Three years ago, the Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment (LXDE) was a faltering project -- so much so that, when I wrote about it, one commenter questioned whether the project was still alive. However, since then, accounts of LXDE's death have proved greatly exaggerated, and the project is once again flourishing.
Today, LXDE is available in many distributions. Fedora includes an LXDE spin, and Lubuntu makes LXDE a choice in Ubuntu. Other distributions supporting LXDE include Debian and openSUSE. Alternatively, you can download a Live CD based on Debian from the LXDE home page.
How did LXDE become so popular? From its earliest days, the project has appealed to those who wanted a smaller, faster alternative than leading desktops like GNOME or KDE. However, in the last few years, the rise of the netbook computer has created a new demand for lightweight desktops, which LXDE has been able to fill without straying far from its original design philosophy.
The main adjustment that LXDE has had to make is to include larger popular programs and to develop its own interface for netbooks. If LXDE perhaps lacks a little user-friendliness, it is still worth a closer look.
LXDE remains true to the Unix roots of free software by borrowing when possible, instead of reinventing. Rather than building their own toolkits, LXDE desktop developers work with GTK+, like GNOME. Similarly, instead of a unique window manager, LXDE is generally packaged with an existing small one, such as Openbox, which is used on the Live CD.
At other times, LXDE favors existing applications that are front ends for command line tools, such as Xarchiver for compressing files, or Xscreensaver, the generic screen saver collection for the X Window System. These applications typically have the low memory demands and fast performance that are part of LXDE's philosophy.
LXDE panel preferences
When the LXDE project does produce its own software, the results resemble the type of application that it borrows. For instance, GPicView is a graphics viewer with an extremely basic set of controls that allows you to zoom in, rotate images, save or delete them, or move through the contents of a file -- and not much else besides. These are only the contents on the toolbar in an application like KDE's Gwenview, but, where GPicView also gives you menu items to resize, crop, and even reduce Red Eye, GPicView offers nothing more.
This is not the inconvenience it might sound, since any given implementation of LXDE is likely to include The GIMP or some other graphics editor that is better suited for editing images. It's just that LXDE tends not to duplicate functions needlessly.
For those used to KDE and GNOME, the result of such philosophy may be that LXDE often looks likes a bare bones interface -- functional, but with few extras. However, this view is not always accurate, as the PCMan File Manager demonstrates.
With multiple tabs and a dialog for file characteristics and program associations, PCMan compares favorably with KDE's Dolphin or GNOME's Nautilus, with a surprisingly complete set of features, most of which can be easily found. Some users, too, might view PCMan's depiction of directory hierarchies, rather than an abstracted view of the current user's desktop, as a refreshing return to basics.