Sunday, 9 December 2007

Xfce vs. GNOME (or: why can't I make the switch?!)

I usually don't have a problem switching applications when I'm not satisfied any more with the experience I've been having, even when I've been using the original app for years. I do tend to get emotionally attached to software (hey, I'm a geek), but not to the point that divorce is never an option. And I usually don't mind much switching to a solution I feel is slightly inferior, if the features I actually need are there.

To illustrate this, let me just tell you this: 5 years ago, I was reading my mail with Eudora and browsing the web with Opera, all this on Windows Millenium (OK, that part was not my choice, but at the time I was just not ready yet to switch to Linux, although it was already my goal). Today, on the very same computer (switching hardware is not that easy to do when one doesn't have money, but I did upgrade the thing a little with the years), I read my e-mail via Thunderbird and am writing this post in Firefox (well, Icedove and Iceweasel actually, but that's just Debian rebranding), all this on a Debian GNU/Linux desktop. I first switched from Eudora to Thunderbird (about the time when Thunderbird 1.5 was released), not because I felt Thunderbird was better (I still think it tried too hard to look like Outlook. I liked Eudora's MDI better), but because the latest Eudora upgrade had broken quite a few things, and I was fed up with some of the choices Qualcomm had made (HTML e-mail with no option to switch back to plain text?!). My switch from Opera to Firefox was much more recent, and I still feel uneasy about it. Sure, the portable version I used on my company laptop was getting really annoying with its constant freezes, and the Linux version just didn't play well with the rest of the desktop (firefox's GNOME integration is great!). And some Firefox extensions like FireFTP and Foxmarks are just too good to pass. And Blogger's interface does work on Firefox at least (although I'm not quite sure Opera is too blame here). But despite all that, I'm still following on Opera, to see if future versions could solve the problems that made me switch in the first place, as I feel that most of its features (its tabbed browsing, its mouse gestures, its speed dial, to name only the most obvious) are better implemented than in Firefox.

All this should make it clear that I am ready to put up with some inconvenience if I feel that my core needs are met. So why is it that I can't switch away from GNOME? I don't have any grudge again the desktop environment (otherwise I wouldn't be using it), but on my 6-year-old computer it gets slightly slower at each update. Moreover, it lacks some features that I really miss (like virtual desktop switching by mousing over the edge of the screen, or the application menu on right-click anywhere on the desktop). And finally, its trash implementation is a joke, and does not work properly with Windows partitions. The Xfce desktop corrects all the issues I have with GNOME, while adding a bunch of nice features (its simple transparency effects are great at de-cluttering my screen estate, and its bulk rename tool is great for people like me who are still not that comfortable with the command line). It's also lightweight enough that I do feel it is more responsive than GNOME (although I start Xfce with some GNOME services as I still use quite a few GNOME apps). It does have a few issues (like the impossibility to use single click to open desktop icons, or the fact that it sometimes leaves zombie processes around), but I already handled the main showstoppers (like the inability to use the reboot or shutdown buttons).

So why do I find myself switching back to GNOME after trying Xfce for a few hours? Are the features I am missing not that important to me after all? Have I become so used to the GNOME experience that I can't bear to do the switch any longer? Am I lying to myself when I say that I enjoy Xfce, or on the contrary when I switch back to GNOME? Is my GNOME experience still good enough that I can't bring myself to go through the switch? It's not even that I have to give up the applications I'm already using: they all work great on Xfce. At this point, I don't think the problem is a technical one (although the zombie processes do seem to slow down my computer. It might be worth a bug report), but I still cannot understand my own behaviour.

Where do I go from here then? Well, back to GNOME for now, while I'm trying to figure out what's wrong. I'll still try Xfce from time to time, to see whether I can get past this resistance, but at this time I've given up on doing a full switch. I wonder if that's what people mean when they talk about not being able to adapt to new interfaces, in all those discussions on Windows to Linux migration. Maybe that's the kind of resistance that has brought us all those VI-vs.-Emacs flamewars, due to people used to one and not being able to feel comfortable when trying the other, and then blaming it on that other text editor. If it is, then I really need to solve that issue: I need to stay flexible. If I'm starting to ossify myself at my age, how will I be when I grow up?


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  2. It's probably worth noting that Zombie processes don't consume any system resources other than a process table entry. In this respect, if you experiencing any performance issues, they are not your issue. This is not to say that the process(es) that is/are creating Zombies is not broken (and this may well be the correlated performance decrease that you are seeing).

  3. @patrickb:

    Thanks for your comment.

    I was not sure whether Zombie processes consumed resources or not. Thanks for clearing that up.

    So far I have tried to use Xfce instead of GNOME one other time, but at the time it actually badly interacted with GNOME, leaving me no choice but to remove it completely. I don't really understand why it was doing that, but Thunar was constantly trying to take over from Nautilus, even when I was logging into GNOME.

    I'm thinking now of trying again (hopefully issues have been solved), but I still haven't found where Xfce keeps its settings on my home account. I want to erase them so I can re-install and tweak Xfce the right way, rather than having it inherit settings that I know are broken and probably responsible for part of my woes.

  4. @christophe - Xfce's settings are in ~/.config/xfce4 and ~/.config/xfce4-session . When version 4.6 arrives with xfconf this might be different though.