Xfce, A Model GTK Based Desktop | Late Summer Blathering

In full disclosure, Plasma is my Desktop Environment of choice, it is very easy to customize and to make my own with very little effort. As of late, there isn’t a whole lot of customizing I do, it’s all pretty minor. A couple tweaks to the the visuals, make it dark, change some sound effects to make it more Star Trek The Next Generation, add a couple Plasmoids and set up KDE Connect. Then I am ready to go.

Since KDE 3 and later Plasma, each release adds and refines existing features, all of which seems as though they are doing so in a sustainable fashion. New releases of Plasma are always met with excitement and anticipation. I can count on new features and refinements and an overall better experience. I didn’t look anywhere else but then, Xfce wondered into my world and although slow to change has become that desktop too. Historically, Xfce has been [for me] just there, nothing particularly exciting. It has held the spot of a necessary, minimal viable desktop… but not anymore.

Previous Xfce Experiences

Using Xfce was like stepping back in time to an era of awkwad looking computer innocence, where icons were mismatched and widgets were a kind of grey blockiness with harsh contrasting lines. Such a great time… While KDE Plasma and Gnome moved on, working in new visuals and staying “modern,” Xfce did it’s own thing… or nothing… I don’t really know but it, in my eyes, became the dated desktop environment. It was always rock solid but wasn’t much to look at. To be fair, there were some examples of real decent looking expressions of Xfce but I unfairly dismissed it.

New Experiences with Xfce

I started to do a little distro and desktop hopping, not to replace my preferred setup, openSUSE Tumbleweed with Plasma, but to see what else is out there and to play with some other examples of desktop design and experience. One such example that I really enjoyed was MX Linux.

It is a clean and pleasant experience that doesn’t scream 2002. The configuration options are plentiful and easy to understand. Not to mention the Dark theme looks simply fantastic. Then there is Salient OS which has a slick and modern look. It didn’t look Plasma but looks like the present and doesn’t make you think of the traditional Xfce environment.

Then came Endeavour OS where, for just a moment, I thought I was using Plasma. It is truly a slick Xfce environment with some great choices for appearance.

Although, 4.12 was released in 2015 and some speculated the project as being dead, new breath life came to the users of this project and just recently (Aug 2019), version 4.14 was released.

Xfce’s latest release didn’t take away features or trim out functionality. It only added new features and refined the the whole desktop. Most notably, a complete (I think) move to GTK3 from GTK2 which allows for better HiDPi support (great for those with the hardware), improvements to the window manager to have a flicker and tearing free experience. A “Do Not Disturb” feature was added to the notifications and many, many more things but these stand out the most to me. More can be read here at the official source for Xfce News.

Xfce on openSUSE

It was announced that Xfce 4.14 landed in openSUSE Tumbleweed. I wanted to see how that experience shaped up. A Telegram friend Mauro shared his Xfce desktop with me and I was blown away by how it looked. I sure didn’t think, Xfce, in the traditional sense.

Then, I wanted to see, how does Xfce on openSUSE look, right out of the gate, just as you log in for the first time. What is my vanilla experience. I installed Xfce direct from the YaST installer on a fresh disk but in case you want to try it on your openSUSE Tumbleweed instance, just run this:

sudo zypper in -t pattern xfce

After booting it up, it looked really quite respectable. I appreciate the new welcome screen, right out of the gate. This is a welcome re-addition to openSUSE. Something that drifted away about 4 or 5 years ago.

I wanted to see what themes were built in. How I could tweak it just a bit and make it my own. I must say, I am pleasantly surprised; ecstatic, really.

After adjusting the theme to something dark, I came to the conclusion that Xfce is fantastic, it is simply fantastic and I take every bad thing I have ever said about GTK back. Xfce is, in my opinion, the premier GTK based desktop. It is fully functional, easy to customize and respectful or system resources and incredibly responsive.

Everything about is easy to tweak to make my own. There wasn’t a special “tweak tool” that had to be installed not part of the regular settings, it was all there. The boot up time on an a Xfce only system is a break neck speed. I don’t know what they have done at openSUSE to make this happen but just wow and Thank You!

I didn’t make much in the way of tweaks to Xfce to make it the way I prefer. Like when playing Monopoly® with my kids, I like to have my cards laid out a specific way and as such, I made some slight changes to the panel along the bottom and added just a hint of transparency because, why not. I also did a bit of a tweak to color theme to make it to my liking, and I was ready to go. The adjustments took me all of 4 minutes and I was grinning from ear to ear. Like an 8 year old on Christmas morning, staring at the tree with presents beneath it, I was excited from my finger tips to my toes just ready to tear into the gifts I have yet to uncover.

Final Thoughts

Xfce is the GTK desktop environment that seems to have all the necessary elements, clean interface and the ease of customization that rivals KDE Plasma. This is “not your father’s Xfce” as it were. This is an Xfce that doesn’t “just get out of the way” it says, I am here, I am ready to give you a great desktop experience and I won’t mess a single thing up. It says, I am down to business but if it’s play time, I mean business about play time too.

I have now used Xfce 4.14 on top of openSUSE, MX Linux, Salient OS and Endeavour OS. They are all great examples of how Xfce should look, the crisp and immediate sense of responsiveness that insists on productivity. In my observation, Xfce is the model GTK desktop, the standard to which all others should be measured against. It’s stability, efficiency, easily customized and makes the desktop truly a personal experience.

References

Xfce Official Release
Xfce 4.14 Lands in openSUSE Tumbleweed
https://cubiclenate.com/2019/03/06/salient-os-review-from-an-opensuse-user/
https://cubiclenate.com/2019/08/20/endeavour-os-review-from-an-opensuse-user/
openSUSE Portal:Xfce

MX Linux | Review from an openSUSE User

MX Linux review titleMX Linux is a distribution I have heard many good things about for several months. It even ranks high on the arbitrary DistroWatch.com site (3rd as of late December 2018). Having had a fantastic experience with BunsenLabs Linux on old hardware, I wanted to give MX Linux a spin. The latest version, MX-18 has been released and can be downloaded from here. I downloaded both the 32-bit and 64-bit versions to see how they would perform on older hardware. I am a die-hard openSUSE fan and I was also curious to see how using MX compares to openSUSE Tumbleweed with KDE Plasma. Additionally, it was also presented as a challenge from the BigDaddyLinux community.

So it is well understood, this is a biased review from an openSUSE Tumbleweed user. I prefer the KDE Plasma Desktop Environment as I believe it to be superior to anything else I have ever used. I will be looking at MX Linux from this perspective but I will be fair.

Installation

The MX Linux installer, although not the simplest installer I’ve ever used, is easy to navigate. The MX installer is straight forward and in my opinion easy enough for a new-to-Linux user to set up and get going with it.

From the initial machine startup, you are greeted with a pretty typical boot screen.

MX Linux-01-Live Media Start.png

The only aspect of this I wish could change would be the option to directly install MX Linux to the drive instead of going through the Live Media portion. It should be noted, that MX boots pretty quickly, I didn’t time it but even when installing it on old 32-bit hardware, it was surprisingly fast.

The welcome window, the MX-18 Continuum, is a real nice touch. For a new user or one that is getting acquainted with a new environment, this is absolutely fantastic. I would describe this like a landing page to get you access to the important bits of the system or information. Importantly, the codecs installer as well as the Tweaks cab be accessed from here. More on the Tweaks later. Should you close this window and not be able to find it, just type “MX” in the menu search to see all the MX tools.

MX Linux-02-MX Welcome.png

The installation of MX is a pleasant experience and to kick it off, the terms of service can be read in its entirety and in just a few seconds. I selected to auto-install using the entire disk. I am a one distro for one machine kind of guy so this is the way I like to roll. You will be asked for confirmation of the disk changes before it installed, so no need to worry about the installer doing anything without your explicit permission.

The machine then installs the operating system to your machine and while doing so gives you a series of “commercials” for the various features of MX. The feature I am particularly fascinated by is the ability to “repair your system”. I haven’t had a need for this in a long while but next time I should have a problem with a system, I intend on giving the MX repair tool a spin.

Upon the completion of the install, you will be asked your boot method. I have tended to go with the MBR on my legacy systems. Then you will enter your computer’s name, domain and Samba workgroup for Microsoft Windows style networking.

You’ll next set your localization defaults and your user name, password and root password. I didn’t see an option to add additional users but that is not a common feature I have seen from installers.

A really neat feature is the ability to save your changes to the desktop you made, presumably to the new user account you created. I didn’t test this feature but it sounds like a great idea and if you have been tweaking your system on the Live Media, it just might be very handy to pass those changes to your machine install.

MX Linux, like all distributions, will ask for your support in your time and talents. If you plan on spending time here, I would encourage you to do so. Once you hit finish, you are given another dialog box telling you that the installation is complete and whether or not you want to reboot immediately.

That’s it, nothing terribly complex, the installer walks you through step-by-step in a very clear and understandable method. One thing that I found it different, but not in a bad way, that the developers have chosen to install the system before you configure the user, computer name, domain and workgroup. I don’t see anything wrong with it, I just found it different.

Before the system reboots, you are instructed to remove the “disc” from the system. It gave me a moment of pause to think that I haven’t actually used optical media to install anything in quite sometime. Perhaps this should be reworded to be “Live Media” or “USB Drive” since that is probably more common these days.

MX Linux-13-Remove Live Media

First Run

The first thing I did when the system settled was to install updates. This distribution, too, requires you to enter root’s password. I am beginning to think that it is more common than not to require root password to do upgrades. I can’t help but to compare this to openSUSE Leap where it is not required to enter a password too do upgrades it is just click and go (Distribution upgrades are a different matter).

MX Linux-14-Upgrade.png

One area I will give high points with MX are the configuration tools. I do prefer KDE Plasma as my default desktop, being that it is very configurable, MX takes XFCE and give it almost as many customization options.

The MX Dark theme is pretty fantastic and, in my humble opinion should be the default theme. It just looks terrific and is very pleasant on the eyes.

Initially, the customization, for me, fell apart a bit when it comes to panel positioning. I am not a fan of the side or top positions for the panel. I’ll take the side before the top but I would really prefer it to be on the bottom. I don’t like ANYTHING at the top of the screen. I personally dislike the global menu or anything of that nature lingering on the top of the screen. This particular requirement is especially important for the way I have my multiple displays arranged. It only makes sense for me to have my Panel on the bottom of the screen. Anything else would just look goofy and be cumbersome.

Thanks to the developer, Dolphin Oracle, he informed on how to move the panel to wherever I wanted. Under Tweaks there is a panel tab. My failure was that I clicked on a panel button. In that panel tab, you can adjust exactly where you want that panel to live.

MX Linux-24-Panel Tweak

The package manager is fantastic. It is simple and straight forward with no weird bits about it. I like that there is a Flatpak Tab where you could search for applications that are not in the regular repositories. I was able to install Telegram and Discord without issue.

Another great feature of the package manager is how verbose it is. It shows you exactly what is going on. I much prefer that to a bar going across the screen like some kind of dummy light.

I have not a single complaint about the package manager. It has some great usability features that I appreciate and exposes what is going on behind the shiny GUI to the user.

What I Like

Dell Optiplex GX620.jpgThere is a lot to like about MX-18. I installed MX18 32-bit on an old piece of hardware and I was VERY impressed by how it operated. I could very happily watch YouTube videos and Netflix was ALMOST watchable, all this on Firefox. For the time being, I have decided that I am going to leave MX on this old Optiplex GX620. I want to do more comparisons between MX and BunsenLabs on two different older machines.

MX looks great, especially with the MX Dark Theme with Breeze Icons (available by default). The menu, although, not able to be placed in the correct spot, looks good and is very usable. It has a system tray and the virtual desktop switcher (pager) works as one would expect.

The package manager works very well and is very straight forward. I like how the tabs are laid out so that you can choose where you are getting your software. This is very opposite to the approach you would see on many other distributions. I don’t know that this is better or worse but I can say that it is an approach I can appreciate.

Finally, I especially appreciate how little memory MX uses. When watching Netflix, with a paused YouTube video still used less than 1 GiB of RAM which seemed delightfully low. It should also be noted that even after running MX for a few days, there was no evidence of any kind of memory leaking or creeping.

What I Don’t Like

What I don’t like is a short list. For starters, there isn’t an option to go right into the system installation. You are forced to go into a live media mode and install after that initial boot. If I were to only be deploying this to one machine, this is not a big deal but any kind of large scale deployments would make this less enjoyable.

With as many customization options that exist in MX, I didn’t immediately see where the pick was to put the panel at the bottom of the screen. I am not sure that there is exactly a fix for that as it was more of a PEBKAC issue (Problem Exists Between the Keyboard And Chair). Any of the customization issues that do exist for me is likely an issue that would clear itself up with more time using.

It doesn’t use Zypper… I know, this is a Debian based distro, so of course it doesn’t use Zypper by default, I just happen to like Zypper better and I wanted a third thing I didn’t like about MX. Remember, I said I was biased.

Final Thoughts

MX Linux is a great distribution. Weather you have older hardware or the latest and greatest, MX will likely be a good fit. It does lack some features of which I am accustomed but if I was without my beloved openSUSE + KDE Plasma, MX could fill that space quite nicely. Where I do see me using MX is on older 32 bit hardware as it does run very well, it’s reliable and breaths new life into what should be long-retired hardware. This can take past end of life hardware chugging along quite nicely with a modern Linux kernel. When I weigh this distribution against BunsenLabs Linux, I would lean a bit heavier to MX over BunsenLabs, mostly based on the the MX configuration tools. As far as performance goes, MX and BunsenLabs seem to be on par with one another.

At the end of the day, I would not swap MX with openSUSE Tumbleweed + KDE Plasma. As nice as MX is and as much as I have enjoyed using it, I just happen to enjoy openSUSE a bit more. It should be noted once again. I am heavily, heavily biased in my evaluation but that doesn’t mean that MX is, in any way a distribution you should just pass by. Even if you are content with where you are, MX is worth a spin.

Further Reading

https://mxlinux.org/

https://www.bigdaddylinux.com/

https://distrowatch.com/

MX-18, What’s New Video on YouTube

BunsenLabs Linux | Review from an openSUSE User

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