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Building the lo-fat Linux desktop

By on September 25, 2002 (8:00:00 AM)

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- By John Murray -
Gnome and KDE are good-looking, feature-packed environments that are as easy to use as the desktop on that other OS, but they aren't the best choice for an older machine. Later versions especially can actually be quite sluggish unless you have some fairly recent hardware to run them. That doesn't mean you're stuck with a text-only console though, as it's easy to set up a nice looking Linux desktop that has plenty of speed on something like an early Pentium with 32megs of RAM.

So a speedy desktop is largely just a matter of using a window manager and applications that suits your hardware. And by the way, just because you don't use the KDE or Gnome desktop environments doesn't mean you shouldn't install them. KDE and Gnome apps will run quite well under a lightweight window manager, so if you have the disk space, I recommend installing both. Listed below are some suggestions for the type of apps. that most people use everyday, all of which work nicely on my 233/64 box (and most of this stuff should be fine with just 32megs of RAM). Keep in mind that these suggestions are only my own personal preferences; they certainly aren't the only way to do things.

The Selection Criteria:

  • Performance - It should be acceptably fast and stable on older hardware
  • Graphical Interface - most newbies and non-geeks prefer this to the command line
  • Functionality - It should do everything that normal users (whatever they are) expect of that type of app.
  • Ease of Installation - It should be reasonably simple to install, without needing kernel recompilation and without too many obscure dependencies.
  • Ease of Configuration - You shouldn't need to be a vi or scripting guru to knock it into shape
  • Ease of Use - It should be reasonably easy to learn the usage.
The ease of use bit was simple to test - my wife and kids share my computer but are definitely not geeks. If they were able to use a newly installed program without swearing at it or calling for assistance it was deemed to have passed the ease-of-use test :-)

Where to Get Packages

You'll find a lot of this stuff is included on the installation cd's of most distro's, or you can follow the links. Wherever possible, these point to the project's homepage, or else to rpmfind's download site. If you're using something other than a RedHat style distro, you may have to backtrack a bit from the rpmfind sites to get the right version.

The Window Manager

There are several good, lightweight window managers available, my favourite being IceWm . As well as having a small memory footprint, IceWm can be made to look quite good with wallpapers and themes . It also has that familiar Win95 layout with the corner start button, menus, toolbar and so on.

Configuring IceWm is extremely easy, and while there are graphical tools available for this, it's just as easy to edit its configuration files manually. The global configuration files are usually in /usr/X11R6/lib/X11/icewm/ and are named preferences , menu and toolbar . Make a hidden folder called .icewm in your home directory and copy these three files into it. Then it's just a matter of editing them to suit your own needs and tastes.

IceWm is included with many recent distros, and includes very good documentation in /usr/doc/icewm.

Another lightweight WM that is very popular is xfce , an exceptionally good looking and fast window manager that is worth a look.

The File Manager

Of the file managers I have tried I prefer XWC (X Windows Commander) because of its speed and again for its familiar interface. XWC is a clone of the Win95 style Explorer that supports drag'n'drop and file associations etc. Although it lacks many of the features of say, Nautilus or Konqueror, its got everything I need, without the bloat. Like IceWm, it is very easy to configure using the built in options menu or by editing the ~/.foxrc/XWC file. While I'd prefer something that doesn't look quite so Windows-like, XWC works very well and is pretty speedy. One thing to watch out for is the fact that XWC will always open at the last location it was used. If you last used XWC to browse a removable media (like /mnt/cdrom for example), and you are using supermount , there can be a delay starting XWC if there is no device currently mounted. XWC requires the fox libraries.

It appears XWC is no longer actively maintained, and is only available in RPM format. Its successor, foXcommander , is similar and is part of the foXdesktop project. It is available as source.

Another fast, good looking filer that is highly recommended is rox

Text Editors

While XWC comes with its own basic editor, I much prefer Nedit . Nedit is fairly small, fast and has lot's of useful features built in, including: syntax highlighting, search and replace, macro support, shell access and much more. The built in help is very good as well. I know some people get passionate about their editors ( especially the vi crowd ), but if you want a good WYSIWYG style editor, Nedit is very nice indeed.

Internet Stuff

Manually configuring PPP is a pain, especially compared to kppp . Setting up kppp can be done in seconds, and this app. alone makes installing KDE worthwhile.

Hopefully, Linux users will soon have browsers that beat the performance of those on other platforms. In the meantime, Netscape 4.7x is probably the best all-round graphical browser for use on a 32meg machine. While it can be a bit wobbly at times, it handles java/javascript reasonably well, and also works with the more common plug-ins. You'll need to click on Edit > Preferences to play with the font settings (and set your fonts to override the document-specified font) to make it look good. If you have 64meg or more, you might want to try Mozilla or one of its descendants ( Galeon seems popular). These sometimes have more features and are more stable than Netscape 4.7x, but are probably no faster. Don't let the vomitous Netscape 6.0 put you off trying later versions like 6.1 or 6.2 that are generally very good, stable browsers, if a bit big and slow. Lots of people like opera , though its interface takes some getting used to. I've been using it a lot lately, and it has been quite fast and stable.

There is also a browser called Dillo that is worth installing. Dillo is extremely fast, and quite good looking as well. Still under development, it doesn't yet handle frames, java or javascript, so you probably won't be able to do your online banking with it. It's brilliant for reading local html files (like helpfiles and /usr/doc/*html stuff). I use Opera for internet work, and Dillo for local files.

As for email, Netscape and Mozilla both have reasonable email clients built in, though it's a pain waiting for them to load just to read your email. A lot of people recommended Sylpheed , and it is now what I use. Sylpheed is very fast, and has a nice clear interface. It is also a basic newsreader. Netscape 4.7x's newsreader is pretty ordinary, so you might want to try Pan , a Gnome news app. capable of handling binary attachments.

Another useful utility is tnef. It was designed to unpack those annoying "ms-tnef" MIME attachments that are commonly sent from Outlook and Exchange mail servers. Although it's a command line tool, it's easy to use and works well.

I know there are several graphical ftp clients, and I did play briefly with gFTP (which ran fine), but I can't really recommend anything else as I still prefer the command-line ncftp.

Graphics Apps

I use xli (formerly xloadimage) as my default image viewer. It's quick, and I like the way I can directly scroll big images with the mouse, though ee (Electric Eyes) is nice as well. Both ee and xv allow browsing through thumbnails of images, as well as simple manipulations. While the GIMP couldn't really be described as lightweight, its feature set make it a must on any Linux desktop, and it runs OK on a 32meg box.

Music and Video

XMMS is a very popular WinAmp clone that can play mp3,wav and cdr files etc. It also supports skins, including WinAmp skins. As for video mpegs, I use mtvp as the default player. It's a free player that's part of the mtv package and works very well on lower end machines. XAnim plays .mov and .avi files, among other things, but isn't very good at mpegs. And if you are reading this, you probably don't have enough computing horsepower to play DVD's. Lots of people have recommended MPlayer to me, and it really is an impressive piece of work. It plays many different formats well, and is quite quick. The only disadvantage is that is must be compiled from source, and this might discourage some newbies from trying it, though on my box at least, it built easily.

There are also plenty of graphical front ends around for cd recording software. I have played around with the very popular xcdroast , but mainly I still use command line tools like cdrecord, mpg123, bladeenc etc. Again, let me know if you have recommendations.

Office Type Stuff

Word Processing-There are plenty to choose from here. If all you need is a basic word processor, go with AbiWord . While it can import simple .doc files OK, it is limited to producing basic documents that don't contain tables etc. Despite the limitations, AbiWord is a fast and useful program. KWord is the KDE project's word processor, and it looks and works very well, however it has limited compatability with MS .doc files at present. I use ApplixWords , see the section on Office Suites for more. And Corel's WordPerfect seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth... While it's not really a word processor, Netscape Composer can do a pretty good job of producing printed documents. It can do tables, embed images and links as well as spell check. Plus the html output is readable on just about anything, though obviously importing .doc files is out of the question. Keep Composer in mind if you just want to write the occasional letter without installing a full-blown WP program.

Spreadsheets-It's hard to recommend a particular spreadsheet as different user's needs vary so widely. While I use the ApplixWare spreadsheet, Gnumeric is another fairly mature app. that meets my admittedly modest needs easily, and seems to handle Excel files well. KSpread , like KWord, also runs well enough but doesn't completely work with Microsoft formats just yet. Read the section below for more...

Office Suites- These usually include a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation builder, graphics/drawing tools etc. Despite the fact that it's a non-free, commercial app. ApplixWare gets my vote as favourite office suite. Native to Linux, Applix runs well, and has more than enough features to meet my needs. Both the word processor and the spreadsheet seem to handle most MSOffice formats, and the documentation is very good. Worth paying for in my opinion.
The KOffice suite is a good looking KDE2 suite that is only let down by its incompatability with MSOffice files, however for some people this won't be a problem, and hopefully this issue will be soon overcome by the KOffice developers.
StarOffice is probably the most popular Linux suite, but frankly I can't stand it. I especially dislike the monolithic desktop design, and even on a powerful machine it takes forever to load. However it does have lots of features, it's free for personal use, and MSOffice compatability is very good, so if you have heavy-duty requirements, you might be stuck with it. Upcoming versions, as well as close relative OpenOffice , do away with the irritating integral desktop, but don't seem to be any quicker.


The table below shows the approximate startup times for some of the software mentioned above. These times were measured on a 233 mHz AMD with 64meg of RAM and Linux 2.2, using the highly unscientific method of clicking on the button and then counting the delay using the toolbar clock. Of course, a calendar might be more appropriate for timing Star/Open Office...The figures are obviously only rough approximations in view of the measurement technique, but they do give a good indication of just how responsive an old Linux box can be.
Program First Startup Subsequent Starts
XWindowsCommander 1 sec 0.5 sec
Nedit 2 secs 1.5 sec
Netscape 4.77 9 secs 4 secs
Dillo 1 sec 0.5 sec
Sylpheed 1.5 sec 1 sec
xli (XLoadImage) <1 sec 0.5 sec
XMMS 3 sec 2.5 sec
mtvp 1 sec 0.5 sec
ApplixWords 6 secs 4 secs
AbiWord 2.5 secs 2 secs


Terminal Emulators- rxvt has a combination of features and speed that make it my favourite. Plus you can customise its appearance if you are into that sort of thing. An even lighter alternative is aterm.

Screen Savers are probably more of a nicety than a necessity. Xscreensaver works very well with lightweight window managers and is easy to set up. It runs a randomly picked screensaver after a user-set period, and continues to change it at pre-set intervals. Run xscreensaver-demo to set the preferences, or see the man pages for more details. The easiest way to start xscreensaver automatically at login is by adding the xscreensaver & command to your window manager's startup script, eg. /usr/X11R6/bin/icewm.

TrueType Fonts are no longer a big deal to set up. Some distros (such as Mandrake 7.2 and later) include a tool for utilising TrueType fonts, even those installed on a Windows partition. This can make a big difference to the appearance to of apps; Netscape in particular. Mandrake's tool is called Drakfont, and is extremely easy to use.

Unnecessary Services or daemons can slow your machine down and lengthen bootup times. Default installations often run all sorts of servers and other stuff that you don't need. As well as using resources, these things can increase your security risk. You can use a graphical tool like tksysv , or you can manually yank the unneeded stuff (usually from /etc/rc.d/rc5.d ), but be sure to make a backup first.

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on Building the lo-fat Linux desktop

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Just Asking

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on September 26, 2002 07:45 AM
Could you compare a PC that is a Pentium 166 with only 16 MB of memory. Has fast could that boot up with some legacy drivers. Because most third world countries still have a lkot of this kind of PC around.


Re:Try it with XFce

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on September 27, 2002 07:09 AM
Try it with PWM!


Lightweight Wm's

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on September 27, 2002 05:19 PM
I have been told that fluxbox is a new lightweight wm is this true and is it better than icewm??


Re:Lightweight Wm's

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on September 28, 2002 09:27 AM
Actually I've been told that Icecream is better than icewm...


Finally trying out Linux

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on September 28, 2002 12:16 AM
I have, through the magic of government surplus, acquired an IBM 600 laptop with only a P133 processor and 4GB hard drive, but with 256MB of RAM. This is obviously different from most systems described in articles I read on using "older" PCs due to the large amount of memory compared to the processor. The laptop is currently running Windows 2000 Pro with pretty much no problems at all besides slow booting, and of course the normal Windows "features".

I have Red Hat 7.x software, but otherwise very little linux knowledge. I was wondering if this would make a good "first" Linux system, or if I would be better off just leaving Win2K on it and looking for a more powerful system for Linux conversion?

I would appreciate email responses if possible, as I dont get online much for checking these posts... Thanks...


OpenBSD runs well on low end PC's

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on September 28, 2002 06:27 PM
I use OpenBSD (with IceWM) on older hardware - it's a lot lighter than the Linux distro's I have tried (Peanut and Vectorlinux included).

Also thought I would mention Konq-e (konqueror embeded) as a nice lightweight ssl capable web browser.

n.b I use Debian SID + Windowmaker on my main box<nobr> <wbr></nobr>;)


Re:Try it with XFce

Posted by: Administrator on September 26, 2002 07:56 AM
You beat me to it! I was just going to post a comment about XFce. OC, if you really want a light window manager you should use twm.


Try it with XFce

Posted by: Administrator on September 26, 2002 07:47 AM
You might want to try building this with <A HREF="">XFce</a> instead of IceWM. XFce is not a light weight WM, it's a full desktop environment that has more features and power than GNOME or KDE yet is as light on system resources as IceWM. You'll get a boat load of power for no loss in performance.

FWLIW, I like IceWM. It's a very nice WM.


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