One of the things that makes a desktop Linux system so nifty is its almost limitless configurability. As Linux converts and regular readers of this column know, just one of the things a Linux user gets to choose is what sort of interface they will see when their machine starts up. The two major desktop environments are KDE and Gnome, and if I had to describe each one in a nutshell, I'd do so like this:
KDE was born in Europe, where the bulk of its development continues. Its approach more or less mimics Windows: In its default setup, a panel that runs along the bottom of the screen contains a start menu at its left edge, a taskbar and application launchers in the middle, and a system tray and clock toward the right. The KDE Control Center presents enough tweakable options to keep a geek busy for days, perhaps weeks. File management and Web browsing are both handled by Konqueror, which is both powerful and familiar for folks migrating from Windows.
The stock Xfce desktop, with an Xffm file management window, the Desktop menu, and two settings dialog boxes open.
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Gnome got its start in the Americas, and development remains centered here. In its default configuration, Gnome resembles the classic Mac OS (I'm talking about the days before OS X here). There's a menu bar atop the screen from which applications are launched; a clock and other applets often live in this bar, too. A simple taskbar and system tray grace the bottom of the screen. The Gnome Settings dialog boxes don't offer very many options for an interface junkie to play with: Since its 2.0 release, Gnome has strictly followed a mantra of "simpler is better." Nautilus, the Gnome file manager, does not usually handle Web browsing chores, and it defaults to a "spatial" metaphor that many Windows converts dislike.
The Gnome versus KDE choice is just that--a choice. I've been up front about my own personal bias: I find Gnome more pleasing to the eye and more intuitive to use, especially for folks who don't "get" computers to begin with. But like I said, this is just my opinion. There are at least three companies out there--Linspire, Lycoris, and Xandros--that think KDE is better suited to Linux newcomers; their distributions don't offer the Gnome desktop at all.
If there's a problem with either of these desktop environments, it's this: They're big. There's a lot of code involved in presenting the user a cohesive, full-featured interface that includes all the bells and whistles we've come to expect. So KDE and Gnome take up a whole lot of space on your hard disk, and they consume a lot of memory when they crank themselves up. You won't notice their bulk on a speedy new machine; but on an older device like my trusty IBM Thinkpad, you might start thinking "bloatware" to yourself when you notice that it takes more than 10 seconds of hideous disk thrashing for your desktop to appear after you've logged in.
The Third Way: Xfce
In this context, I present this month's topic: an alternative desktop environment called Xfce. This interface has been in active development for many years; it's now up to version 4.2; and it's both attractive and lightweight, making it ideal for older machines. It also sports some extremely geeky features that power users will definitely enjoy, but that might make it a poor choice for neophytes. Let me first take you on a tour, and then I'll explain how you can hook yourself up with Xfce if you're already running Linux.
Click here to view full-size image. Xfce's logo is a spry little mouse (the rodent, not the peripheral), and if you've ever seen such a critter skitter across your kitchen floor, you know the sort of speed this is meant to call to mind. I mentioned the miserable startup time for Gnome on my Thinkpad--well over 10 seconds. In comparison, Xfce is up and running within about 2 seconds on the same machine. Click the screen shot to the right for a look at the desktop. Confounding all your expectations, there's a taskbar across the top of the screen. System tray icons appear at the extreme right. Along the bottom of the screen is a panel containing application launchers, a virtual desktop switcher, lock and logout buttons, and a clock.
You'll notice two things missing: desktop icons and a start menu. This is by design. Xfce does not support icons on the desktop at all, so if you're like me and are used to keeping your works-in-progress there, you're going to have to find a new place to stash things. (Your home directory will probably do just fine.) As for the start menu, you get something akin to that when you right-click anywhere on the empty desktop.
Click here to view full-size image. If you can't get over not having a start menu, you can add one. Xfce is very configurable. Its "Settings Manager" allows you to futz around with the taskbar, Xfce Panel, and desktop menus--and a whole lot more. Where KDE overwhelms you with options (many of which you'd never, ever touch) and Gnome comes up a bit short (leaving some power users exasperated), Xfce seems to be just about right.
Then there's Xfce's file manager, Xffm. This is one strange and powerful beast. It has two panes: The one on the left is a simple list view, while the right provides details such as file sizes, dates, and so forth. You can drill down through your files in either pane; they're not tied together like the left and right panes in Windows Explorer. A set of three icons in the top-right corner of an Xffm window control which panes are showing (left, right, or both); these icons, unfortunately, look so much like CD controls that I have to wonder what the developers were thinking.