eXcursions into Xubuntu

Last updated: Dec. 4, 2007, 12:21 a.m.

After a recent case of excessive tinkering, my desktop install of Kubuntu became terminally unstable, requiring a re-install. After a quick try of gOS I decided to try Xubuntu 7.04 from a Linux Format cover disk before deciding on what OS to install.

So, Xubuntu, another flavour of Shuttleworth's much hyped "Linux for Human beings"? But what's special about this one? Well, the X stands for XFCE, the desktop front-end applied to the Ubuntu framework. If you've played with Linux much, you'll be aware, no doubt, of the big two - Gnome and KDE, but if you can run two different desktops on top of the Linux Kernel, why not more? The answer is, you can, there are a whole host, XFCE, FluxBox, BlackBox and many more. XFCE is one of the more mature and is a light weight yet fully featured desktop. I have tried it before, many years ago, but it seems that it has come a long way since.

The raw speed was astounding. Even running from the CD the responsiveness of the operating system was blazingly fast. The desktop has all the features normally associated with a Linux desktop, taskbar, workspace switcher, applet tray, system menu, desktop icons etc. It's also based on GTK, so it's hugely theme-able and has plenty of nicely integrated tools you can borrow from Gnome. There are also a large and very nice set of dedicated XFCE tools now. The file manager, Thunar, was specially written for XFCE and is a nice, fairly simple file manager with some useful extensions available. Whilst no where near as sophisticated as the mighty Konqueror, it is quite capable, I was pleased to note that I was able to install an archive managing tool that integrated perfectly very easily.

A nice feature that I find quite useful is the Mail Watcher applet, it's a simple dock applet that runs on the top panel and shows a little grey envelope icon. You can configure this icon with a number of different mail accounts with a large array of account types, which the applet periodically checks for new mail. The applet then lights up the icon when a new email arrives in one of the mail boxes that you've configured. My favourite feature of this system is that you can configure any command to be run when you click the mail icon, hence on my laptop I have an instance of this applet that checks my Gmail account, and I have configured the action to start a new Firefox tab showing my Gmail account. This ingenious little applet means that I can completely remove the need for a desktop mail client, whilst still having the convenience of a new mail notification.

Moving to XFCE from KDE, I was pleased with the Clipboard Manager applet as well, I have grown accustomed to having a very long clipboard history available and use it heavily, using Klipper, and was really pleased to see this functionality included in XFCE. The interface is generally very smooth and comfortable and has a really nice un-assuming look. Of course, you can always make this desktop look like OSX or Vista if you want using an appropriate theme, but the Xubuntu default is something with much less shine and and much more comfort. A glossy curvy desktop may be very fashionable and cool, but like a lot of fashionable things needs constant tweaking to look good and just isn't as comfortable as a smoother less eye-catching design.

I have yet to find a nice RSS reader for XFCE, I'm still using aKregator, and I fear that the lure of Konqueror and the KIO system will pull me back to KDE in the end, but on the whole I am very impressed with this latest release of Xubuntu and would like to stay.



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