The joy of Xfce

Six months ago, I mentioned the creakiness of my desktop PC and rambled a bit about the various steps I’d taken to keep the memory usage under control. I have done a little more tinkering recently, so now is as good a time as any to ramble some more.

First of all, a disclaimer. I do understand that the best approach would be to either start from a minimal install and build up only what I want, or to find a lighter distro in the first place. The reason I haven’t done this is because my desktop hardware is not as reliable as it could be. This is especially true of the CD/DVD drive. Consequently, I don’t want to install anything from scratch because, if the drive does fail halfway through an install, recovering it will be a nightmare. And I have no intention of replacing any of the hardware on this machine – it is an old box and no longer my primary device so I simply want to ensure that it remains responsive until such time as the hardware fails completely.

I have been a Gnome user since I started using Linux on the desktop and, for me, the huge strength of Gnome has always been that it is an incredibly intuitive desktop to use. However, all this functionality comes at a price in terms of the system resources used, so I started looking at lighter desktop environments.

My first thought was to give Enlightenment a go. There was a very long blog post about this that has now been deleted but the shorter version is that once you start finding your way around, it’s a very nice environment and one that appeals to the minimalist in me. However, it’s not the most intuitive desktop environment I’ve seen and, bearing in mind that the PC has a guest account for when people come to visit, Enlightenment is not the way to go.

So I had a look at Xfce. It’s lovely.

The default theme is every bit as intuitive as Gnome and this is the theme (largely untouched) that the guest account still uses. Things started to become interesting, however, when I started playing around with the Xfce Settings Manager. Not only are the panels very configurable, but Xfce also allows you to do a lot with the right and middle mouse buttons, so I started seeing how much desktop real estate I could free up.

This is the state of my desktop so far.

The Xfce button and notification area are in the top left. In the bottom left – although the auto-hide means you can’t see it – is the task list and wastebasket. In the bottom right is the workspace switcher, which I am thinking about removing since I can access the same functionality by using the middle mouse button. I am also considering having a single, auto hiding, panel in the bottom left of the screen to maximise my available desktop space.

And then there is the cornucopia of options at Xfce-Look.org.

Of course, none of this matters (much) if it doesn’t achieve the primary aim of squeezing a bit of extra performance out of the desktop PC. Fortunately it does, spectacularly. The PC is noticeably more responsive and, according to the System Monitor, the Xfce components are sucking up a lot less memory than the Gnome equivalents.

In other news, I have replaced Epiphany with Midori and uninstalled Mono.

I have looked at Midori in the past, but Epiphany is the browser I keep coming back to. I have found it to be both fast and light and it has the best approach to managing bookmarks that I have encountered to date.

Midori, like Epiphany, is a WebKit browser and it is also fast and responsive. It is also part of the Xfce Goodies component so I thought I’d give it another go. I won’t try to make any speed comparisons, but I have been impressed so far.

As for Mono, I don’t use any of the few, small applications on my PC that depend on it and – quite frankly – having to start the Mono runtime just to launch Tomboy Notes feels like overkill to me. I am intending to try and find some smaller, lighter applications for the PC and Mono is the first to go.

I installed Xfce last weekend but it hasn’t been until this weekend that I have really had a chance to play around with it. What I’ve seen of it so far is fast, flexible and a real joy to use.

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