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A Nimble Linux Desktop

In addition to these three icons there are two toolbars: one horizontal, one vertical. I'm not sure what the functional distinction between these two is supposed to be--both of them contain a Print button, for example. Other buttons spawn typical commands: Cut, Copy, Paste, Run, Rename, Remove, and so on. Then there are some atypical buttons: Touch (a Unix-ism that means "update this file's last-modified date"), Symlink (another Unix-ism, somewhat akin to a Windows Shortcut), and Scramble (encrypt a file). Context menus provide access to additional commands, including CD burning.

The best thing about Xffm is its built-in Samba support, which makes connecting to a Windows network a snap. Xffm prompts you for your Windows user name and password as necessary to access network devices--something Gnome's file manager, Nautilus, often fails to do. Indeed, when I plugged my Thinkpad into the network at PC World HQ, Xffm could browse the network, but Nautilus, as always, could not.

The stock Xfce desktop, with an Xffm file management window, the Desktop menu, and two settings dialog boxes open. (PC World)

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I've neglected to mention that Xffm is fast. In fact, that's the thing that you really notice about every last Xfce component: It's all blindingly fast. Granted, drop-down menus and minimizing windows and such aren't animated; there's a distinct lack of eye candy here. Xfce keeps things very simple, stupid, letting your system remain nimble and lively, even if its hardware may be getting on in years.

Xfce Installation: Good Intentions, Mixed Results

A few Linux distributions ship with Xfce as an option, but none include the latest version as of yet. So you'll need to head to the Xfce site if you're interested in giving version 4.2 a spin. At the site, you'll find binary packages for some distributions. If your distribution isn't one of them, you're not out of luck; you just get to be a guinea pig.

I've mentioned previously that Linux is devoid of Setup.exe files for software installation. In nearly all cases, when you want to install new software on a Linux machine, you have a couple of options. You can feed a binary package (think of this as a Zip file with installation information bundled in) to your distribution's package manager. This is the easy method--easier, even, than following a Setup.exe wizard. The alternative is to compile the software from its source code, which is definitely not easy.

Xfce offers a new approach for folks who would otherwise have to compile from source code. The graphical installer available at the Xfce site is meant to behave just like a Setup.exe wizard; but behind the scenes, it's actually doing a complete compile-and-install. That sounds like a really great idea; too bad it's such a pain that only a seasoned Linux user is likely to get it up and running.

I first tried loading Xfce on my Mandrake machine. Binary packages were available for my version of Mandrake, so I just installed them and was off to the races. Then I turned to my test machine, which is currently running Novell Linux Desktop. No binary packages were available for NLD, so I downloaded the Xfce graphical installer.

Click here to view full-size image. The installer refused to run, complaining about missing system components. It took some trial and error to figure out exactly which Novell Linux packages needed to be installed before Xfce's installer would run. After about 20 minutes of messing around with the package management tool in YaST (NLD's system configuration tool), I finally got the Xfce installer to launch--at which point it complained about still more missing system components. I was able to install all the missing bits from binary packages on the Novell installation CDs, with the exception of a component called Dbh--this I had to download, compile, and install manually. Then and only then did the graphical installer actually do its thing. The thing-doing took a good half hour. Remember, this installer is not just copying files to their proper places: It is generating those files in the first place by compiling source code into binary code.

When the installation was complete, I logged out of my Gnome session and logged back in, this time selecting Xfce from the "Sessions" selector on the Novell log-in screen. I got a cryptic error about file permissions. I tried logging in as root, and that worked. So the graphical installer left things in a state where only root had access to Xfce. This problem is probably easy to solve, but if I'd taken the time to troubleshoot, you wouldn't be reading Free Agent on time this month. (Life would be so much better without deadlines.)

The bottom line is this: Xfce's graphical installer is a nice attempt at a universal installer, which is something you just don't see in Linux. Alas, the attempt falls short, due to the sheer amount of variation between the various distributions. The Xfce installer knows it cannot run when certain system components are missing, but it cannot know what package your distribution gets those components from, so it cannot install that package for you, or even tell you to go do it yourself. The installer knows when it has compiled everything and placed all its files in their proper places, but it cannot know for certain that everything is tweaked just right to work with your distribution; you could still hit trouble when you first try to log in, as I did.

So if you want to give Xfce a try, look for binary packages built for your Linux distribution, and give the graphical installer a go only if you have to.

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