Is Xfce a GNOME and Unity Replacement?

Wednesday May 30th 2012 by Bruce Byfield

The new Xfce just might be a refuge for users fleeing GNOME and Unity.

Xfce's first release in sixteen months comes at a critical time. After years of being a distant third among Linux desktops, in the last year Xfce has found a new popularity among those looking for alternatives to GNOME 3 and Ubuntu's Unity.

In fact, according to one survey, Xfce is now the second most popular desktop, and starting to crowd KDE -- at least among experienced users.

Under these circumstances, Xfce 4.10 might have been an ambitious release, full of new features and extras designed to attract new users. Instead, like earlier releases, the latest version of Xfce consists of a modest set of visible changes -- specifically, a few miscellaneous new features, some improvements to the panel, and some new configuration options -- that improve the desktop without visibly altering it to any great extent.

Xfce 4.10 is available as source code, and as experimental packages for many distributions, including Debian, and Ubuntu. Despite their newness, these packages were stable and trouble-free for me during testing, providing a desktop that seems a practical alternative for those who dislike the radical changes in other Linux desktops over the last few years.

A Miscellany of New Features

The new release's changes begin with the transfer of the once-local help files to an online wiki. The official explanation of this change is that it should ease maintenance and encourage contributions, but for most people, the change means a notice the first time they look for help, followed by checking a box to bypass the notice in the future.

Other changes amount to minor tinkering: The Thunar file manager now has the option for activating icons with a single click instead of two, a rewritten application finder that supports the writing of custom actions using regular expressions, support for thumbnails in mouseover previews of desktop icons, and the ability to remove a saved session in the session manager.

Slightly more significant changes are found on the panel. At a time when GNOME and Unity are de-emphasizing the panel, the latest version of Xfce assumes that its users take full advantage of the panel, allowing them to set up to six rows of icons and applets as opposed to the one that is typical of most Linux desktops.

The extra rows are especially useful if the panel is set to Deskbar mode. Designed like Unity's launcher for use with widescreen monitors, the Deskbar resembles a vertical panel, except that its contents are arranged horizontally. The result has the advantage of displaying the names of open windows in full, but wastes space unless you reduce the panel's length to about 45% of the available space.

By far the largest visible change is the new settings manager, which arranges functionality by such categories as Personal, Hardware, and System. Scouting among these categories, users will find a new MIME Type editor for adjusting the applications used to open different file types. The mouse support now includes Synaptics and Wacom touchpads, and support for GNOME and KDE apps can be enabled -- or disabled -- from Session and Startup, depending on whether convenience or speed is more important.

In the system editor -- a tool for advanced users -- editing a property no longer collapses the tree above it, and you can set up a desktop monitor for watching the behavior of a property. Most users will probably never use such monitors, but they are just about the only unique feature that Xfce 4.10 can boast.

That is not to say that numerous changes haven't been made behind the scenes. As you might expect, the changelog lists dozens. However, the average user is likely to find Xfce 4.10 more of the same, with a few pieces of functionality here, some changes in the interface there, and nothing very different overall.

That is not a criticism -- just an observation. Over the last five years or so, Xfce's releases have been similarly cautious. Today, however, you might wonder if the relatively small modifications aren't also meant to reassure GNOME's and Unity's refugees that Xfce is unlikely to inflict any unexpected changes on them.

Xfce as an Alternative

Which brings up the main question: To what extent is the latest version of Xfce an alternative for those who miss GNOME 2?

In its last few releases, Xfce has managed to move beyond its geekish past. With each release, it has become more user-friendly, and the latest release is by far the most accessible to desktop users.

However, remnants of the past remain. It shows in some of the features that were given priority in the new release, such as the system editor.

It shows, too, in occasional choices that provide only technical alternatives. For instance, the deskbar panel is simply what the vertically-aligned panel should be by default -- I mean, how many users would want to tilt their heads sideways to read a vertical panel?

Another way that Xfce reveals its past is its emphasis on functionality over appearance. Some design decisions, such as the refusal to space panel contents along the entire space available, look ungainly. Others, like the deskbar panel, are ugly despite their functionality. To be fair, the development team is becoming increasingly aware of appearance, but, despite the improvement in the last few releases, it still has a few paces to go before it is as inviting to new users as the other major Linux desktops.

At the same time, Xfce has the advantage of being instantly familiar to anyone who has used any sort of computer desktop in the last fifteen years. Its classical menu is unwieldy as it sprawls across the desktop, and its emphasis on the panel is obsolete by the usability guidelines of the GNOME 3 series, but what matters is that their functionality is obvious.

Not that Xfce is a clone of GNOME 2 or any other desktop. Its panel applets are basic compared to GNOME 2's, and the panel cannot be shortened and centered as many people prefer. For this reason, a minority of users might find Xfce lacking. Yet the general organization and configuration options are close enough that most users should have no trouble transitioning to Xfce.

Xfce is not splashy. In places, it is almost old-fashioned or crude. But in the end, what really matters for most users is that, as the release notes and tour for the 4.10 release make clear, Xfce is concerned with providing what its users request. It's an attitude that many feel is rare among Linux desktop alternatives today.

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