Xfce Linux Desktop: Better Than KDE or GNOME?

Tuesday Mar 10th 2009 by Bruce Byfield

The new release, Xfce 4.6, demonstrates still more improvements in usability.

A few years ago, Xfce had a reputation as a lightweight desktop that made few concessions to inexperienced users. However, the Xfce 4 series of releases have shown steady improvements in usability, and version 4.6 is no exception.

Although Xfce 4.6 has almost no completely new programs or features, it adds dozens of enhancements to features already present and continues the improvements in desktop usability that have marked the last few releases. The result is the most usable version of Xfce yet, and it is all the more pleasing for losing little -- if any -- of the speed and simplicity of earlier versions.

Xfce 4.6 is available as source code from the project website. You can compile the source code yourself or, somewhat unusually, you can install a graphical installer to assist you.

Alternatively, you can use the links on the download page to find binaries for Debian, Mandriva, openSUSE, and Xubuntu. However, be sure to research your binaries of choice thoroughly before using them, because they are in varying degrees of readiness. The Debian packages, for example, include one conflict that has yet to be resolved. Others may still have pre-release versions of 4.6.

Improved features

While little is completely new in 4.6, many features show a continued evolution. In some cases, the evolution is toward greater simplicity.

For example, where the clock in version 4.4.2 offered customized setting of display lines and the mouseover tooltip, but might have confused inexperienced users, preferences for the clock in 4.6 are reduced to the type of clock, the tooltip format for the date, and the time format -- all of which are configurable from drop-down lists.

Similarly, Xfce's sound mixer and application finder (which, unlike in KDE remains independent of the main menu) have undergone GUI changes that make their layout easier to perceive in a glance.

Some of these changes are as simple as the addition of a radio button, but, if you compare these two applications in 4.4.2 and 4.6, the difference is a succinct case-study in usability design. In the case of the mixer, these changes include a complete rewriting of the application, according to the 4.6 online tour.

In other cases, utilities have evolved new features. The system tray, now renamed more accurately as notification area, now offers the options to display icons in multiple rows, and to hide icons; if you do decide to hide icons, the notification area includes an arrow to expand it display. The logout menu now includes Suspend and Hibernate options, while the Thunar file manager is especially rich in new features, including translucent icons for unmounted drives, and support for encrypted filesystems.

The greatest number of changes per square centimeter are probably in the Settings Manager. Version 4.6 adds accessibility, removable drives, and calendar features. Session and startup options are especially enhanced, having gone from a simple dialog with a few options for logging in and out and for starting GNOME and KDE services when logging in (so that they start more quickly when you use them) to options for autostarting applications, and options for how to restart core desktop utilities if they crash.

In much the same way, the Desktop options have not only been rearranged on their tabs, but joined by options for the main menu and windows menus.

Next Page: Compare to KDE and GNOME

However, to my mind, the most interesting enhancement is what Xfce 4.6 refers to as Fill. Earlier versions of Xfce have had the ability to manipulate the positioning of windows by the use of keyboard shortcuts, but Fill takes this manipulation to its logical extreme, allowing you to resize a window so that it uses any available free space without overlapping other windows. You can even activate commands so that Fill only operates vertically or horizontally. Like many of the new features in 4.6, Fill is a minor enhancement, but one that you can quickly learn to rely upon.

Desktop usability

These enhancements are accompanied by an awareness of usability issues. Changing the name of a sub-level in the settings from User Interface to Appearances may seem minor to the casual observer, but the difference is that between a label that is meaningful to a developer and one that a casual user will immediately understand.

Such changes become important when they are multiplied dozens of times over, resulting in a desktop that is easier for new users to navigate with a minimum of though. Likewise, demoting splash screen settings from a top level item in settings to a tab under Sessions and startups shows the effort that Xfce developers have made to think of user priorities, and to make minor ones less accessible than major ones.

The same priorities show in the desktop's context menu. Instead of expecting, as in the previous version, that users who want to add a desktop icon to remember to go to an existing icon to begin the task -- a starting point unlike that of any other major desktop, version 4.6 adds the options for adding icons to the desktop's context menu. In addition, now users can access help from the context menu, and choose whether or not to have the complete main menu in the context menu.

The menu for each window is also improved, with basic options such as resizing and moving to another workspace reorganized into sections for easier use, and options renamed, with "Roll Window Up" replacing "Shade" and "Always on Visible Workspace replacing "Sticky." Once again, the difference is between language for experts and language for everyone.

Yet another usability enhancement is so obvious that you wonder how it could have been overlooked before: the ability to select multiple icons for copying, moving, or deleting on the desktop. You might argue that such oversights show that the Xfce team is still relatively new to usability issues -- but, given that, in 4.6, they have caught such obvious omissions, you also have to add that the team is learning quickly.

Xfce vs. KDE and GNOME

In the last year or so, KDE has been rethinking the desktop (and sometimes leaving its users behind), while GNOME has seemed to lack a united design philosophy. Xfce 4.6 is in striking contrast to both these directions. While neither strikingly new nor full of changes for change's sake, its features represent a return to desktop basics. Xfce has always been fast and efficient in the best UNIX tradition, but, with the 4.6 release, the desktop has finally found a balance such traditions and the usability of a modern desktop.

I don't know about anyone else, but the fact that Xfce has achieved this balance makes me reassess my view of it as the third desktop in free software. I am seriously thinking of switching to Xfce 4.6 myself. Moreover, the next time I introduce someone to GNU/Linux, I think I'll encourage them to use Xfce rather than GNOME or KDE.

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