Desktop manager: XFCE4

Every now and then I get the urge to try a different desktop manager. Normally I use KDE, but it puts a pretty heavy load on my machine, chews up memory and soon runs into ‘swap land’. However, I’ve been using KDE for years, so I’ve got it working how I want it to. But, sometimes the urge strikes to try something else, and this time I went for XFCE4, which is fast approaching V4.4.

If you’ve ever tried changing desktop managers, you’ll know that it’s very easy to do, but also quite tricky to get working the way you work. The Open Source world has been tackling this problem by creating standards under which different desktops can share information, so that, for instance, menus that are setup under one will still be there with another manager. The main site for this is freedesktop.org

So, the first thing for an alternative desktop is that is complies with the freedesktop recommendations, which XFCE4 does do.

Secondly, it needs to take fewer resources than KDE (i.e. a light weight desktop manager) and here also XFCE4 scores well. KDE typically uses about 500Mb on startup, while XFCE4 uses about 170Mb. A large difference. To be fair, I’m probably loading some things in KDE which I’m not in XFCE4, but not a lot. After starting either I’m in a position to start working.

Third, I like to have some things in the task bar, such as the answering machine, a clipboard manager, some application shortcuts, and here XFCE4 also obliges. It can even ‘swallow’ KDE apps seamlessly and have them appear as they would in KDE.

Fourth, it needs to be operated entirely by keyboard. I do have a ‘pointing device’ (a tablet) but I really prefer to navigate and work with my hands on the keyboard.

Fifth, it should look pretty! :)

Over the years I’ve looked at quite a few desktop managers. Here are a few notes and comments on those that I remember. Keep in mind that some of these I haven’t looked at in a while.

  • WindowMaker - from GNU is a lightweight but very functional desktop. In fact, I run this on a headless server and use VNC to view the desktop and work on that. The graphics are simple enough that it is ideal for a remote desktop. Plus I don’t need to install any extra libraries on the server, which simplifies matters a lot. There are also a nice range of applets (or ‘Dockapps’ as they call them).
  • Fluxbox - one of the offshoots of Blackbox, this was at one time, my favourite alternative window manager. For some reason it faded off of my system and I didn’t pick it up again. I can’t remember why… it had some interesting features like window tabs, the slit box and a powerful key stroke manager.
  • Ratpoison - say goodbye to the rodent! This is the ultimate lightweight, non-graphical, non-mouse window manager. Once you’ve got used to it, a powerful beast… but a little too far out for me. A great idea though and very interesting to spend some time setting it up and using it.
  • Gnome - given the name of this website, you would imagine that I’d be a die-hard Gnome user, instead of using KDE. But this site was named long before Gnome came into being and, to be honest, I did spend quite some time trying to use Gnome before giving up and deciding that KDE was more usable. To be fair, this was many years ago before either had really matured and quite likely if I was to settle down and setup Gnome properly, I’d find it quite usable. But I don’t have time and resource wise, it seems to be just as heavy as KDE.

The interesting thing about playing around with different desktops is that I can actually start up almost any of them and get to work immediately. All the programs function as they should and this is one of the powerful aspects of Linux and the X-Server system that it uses. There is almost a complete decoupling of function and display. There are differences in how minimized apps are displayed or handled, menu handling may be different, but the basic functionality is the same.

BTW, the version of XFCE4 I’m currently using is pulled straight from the subversion repository and seems perfectly stable. The final release, in the next weeks, should be a powerful yet lightweight desktop manager.