Short bio: Computer Scientist, FOSS supporter (read more)
Tux Machines (TM)-specific
In my spare time last several days, I've been test driving the latest xfce4.4 beta1 desktop enviroment. It's pretty nice. For those who don't know about xfce4, it's a wonderful graphical interface that I think of as falling somewhere in-between Fluxbox and KDE in ease-of-use and functionality. Many aspects of your xfce4 desktop can be configured by graphical tools with menus, drop down boxes, icons and all. However, many aspects are hard coded and aren't adjustable even through configuration files. But it's getting there and we can see a major step forward with xfce4.4.
There were two methods for the install of their 4.4 b1, either download the tarball and do the ./configure dance or download their installer and let it do all work. I downloaded the tarball first, forgetting how many packages they've split their desktop into. Here's a list:
Given that many packages, I wasted no further time before downloading the installer. This is one of your easier desktop installs. I realize KDE has Construct, but does that really work? Last time I tried it, it didn't really go as smoothly as one might hope and the setup was quite involved. But I've used xfce's installer more than once and it always works good. You just start it up (I did as root, but users can install into their home directory if preferred). It runs some dependency checks and asks for an install location. Default as root is /usr/local and that was a good choice since I have gentoo's version of 4.2 in /usr. Then it does the compiling for you. Easy peasy.
One of the good things about xfce4 is its support for twinview and/or xinerama set ups. Fluxbox supports it to a point, but I'm still having to splice wallpapers together for it. KDE handles those setups very nicely and xfce4 isn't too far behind. One of the important settings for a desktop in twinview is the panel/kicker placement. You don't want that thang spawled out across two or three monitors (which is what happens with desktops that don't support twinview). I usually want to place that at the bottom of the main monitor either 100% or whatever. I'm not picky about the size, as long as it's big enough to get the job done. Xfce4 gives you the choice as to which monitor to use, any one of 9 positions around it, and how big it should be.
And the 2nd most important is background/wallpaper handling. It's nice to have a configuration for using the multitude of 1280x1024 wallpapers I've collected over the last 5 years. Even now, it's hard to find 2880x1200 wallpapers. Xfce4 allows you to choose between using a wallpaper on both, a seperate one for each monitor, or stretch one out across both. I usually try to find two wallpapers that go nice together, or sometimes I'll just have to run the same one on both screens. I've only seen one or two wallpapers that looks good stretch out across both.
New Panel Configuration
The panel configuration is a bit different for the new xfce4 release. Previously one would click the "add launcher" option to add an application launcher, or some other pre-configured options such as "time and date" or "panel". It was mostly dialogue and had a number to adjust for placement in your panel. It was a functional and adequate add-to-panel configuration tool. But now, it's become quite fancy. For starters, it looks very much like KDE's equivalent that showed up in 3.5 in that you have a nice list with lovely icons and you just highlight your choice and click add or you can drag your selection to the panel if you prefer. Then if it's an application launcher or other item with configurations, it opens that dialogue box. Another nice change is how one moves their panel items around. As stated, once upon a time, you adjusted the number of its placement, but now one right clicks that item, and clicks "move" just as found in KDE.
New: Desktop Icons are now Possible
Also new in 4.4 is the long awaited support for icons on the desktop. It's still not drag & drop or right-click > make new icon, but there is preliminary support for icons on the destkop. Uniquely, one can set these icons to either show for minimized applications, file launcher icons, or none at all.
For launcher icons, your ~/Desktop directory is used. So, if you already have your desktop icons setup in KDE, they will also show up in the new xfce4. Making new icons can be done in konqueror the way you might already be accustomed. But what if you don't use or have KDE installed? I've found that making symbolic links works as well. There is no configuration of icons with links though. But I also found that the icons set using konqueror or making them from right-clicking on the KDE desktop didn't always show up in xfce4 anyway (probably requires full path). You could theoretically make one from right clicking in the Thunar file manager through the create new document option if you knew what entries might be required. Once in place, the desktop icons can be dragged around the desktop for exact placement. An example for Firefox.desktop might contain the following:
Thunar is their new graphical file manager. To quote the devlopment site, " Its user interface is clean and intuitive, and does not include any confusing or useless options. Thunar is fast and responsive with a good start up time and directory load time. Thunar is accessible using Assistive Technologies and is fully standards compliant." The interface does seem cleaned up and less busy, although I have heard it said that browsing samba shares is now harder or not supported in Thunar as it was in xffm.
Another new feature in 4.4 is the Orage calendar. It has some advanced features not found in the previous calendar found in xfce. I have a problem with it in that it starts the week with Saturday, and I can find no way to adjust this*. By default, orage is open and in the way when one starts xfce4, but that behaviour can be turned off in it's configuration. Some features of Orage include:
It has always amazed me how many window and icon themes are available for xfce4 and even moreso, how many that ship with xfce4.
Some other observations from within xfce4.4 are that I can't locate how to turn the date on at my clock. Although that's a bit of a downer, I've found that KDE application support seem improved. Previously a kde application window would open at precisely the size and position from which it was last used in kde. This usually covered my xfce panel and required resizing of the window. It seems now that kde applications windows are adjusted automagically so as to fit onto the desktop without overlapping the panel(s). That's nice.
In the past I've had trouble with xfce remembering my customization to the panel. That was always quite annoying to spend time getting it just the way you like it, just to log out and back in to find it default. This was actually the main reason I didn't use xfce more. It was suggested that this behaviour could be avoided by starting the desktop in one particular way each time (exact details escape me now), but it was inconvenient given I began using a graphical login several months back. I haven't seen this behaviour since upgrading to 4.4, as all customizations remain after logging out and back in. I might begin to use and explore all the possibilities of XFCE4 more often now.
xfce has always been a capable and viable option for a desktop environment. It was the desktop of choice of many distribution developers as it is light weight, fast, and yet had many nice options and graphical configurations. It has many features of KDE, but can run on older or lower spec systems that KDE can overtax. Things are only getting better with xfce4 4.4. Updated interface configurations, new options, and new applications make this release an exciting prospect. If you've never tried xfce or haven't tried it recently, you owe it to yourself to test it out.
My xfce4 desktop ended up looking like this:
*UPDATE: May 03, A kind reader pointed out that "Orage uses the first day of the week as reported by glibc" and further investigation reveals an upstream bug in glibc en_US locale.