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.

It's dangerous for me to use sports metaphors, because my expertise ends at knowing there are three strikes in an out. When it comes to sitting the bench, however, I'm a veteran professional! Most major distributions choose one of the big hitters for their desktop management systems. GNOME and KDE continue the epic battle that keeps the competition intense and our desktops diverse. In honor of this month's Desktop issue, I thought it would be nice to pay some homage to those desktop managers and windows managers that don't get quite as much attention.

Window Managers and Desktop Managers

Before we delve too deep into comparing the various Linux GUIs out there, it's important to understand the difference between window managers and desktop managers. The nuances between the two can be subtle and at times almost nonexistent. A window manager is simply the program running on top of the X server itself that manages windows. Some are very sparse in their features, and some are so robust they approach the usability of a full-blown desktop manager.

So, what is a desktop manager, you ask? Well, it's more of a total user-interaction interface. It often includes applications, widgets and system integration. In fact, desktop managers (or desktop environments, as they're sometimes called) include a window manager as part of their arsenal. So, although GNOME is a desktop manager, part of the GNOME environment includes Metacity, which is a window manager GNOME uses for, well, managing its windows. It's possible to run a Linux system with only a window manager, as I talk about later, but usually a Linux distribution comes with some sort of desktop manager installed by default.

The Battle for Ubuntu's Bottom End

Ubuntu and Kubuntu certainly are the first-string players for Canonical's Linux lineup. Granted, with Ubuntu 11.04, its flagship product will switch from using a standard GNOME interface to the Unity shell normally used only in its Netbook product, but at least historically, Ubuntu has used GNOME, and Kubuntu has used KDE. Canonical also has its official Xubuntu version for older or less-powerful hardware. Xubuntu runs the XFCE desktop manager. Although it does require fewer resources than GNOME or KDE, many still think XFCE is rather bloated for slower hardware. There is another option, Lubuntu, but it's not officially supported by Canonical. Instead of XFCE, Lubuntu uses the LXDE desktop environment. The Lubuntu team claims to be much less resource-intensive, so I installed them both to see how they “feel” in everyday use.

Xubuntu and XFCE

Xubuntu's install is pretty much like every other flavor of Ubuntu. In fact, it's pretty much like every other flavor of Linux. Gone are the days of difficult installs, and even if you choose to use a text-based installer, the process is dead simple—so simple, in fact, it's silly to include a screenshot. It looks like an installer. Trust me.

Current versions of Xubuntu are a little shocking in just how much they resemble their GNOME-y counterparts. In fact, the Xubuntu desktop in version 10.10 looks like a slightly bluer version of Ubuntu 10.10. Certainly this is Canonical's tweaking—a very nice job of making its lighter-on-the-resources desktop look exactly like its big brother. Unfortunately, appearance isn't the only place Xubuntu is identical to Ubuntu. Figure 1 shows a freshly booted install of Ubuntu, with no programs running other than the terminal displayed. You can see the freshly booted new install uses approximately 328MB of the 512MB installed on my machine. When I turned to the Xubuntu install, which runs XFCE instead of GNOME, I expected to see a much lower memory usage upon booting up. I was shocked to see Xubuntu using 325MB, almost identical to the Ubuntu install (Figure 2).

Figure 1. A freshly booted, default install of Ubuntu 10.10 uses 328MB of RAM while idle.

Figure 2. A freshly booted, default install of Xubuntu 10.10 uses 325MB of RAM—almost identical to Ubuntu.

The big difference with Xubuntu isn't really how much RAM the desktop manager uses, but rather the default applications installed. When I start Xubuntu's Exaile music application versus Ubuntu's Rhythmbox, it does indeed use less RAM, and it starts up faster. However, getting rid of Rhythmbox on Ubuntu and installing Exaile in its place gives the same advantage while using GNOME under Ubuntu. In fact, although Xubuntu and XFCE do feel faster in use, in every case I've tested, it seems to be due only to the default applications. If you're a GNOME fan, Xubuntu might be a big change for little reward. Keep GNOME, install some faster applications, and you might get the best of both worlds.


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