Xfce: the Third Man

If you thought the only desktop options were KDE and GNOME, think again. Xfce provides a full-featured desktop that's lightweight enough to run on old hardware.

Then, log out and back in.

You will be able to specify some visual effects, such as transparency for window decorations, window shadows and so on (see below for details). Note that XFWM4, Xfce's own window manager, does the effects on its own, without requiring any further programs or modules.

Customization, Customization, Customization

If you are used to KDE or GNOME, you'll notice some differences, but nothing too dramatic. Right-clicking on the desktop produces a menu with all your applications. Note, however, that the menu is “shallow”—selecting an item in the menu directly produces a list of possible applications, and there are no more submenus. If you want a nicer, multilevel menu, right-click on the menu button on the panel, and select Edit Menu. You'll see a line that looks like this:

---include---          system

Right-click on it, and you can select the menu style you want: Simple (a single level) or Multilevel. Click File→Save, and then close the window. By clicking on the menu button and selecting Properties, you can manage other changes; feel free to experiment.

If you followed the steps in the above paragraph, you will have experienced Xfce's mouse-only style of configuration. Almost all available options can be selected with only the mouse, providing a consistent and easy interface.

Let's move on to more customizations. In the main menu, choose Settings (Figure 1), allowing you to change Xfce's look and feel. If you search the Net a bit, you'll even find people who have managed to make Xfce look like Windows.

Here are some of the items you might want to explore:

  • Appearance (or User Interface Preferences) lets you select or install window and icon themes; see Resources for more eye candy.

  • Autostarted Applications lists the applications that will be started automatically whenever you log in. Note that all applications you saved the last time you logged out also will be started; take a look at Sessions and Startup for some options. Also, Preferred Applications lets you specify your favorite Web browser, mail reader and similar programs.

  • Desktop Settings and Screensaver let you select the desktop background (solid colors or gradients, or an image) and screensaver, along with some behavior aspects, such as the meaning of a middle- or right-click (the defaults are showing the window list and showing the desktop menu, respectively) or what kinds of icons (if any) will be shown.

  • Mixer Settings (or Sound) and Monitor Settings (or Display Settings) deal with sound and screen and have relatively few options. For multimedia options, check Gstreamer Properties too.

  • Keyboard Properties lets you define shortcuts and accessibility features.

  • Panel Manager lets you specify how many panels there should be, at which positions (top- or bottom-centered) and of what size. You can right-click on a panel and select Add New Item in order to decide what should be shown. Here, you can change the menu, windows bar and system tray. Opting for a classic look, I configured just one bottom-centered panel with a menu, several program launchers (allowing access to a terminal, editor, file manager and such), a task list (showing open applications), a few applets, a clock and the lock and logout commands.

  • Window Manager Settings lets you select the default style for windows, keyboard shortcuts, several details on focusing windows, opaque moves, resizing and the meaning of a double-click on a window. You also should look at Window Manager Tweaks for similar items. In particular, go to the Compositor tab, which lets you specify transparency and shadow parameters.

  • Workspace Settings lets you choose how many desktops you want (the fewer the better, in terms of speed) and some other working details.

You might have noticed there is no Fonts configuration option, and apparently, there won't be one in Xfce 4.6 either. If you want to add or remove fonts, you have to do it manually.

Figure 1. Practically all configuration can be done with only the mouse.

Managing Files

Since version 4.4, the default Xfce file manager is Thunar (the old Saxon name for Thor, the Nordic god of thunder), which replaced the previous file manager XFFM (Figure 2).

Thunar is fast and easy to use, and it's similar to Nautilus, Dolphin or Rox-Filer. In terms of working with files and directories, usage is quite similar to other file managers, and you'll likely feel at home quickly.

Thunar is a lightweight program by design, but you can add functionality through plugins. Download plugins using your package manager or directly from the Thunar Web site. Among the possible extra functions are the following:

  • Advanced Properties adds extra pages to the File Properties dialog. For image files, it displays only the image properties, and for .desktop files, it provides launching information, allowing you to specify which program should be run.

  • Archive lets you create and extract files from .rar, .zip and similar archive files.

  • Renaming lets you rename several files at once and provides search-and-replace patterns, so you could, for example, change all *TXT files to *txt with a single command.

  • Media tags also lets you rename media files (such as .mp3) by providing access to their tags.

For archived files, the default still is Xarchiver, but Squeeze is set to be the next option (Figures 4 and 5). Xarchiver supports most types of archive files (bzip2, gzip, rar, rpm, tar, zip and so on), with password detection (for reading) and encryption (for writing). You can preview, cut, copy, paste, rename, and drag and drop files to or from archives. Squeeze still is in development and offers only add, extract and delete functions for now.

Finally, Ristretto (the name for a highly concentrated espresso) is an image viewer. You can open a whole directory at once and see all the images in a slideshow fashion (Figure 6). Ristretto lets you zoom and rotate images, and it also can be used via a Thunar plugin.

Figure 2. Thunar, Xfce's Standard File Manager

Figure 3. Custom Thunar Action

Figure 4. Xarchiver, the Current Xfce Archive Manager

Figure 5. Squeeze, the Xfce Archive Manager

Figure 6. Ristretto Image Viewer