not a factor of Xfce. Either you enabled the GNOME startup thingy or you're running some GNOME app.

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Re:The past and future of XFCE

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 21, 2007 04:25 PM

as software matures it ALWAYS gets more and more bulky.


I'd distinguish 2 different things here:


  1. It adds functionality: settings manager, file manager

  2. It adds eye candy: e.g. window shadows


Also I'd distinguish between maturing, which to me is adding functionality, and ageing, which is adding junk. Of course XFCE is doing both at the same time.


But those window shadows suggest to me that the project is starting to lose its way.

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Re:The past and future of XFCE

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 22, 2007 03:38 AM
One man's functionality is another man's junk, and vice versa. Who decides? (besides ME!)

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Screenshot

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 21, 2007 12:35 PM
Yeah, that screenshot really looks like shit, great idea with transparency everywhere!! Hitech! Innovative and awesome looking, or not.

Vistas transparency glass effects looks like shit aswell.<nobr> <wbr></nobr>// dospam@gmail.com

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To reload Icons on Desktop simply use F5 key

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 21, 2007 08:56 PM
To reload Icons on Desktop simply use F5 key

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Linux Desktops--Suffer From Apple-itis!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 22, 2007 02:54 AM
Why? Why, do all GTK based desktops seem to suffer from Apple--Envy? And, insist on screwing around with task-bar size--number, and placement.
Windows users (90%+ of the market)are used to, and comfortable with, "ONE" full-width task-bar at the bottom of the screen. Anything else confuses them and makes them uncomfortable. No reasonable debate to the contrary has any credible merit.

If re-using code (don't re-invent the wheel)is a logical and efficient means of developing software, then wouldn't re-using end users previously learned knowledge and habits, be a logical and efficient means of developing GUI's?

Innovation is great, but if you want to gain new/more users more quickly, then first imitate and emulate to gain acceptance, then innovate slowly over time to allow users to become acclimated to the incremental changes.

Not withstanding the obvious DOS kernel deficiencies, there is yet to be made, a Linux desktop that can come close to matching the basic/core functionality/usability of even a Windows 95 classic desktop that has been upgraded with the active desktop that was part of Internet Explorer 4. Certainly nothing (full GUI desktop)that can run on those resources.

LOSE! The screwy task-bar ideas! Good Grief!

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Re:Linux Desktops--Suffer From Apple-itis!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 22, 2007 03:07 PM
What makes you think that acquiring users is a goal? Most open source developers write stuff that they want to use. The default setup of Xfce is nothing more than the way Xfce devs like it. If anyone else likes it -- great! If not, tough shit.

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Then Take Down Your "DONATE" Button!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 22, 2007 11:26 PM
If all you self-important (jerk-off) developers are simply scratching your itches, and tough-shit!--as you say--to everyone else? Then take down your "donate" Pay-Pal links from your web pages. Stop soliciting funds from others to scratch your itches. Hippocrates!

The Pay-Pal link implies a work-for-hire relationship of sorts, one that you developers--wanting it both ways--deny exists whenever your feet are held to the fire.

You all soak up affirmative comments like biscuits take up gravy, then whip out the "scratch-n-sniff" (we're scratching OUR itch so have a sniff of OUR ASSES if you don't whole heartedly approve) defense, whenever someone is less than overjoyed with your work.

People pay you to scratch their itches, NOT Yours!!

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Re:Then Take Down Your "DONATE" Button!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 26, 2007 06:44 AM
I disagree.

I am not a coder nor do I use Xfce (although I've tried). I do NOT consider a simple "donate" button an implication of work for hire. It is simply a request/opportunity to contribute money since I cannot contribute code.

NTP

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Re:Linux Desktops--Suffer From Apple-itis!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 22, 2007 10:10 PM
Number one, Xfce isn't trying to emulate Windows or OSX because it doesn't have to. It lets you change your taskbars/panels very easily, unlike Windows or OSX. If "Joe Average" is upset by this, there is nothing stopping a distribution from creating a Windows-like layout.

Is Xfce supposed to be in the business of emulating familar-yet-poor UI schemes, or trying to improve them?

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Re:Linux Desktops--Suffer From Apple-itis!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 22, 2007 10:15 PM
Number two, Xfce wants to have its own unique "flavor". Nothing wrong with that. If Apple wanted to they would have used the Windows-style model, but they realised that they could improve on it. Lots of Apple fans and converts have agreed, and now they have a lot of mindshare. People who see a Dock, Expose-style effects, etc think "Apple". People who see a single taskbar at the bottom of the screen think "Windows". Xfce wants people to think "Xfce", not "Windows" or "Apple".

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Can "Joe Average" make the changes themselves?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 23, 2007 12:26 AM
This Windows-like layout that the distro's can create?
Ever consider making it an option that is available, and easily selectable for use by any user? Something that is pre-configured, and doesn't require any configuration file editing by the end-user.

RE: Poor UI schemes? That's a laugh! Look at your/Apple's DOCK! How much more inefficient a use of pixels could it possibly get? It's either in the way, or it is a poor use of space. What should we do with the useless--wasted space left on both sides of your precious DOCK? A potted plant in the unused space on the left side maybe? How about a cat-box in the wasted space on the right side. That way, your computer-pet has somewhere to go to relieve itself.

That would be an appropriate addition in this case, since the DOCK idea, however "stylish" you might think it is, is inefficient crap!

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Re:Linux Desktops--Suffer From Apple-itis!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 23, 2007 02:43 PM
XFce (about 1997) copied CDE (about 1990) which copied HP's OpenWave (about 1987). 20 years of precedent hardly constitutes innovation.

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Re:Linux Desktops--Suffer From Apple-itis!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on March 17, 2007 10:28 AM
Yes, Yes, everything is copied from Xerox or Amiga or something. whatever.

I run Linux on a PPC. It dual boots OSX. and I would use OSX if I could run XFCE or something similar on it. I feel a bit confined in both OSX and Windows.

I use XFCE. before that KDE or GNOME. Before that FVWM. Before that CDE or MWM. Before that MS Win 3.1.

GNOME and KDE have become too fat.
OSX interface is bit cluttered to me and limited. It does that mac thing where window menus are always top level. I'm sure this is great for lifelong mac users.
Windows interface is a lot cluttered and also limited.

In Linux, if you don't like the Desktop, Fine there are too many to choose from.
In OSX and Windows, if you don't like the Desktop, there is no real choice other than wait for the next version which has more useless eye candy.

You know, if Windows or ReactOS had XFCE and a real terminal program, I could use it without feeling trapped.
OSX actually has a Terminal program that works. If it only had a useful/simple Desktop, and they would just switch to use Firefox, then I would look at it again.

I am actually sending this on OSX, which I use rarely, but I booted into it for an odd reason, and imediately drawn to search online for "OSX XFCE", only to find this stupid thread.

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Lets talk about performance

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 28, 2007 11:29 PM
I have had a good time reading the article, and the comments posted above. And i think some things need a bit of clarification.

First of all, the size of libgtk (2.10.6) is 3.4MB.
Add glib-2 to that (2.12.4) which is 600KB.

Of libqt_mt (3.3.7) this is 7.2MB.

So either toolkit is just a small thing compared to anything else.

It is not important if the developer itself does not care about memory-usage and speed.



If any of you people asking how long Xfce will keep it's light-weight character had taken a look on the xfce4-dev mailing-list archives, you would have seen that before any feature is added the first question asked is 'can it be done the right way?.

This is also the main reason there are so little releases of Xfce. (the time between 4.2.0 and 4.4.0 was over 2 years) A feature will only be implemented if it can be done neatly.



About the topic itself:

The reason xfdesktop behaved weird was because D-BUS support was not enabled. If you press F5 / Ctrl-R you can force an update.

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