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.
An Eclectic Mix of Software
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.
The main trouble with such software is that it sits strangely beside the popular applications like OpenOffice.org, Mozilla, or The GIMP, all of which are included on the Live CD. Next to GPicView or PCMan, such applications appear overblown and wasteful. At the very least, they belong to a different school of thought about desktops -- so much so that I suspect that they are only included because users expect them.
Another area in which LXDE's minimalist tradition seems strained is in configuration. On the one hand, free and open source software users expect to a high degree of configurability. On the other hand, how can an interface meet such expectations while eliminating anything not strictly necessary?
As with applications in general, part of LXDE's answer to this design question is to avoid duplication. Instead of providing its own desktop customization dialogs, the Live CD simply provides Openbox's. In the dialog for desktop preferences, you can even opt to see Openbox's context menus when you click on the desktop instead of LXDE's.
Another part of the answer is ensuring that customization interfaces have as little eye-candy as possible. Open the dialog for panel applications, and you find only a list of choices, with no icons or even detailed descriptions of what each choice does. Nor are applets like GNOME's Tomboy or KDE's Blackboard part of the selection: the choices are functional ones, such as a menu, or a notification tray or a clock.
Mostly, however, LXDE balances its design philosophy and user expectations by providing a careful, but not thorough selection of customization options.
This balance is especially obvious in PCMan's preferences dialog. On the first tab of the dialog, you can selection icon sizes for the desktop, and the size of the files to display as thumbnails. On the second, you can set PCMan to manage the desktop, and select the desktop wallpaper. On the third, you can set the locale for file names and set the default terminal.
If you compare these choices with GNOME's Nautilus, they seem sparse and hardly adequate. But, when you start to examine them, not only are more advanced options on a separate tab, but the ones provided are ones that most affect the look and feel of the desktop.
Besides, if you really want a complete set of customization options, you can always find them in the Openbox Configuration Manager. There, you can choose themes, and set the behavior of windows and the mouse in as much detail as in KDE or GNOME. In fact, you can even find some unusual features, such as desktop margins and a windows dock that many other desktops lack.
At times, LXDE's configuration interfaces are not as complete as they could be. In particular, if you prefer clicking icons on the desktop to using the menu, you will probably find that copying the icon to the Desktop folder inconvenient. Yet, for the most part, LXDE usually manages to satisfy the expectation of customizing by offering a careful selection of options that should be just enough for most people.
LXLauncher for Netbooks
Most of LXDE's design is not specifically useful for desktops. Its desktop is a standard design for workstations, and its small footprints matters less now that many netbooks ship with two megabytes of RAM.
However, in LXLauncher, LXDE has what may be the simplest netbook interface yet. Started from the menu, LXLauncher is a translation of the menu into a series of tabs that occupy the entire screen. From left to right, these tabs are Internet, Work, Learn, Play, and Preferences. On each tab, you can customize each icon.
Unfortunately, neither the tabs nor the icons can be moved about or added to from the desktop. Yet, overall, the interface is reminiscent of KDE's Plasma Netbook interface, only more so. In general, LXLauncher is ideal for both the limited screens of the typical netbook, as well as for children or anyone with limited eyesight.
State of the Interface
In many ways, LXDE is where Xfce was a couple of release ago: polished in some places and rough in a couple of obvious ones. It could use another few months of development before it is as user-friendly as it could be.
Meanwhile, LXDE is ideal for intermediate users who prefer a graphical interface, but do not object to some simple one-time configuration at the command line. Appealing to both old-time users and the users of modern hardware alike, it provides a unique bridge between free software's past and present -- and possibly its future as well.