Tuesday, 13 January 2009

The State of My Linux Desktop

First, let me get this out the way: Happy New Year everyone!

Now, on to the meat of this post. A little over a year ago, I was complaining that I wasn't able to move away from my GNOME desktop, despite it being a resource hog on my then 6-year-old computer. Now my computer has grown a year older (but I'm still using it. I'm amazed that even its original hard drive is still working), so I thought it was time to give an update on the situation here at the front.

During last year, things only got worse between me and GNOME. Although I could still use it and be relatively productive, it was obvious from the noise my computer's fan made that it was suffering from the load. Clearly, my computer with its Pentium 4 1.6GHz and 512MB of RAM was starting to tire. I needed to switch to something more lightweight. KDE fell out of the equation pretty quickly (I actually removed it completely in order to free a bit of space in my root partition), and although I tried it again, Xfce still failed to stick (I've decided to wait until version 4.6 appears. Somehow, version 4.4 has all kinds of weird little issues that spoil an otherwise enjoyable experience. I'm not even sure those issues are even strictly Xfce's fault, but I have neither the time nor the will to look into it right now. Maybe some other time...). I looked at all kinds of window managers, but couldn't find anything that really interested me (well, except maybe Enlightenment 17, but I am a bit wary of trying something that is considered pre-alpha by its authors, however stable it may look at first sight).

And then one day, while browsing through packages in Synaptic, I discovered a suspicious little package called lxde. This led me to discover LXDE, the Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment. Reading through its website, I realised that it may be the solution to my woes, and at least it looked stable enough. So I installed it and started it up, and was pleasantly surprised by its speed: it took about 3 seconds to fully load, which was a relief compared to slugs like GNOME. Of course, it didn't look good, but its theming options were easy to find, and within a few minutes I had a nice and light little desktop with a look and feel similar to the one I had given GNOME. I kept on using it, tweaking things here and there but mostly browsing, watching movies and doing all kinds of other things, and was happy that my computer was staying silent all this time. Before I knew it, I had set LXDE as my default desktop, and was always logging into it.

Of course, LXDE is far from perfect:

  • Customisation is very limited: adding items to panels, moving them around, controlling the amounts and names of virtual desktops, choose a background image and a screensaver, and that's basically it.
  • It lacks advanced volume management: don't expect to see a file manager open by itself when you put in a DVD or plug in a USB key (but they do appear in the sidebar in the file manager when you open it, so it's not really an issue). And it's completely unaware of network drives (so when I bought myself a shiny new 1TB network hard drive to simplify the sharing of files within my home network and finally set up some much needed back-up routines, I had to switch temporarily back to GNOME just to see whether Linux could find the shares, at least until I set them to mount statically via fstab).
  • It doesn't support much in the way of modern desktop effects. I've read that one can make it work with a compositing manager, but it looks like it's more trouble than is worth. But then it's a desktop designed to work with low end and old computers, so it's understandable that it doesn't bother with typically resource-hungry, fancy effects.
  • You can't get the desktop icons to open on single-click. I had the same problem with Xfce, and it's still annoying me.
  • The list of panel applets is rather short. I'm especially missing a uim status applet, and LXDE doesn't seem to support GNOME applets, unlike Xfce. Uim itself still works, but using it blind is not fun.
  • It doesn't support the Debian Menu System. I still need to send a bug report about this, as this is an oversight of the package maintainer, rather than a problem with LXDE itself.

Still, it has a lot going for it:

  • It's blazingly fast on my ancient computer. Since it doesn't bother with fancy effects and services, it really uses a minimum of resources. Of course, it means the experience is rather bare-bones, but I'm willing to put up with that as long as the basics I find important are covered.
  • Despite being based on independent components, it feels nicely integrated.
  • It stays out of the way of other installed desktops (I'm still annoyed at how Xfce somehow managed to mess up my GNOME desktop. I could recover without much problem, but it still shouldn't have happened).
  • It uses the GTK+ library, so it plays nicely with other GTK applications, including GNOME programs. It also can use the same themes as GNOME, so I could set it up to have a similar look-and-feel.

Still, as it stands, and for my use, it works well enough that I can see myself using LXDE in the foreseeable future. However, I'm also thinking of building myself a new computer this year, so while it's very possible that LXDE stays my desktop of choice on this computer, I don't think I'll use it on a more modern one. If I've got the power to do it, why shouldn't I enjoy it? I do like me some eye candy, after all!

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