The Second-String Desktop

GNOME and KDE may be the heavy-hitters of the desktop world, and although all that power is nice, sometimes it's too bulky. That's where other desktop managers come in.
Lubuntu and LXDE

It turns out I'm not the only person to notice that Xubuntu doesn't really tailor itself to low-end hardware as much as it claims to. The folks in charge of the Lubuntu Project decided improving performance for slower machines should include more than installing zippy applications by default. Just like with Xubuntu, Lubuntu installs in an extremely unexciting and completely functional way. Once installed, however, Lubuntu does differ from Xubuntu and Ubuntu in appearance.

Although a similar blue to Xubuntu, Lubuntu's screen layout is visually different. Figure 3 shows Lubuntu's simple single taskbar layout, which is quite similar to the design Microsoft has been trying to perfect since the days of Windows 95. That's not a bad thing. As a group we may not care for Microsoft, but its start-menu-type system is widely known and very usable. The first thing I did upon booting Lubuntu was open a terminal and check the memory usage. You can see in Figure 4 that Lubuntu is using only 163MB of RAM when fully booted. That's almost exactly half the RAM Xubuntu and Ubuntu use when freshly booted. When you add to that the selection of fast and small applications Lubuntu uses by default, including the Chromium Web browser, it really does scream even on low-end or old computers. If you've been frustrated with your computer's poor performance with either GNOME under Ubuntu or XFCE under Xubuntu, you may want to give Lubuntu a try. It uses the same repositories, and it has remarkable compatibility with more well-known, if not bulkier, applications.

Figure 3. The Spartan, but Easy-to-Navigate Lubuntu Default Desktop

Figure 4. A freshly booted, default install of Lubuntu 10.10 uses only 163MB of RAM while idle.

What about Others?

There are more to the alternatives than just speed. I used the Ubuntu example above to demonstrate how alternatives to the “Big 2” can give you advantages in speed, but there are other reasons to veer from the norm as well. The ROX Desktop, for example, is a complete desktop environment designed around a file manager—the ROX-Filer, to be specific. Although the ROX Desktop is certainly light on system resource needs, its design and integration with the filesystem is what really makes it unique. Figure 5 shows a screenshot of Puppy Linux, which uses ROX-Filer as the file manager.

Figure 5. Puppy Linux Using ROX-Filer (screenshot by Joachim Köhle)

The ROX Desktop suite includes its own window manager, OroboROX, but like most other desktop environments, it doesn't rely on one specific window manager to work. When you find a window manager you like, it's often possible to use it seamlessly with whatever desktop management system you want. In fact, many people, and even entire distributions, run only a window manager. This is possible because many window managers are so feature-rich, they do most of the things a desktop manager would do. One good example of that is Enlightenment.

The Enlightened Don't Need a Desktop Manager

Enlightenment is a window manager that has been around a long time. Some window managers are minimalistic; however, Enlightenment is extremely feature-rich. It provides a file manager, a dock, a GUI configuration tool, application launchers—pretty much everything required in a full-blown desktop environment. Does that mean it's a desktop manager and not just a window manager? Perhaps. It doesn't really matter how you define it though. Enlightenment is one of those things everyone should try at least once. There are even live CDs, specifically designed for trying Enlightenment. Figure 6 shows applications running under the Elive CD default desktop.

Figure 6. Enlightenment E17 Desktop (from the Live CD)

IceWM is another window manager that is rather profound in the features it offers. Although it doesn't have a mechanism for creating desktop icons, it does have a very robust menu system and application suite for managing most aspects of the Linux desktop. IceWM is very customizable, and although it uses the familiar Windows-like start menu, it doesn't try to clone Microsoft. In fact, I use a combination of IceWM and Nautilus on my network of 150 older thin clients because it's fast and reliable. Because the menu system is controlled with a single system-wide config file, it makes wide-scale customization a breeze.

A multitude of Linux distributions have only a window manager to manipulate the desktop. Blackbox, Fluxbox and Openbox are all related window managers. Fluxbox is a fork of Blackbox, and although Openbox is all original code now, it started as a fork of Blackbox as well. These three window managers are lightning fast. They may not offer the same level of features and complexity that Enlightenment or IceWM do, but for many minimalistic distributions, they are just perfect. CrunchBang Linux is a prime example of a full-featured, yet minimalistic distribution. It uses Openbox as its window manager, and as you can see in Figure 7, the windowing environment is designed to get out of the user's way.

Figure 7. CrunchBang Linux is a minimalistic distribution that uses Openbox as the window manager.


Shawn Powers is a Linux Journal Associate Editor. You might find him on IRC, Twitter, or training IT pros at CBT Nuggets.