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The Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment: A return to basics

By Bruce Byfield on December 04, 2007 (4:00:00 PM)

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The Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment (LXDE) resembles a classic Unix project -- it's partly constructed out of pre-existing programs, its emphasis is on speed, and its configuration requires taking time in a text editor. Even the relatively low quality of fonts on the desktop makes it feel like a vintage program. The result is a desktop environment that is short on innovation, but performs well on low-end machines, and blazingly fast on recent ones.

Rather than reinvent the desktop, LXDE relies by default on the window manager IceWM, the file manager PCManFM, and the image viewer GPicView. Each of these programs is known for speed, especially IceWM, which is frequently used by itself on low-end systems. However, you can also configure LXDE to use other window managers, if you choose.

Only three elements of LXDE are unique: LXPanel, LXSession, and LXMusic, the first and, so far, only utility for the desktop. These programs, according to the project's Web page, are not compliant with the standards released by FreeDesktop.org, but are usable in any graphical environment, which gives you the chance to try LXPanel and LXMusic without installing the rest of LXDE.

An optional feature is the LXIce theme for IceWM, which comes in a bzipped file.

You can download all of LXDE's components from the project's site, either as source code or as .DEB packages for Debian and Ubuntu. However, unlike other recent programs, installing the packages is only the beginning for LXDE. That will hardly be surprising news to anyone familiar with IceWM, but LXDE adds additional configuration requirements of its own.

Configuring LXDE

To start with, if you are running GNOME, you will find that LXDE will automatically use its desktop, requiring you to move the Desktop folder from your home directory if you want a clean start. The first time you log in, you may also receive a notice that you need to create a file in your home directory called .gtkrc-2.0 that includes the line gtkicon-theme="theme name" in order to set a default icon theme.

For a graphical interface, LXDE relies heavily on configuration files. Before you use LXDE, you may want to edit IceWM's global settings in either /usr/local/share/icewm or /etc/X11/icewm (depending on where your distribution installs the directory). Alternatively, you can create a folder in your home directory modeled on the global setting folder with files for the menu, programs, and toolbar. However, if you do create preference files for the current user account, be prepared to spend some time researching settings.

Furthermore, if you want the LXIce theme, you need to extract the directory in the downloaded archive to /usr/share/icewm/themes. Then you must set IceWM to use the theme, either by creating a file in your home directory called /.icewm/theme with the line theme=LXDE/default.theme, or by setting the preferences from PCManFM, which manages the LXDE desktop in much the same way that Nautilus manages GNOME. Moreover, the first time you try to start a terminal from PCManFM, you will find that you need to define which of the terminals installed on your system to open by default.

At this point, you may start thinking that, for a graphical environment, LXDE is overly reliant on configuration files. Some of the roughness may be due to the fact that LXDE's components are all in .1 or .2 releases, but the reliance on IceWM suggests that manual editing is more LXDE's underlying philosophy than an indication of its early development stage. For those used to desktops like KDE or GNOME, the question may quickly become: Is LXDE worth the effort?

A matter of what's important

The answer depends on what you expect in a desktop. Like most other desktops, LXDE supports a panel, menu, and multiple workspaces. However, the degree of customization is limited. The panel, for instance, is unconfigurable from the default, and is difficult to edit from the config file without a sample or instructions. Similarly, while you can choose an image for wallpaper, LXDE simply displays it across the whole of the desktop, giving you no options to tile or center it.

Nor are there any major customizations. LXMusic simply plays music, making it a distinctly low-end alternative to a multi-featured program like Amarok. In much the same way, the features of PCManFM and GPicView are representative of their types of applications without boasting anything unique. And the most that the default LXPanel can muster in terms of originality is an icon to minimize or shade all the open windows on the desktop. To some extent, LXDE resembles one of the earlier versions of Xfce, before it struck its current balance between being lightweight and customizable.

For those who want their desktop ready to run on installation or full of new features, LXDE has little to offer. However, for those for whom speed is a virtue, the prospect is completely the reverse. The project page claims to have run LXDE on a 266MHz Pentium II with 192 megabytes of RAM with "moderate-fast" results, and in QEMU emulation on a 1.6GHz AMD Athlon with 128 megabytes of RAM with "fast" results. From its performance on a three-month-old computer of mine, I can easily believe the results. From my experiments, LXDE even seems to run GNOME and KDE programs faster than those desktops can.

In many senses, you can call LXDE a back-to-basics desktop. These days, that's an unusual approach; it will be interesting to see what the project does in subsequent releases.

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

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on The Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment: A return to basics

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The Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment: A return to basics

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 163.192.21.43] on December 04, 2007 04:36 PM
What? Who wrote this piece of crap comment system?
[Modified by: Anonymous on December 05, 2007 12:21 AM]

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Re: The Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment: A return to basics

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 141.123.223.100] on December 04, 2007 05:59 PM
And, please make sure that it's not a 20M 1920x1400 gif, too. I hate it when some moron writes a nifty new tray app and then post a screenshot of their entire desktop just to show what it looks like in the tray.

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The Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment: A return to basics

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 68.76.215.54] on December 04, 2007 04:36 PM
Can this thing do transparency and anti-aliasing? They should add that in as well as accelerated 3D.

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The Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment: A return to basics

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 24.248.89.66] on December 04, 2007 04:55 PM
awesome, I'd like to see more articles on making your own X Windows interfaces using the available software

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The Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment: A return to basics

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 65.37.79.132] on December 04, 2007 05:00 PM
.
[Modified by: Anonymous on December 04, 2007 09:24 PM]

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_A return to basics_

Posted by: Michael Shigorin on December 04, 2007 08:54 PM
NOEH. If you happen to only have heard of gnome and kde, then you still might learn that icewm is mature project which is very much suitable for semi-kiosk setups.


(I personally use WindowMaker -- on modern hardware too -- but moved there exactly from IceWM and still use it for some projects)

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The Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment: A return to basics

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 67.152.160.2] on December 04, 2007 06:53 PM
>screenshot of a complete desktop would be nice...
ANY images on Linux.com would be nice...

>Can this thing do transparency and anti-aliasing? They should add that in as well as accelerated 3D.
Isn't it a lightweight desktop? Those features would defeat the purpose, I believe...

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The Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment: A return to basics

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 64.112.212.188] on December 04, 2007 07:00 PM
Actually, I really like Linux projects where the attempt is made to do more with less, or use low resources to the fullest potential. It will be interesting where this project goes as it gets closer to 1.0 release. If distros like Puppy or DSL make it their default, I'm sure that would show some success in reaching their goals too.

Personally, I believe I will stick with my own rolled combinations like ion as my WM or fluxbox with add ons to give me icons on the screen or solutions rolled by the distros like the DSL and Puppy projects that give you lightweight desktops with a good amount of function without the bloat.

Open source offers so many choices, I have been able to find solutions for a multitude of tasks, LXDE might offer another great choice for that special solution I need some day.

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The Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment: A return to basics

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 81.178.106.171] on December 04, 2007 07:04 PM
Why??? Fluxbox is fast and looks great. And if you want a proper desktop environment which supports compositing (Compiz-Fusion) just use XFCE.

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Re: The Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment: A return to basics

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 76.118.229.172] on December 04, 2007 08:37 PM
Fluxbox is a window manager, it doesn't give a substantial environment. XFCE is much heavier than this (though lighter than gnome).

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The Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment: A return to basics

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 76.118.229.172] on December 04, 2007 08:33 PM
The website actual makes a point of saying that they *are* compliant to freedesktop.org standards. Why would you say that they aren't?

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The Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment: A return to basics

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 129.33.49.251] on December 04, 2007 09:06 PM
Why would you even bother writing an article on something this dead? The LXDE site is still up, but the link to the "Demo" is dead and has been that way for months. If the project isn't dead they need to fix or remove that link.
[Modified by: Anonymous on December 04, 2007 09:08 PM]

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Re: The Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment: A return to basics

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 76.118.229.172] on December 04, 2007 09:19 PM
Your right, all but one of the programs in subversion haven't been touched in 12 months. This isn't the best journalism I've ever seen Bruce.

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the unknown alternatives

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 128.197.11.30] on December 04, 2007 11:19 PM
after one, maybe two years of using linux i switched to openbox..
basicly because i didnt know about the alternatives like pekwm, fluxbox and whatNot...
its just a matter of taste.. the desktop environment or window manager doesnt restrict from using you any programs you want to use..
thanks for pointing this out !
[Modified by: Anonymous on December 05, 2007 12:50 PM]

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The Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment: A return to basics

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 201.221.37.172] on December 05, 2007 12:49 PM
Enlightenment is being used in the new gPC, so it couldn't very dead, could it? The problem is that the real link should be to http://www.enlightenment.org where you find that the latest version is from October 2007. How was this website forgotten in such an article?

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Anybody can edit posts?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 201.221.37.172] on December 05, 2007 12:51 PM
Hey, an "Anonymous" message can be modified by any anonymous poster?! That sucks!!!

Indeed, I have to add... OTOH, being able to change one's own messages -- even when anonymous -- is a major plus... that is, until someone messes up with this comment of mine...

[Modified by: Anonymous on December 05, 2007 12:52 PM]

[Modified by: Anonymous on December 07, 2007 12:01 PM]

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The Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment: A return to basics

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 152.14.15.47] on December 05, 2007 05:37 PM
!?&*% distribution-dependencies!



Their "./configure" uses "pkg-config" in non-portable, distribution-dependent ways:
it seems to be dependent upon particular RedHat package-names, and does not work witheven slight variations -- in particular, does not work with the GTK package names that Mandriva uses.

The alternatives are supposed to be there according to "./configure --he;lp", but are not documented, and the obvious guesses do not work.



And there uis no feedback nor bug-reporting mechanism on the LXDE web site at all!!

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The Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment: A return to basics

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 66.53.220.221] on December 07, 2007 01:16 PM
LXDE is a good concept, but somebody else needs to take over its development. I don't know if the project even has a maintainer any more.

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The Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment: A return to basics

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 122.164.120.74] on December 09, 2007 04:42 AM
I seem to recall that this was the stated purpose of XFCE a few years back...

Are we doomed to repeat this cycle every three versions of a DE?

-XFCE is not an X server, it's a window manager.

-wow, does this comment system actually let me modify another anonymous person's message?
[Modified by: Anonymous on December 09, 2007 12:06 PM]

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The Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment: A return to basics

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 163.29.223.14] on January 22, 2008 04:11 PM
The project is not dead, but the lead developer and founder of the project is very busy recently.
Here is a letter from him.
http://pcmanfm.sourceforge.net/plan.html

BTW, LXPanel can be configured in the config dialog. All applet are plugins, and can be config through GUI.
No config file editing is needed, actually.

Besides, this desktop is very suitable for EeePC or gOS, not only the old machines.

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