A few times each month, I tire of the complexities of GNOME and KDE. Then I turn to a simpler, faster desktop for a couple of days or a week -- and that desktop, more often than not, is Xfce. No other desktop Im aware of balances convenience and speed half so well.
The only drawback has been that, until this week, the current version of Xfce has been a couple of years old and looking blocky and a little limited in what it can do. Consequently, the release of Xfce 4.8 is both welcome and overdue. The new release gives Xfce a facelift and some new enhancements to general functionality, settings, and -- most of all -- the panel, while not compromising previous releases' functionality and lightweight.
This approach makes 4.8 seem a minor release by GNOME or KDE standards, but I suspect that I'm not the only one who wouldn't have things any other way. Unlike the other major desktops, Xfce is a niche environment, and its success should be judged by how well it fills that niche -- not on how many new features and applications can be crammed into it. It's an attitude that may be timely, considering some of the changes due to arrive on the Linux desktop during 2011.
Xfce 4.8 is available as source code from the project, and already starting to become available for major distributions. Packaged versions are available from private repositories for Ubuntu and Fedora, as well as pre-release packages for Debian and its derivative distributions. You may find that some of these packages are incompatible with existing Xfce utilities -- for example, as I write, the Ubuntu packages are incompatible with the previous version's Orage calendar.
Once the new version is installed, you can select it as your desktop as you log in.
General Features and Behind the Scenes
You won't see much in the way of new applications in the 4.8 release. About the closest you get is the new fuzzy clock for the panel, which indicates the time as "quarter past three," instead of with the false precision of 3:15:25 insisted on by digital clocks. Otherwise, much of the new Xfce release looks superficially like previous versions with the same features hat are so simple that they appear subtle, such as dragging and dropping open windows in the virtual workshop indicator on the panel.
You will find some changes. For instance, the progress dialogs for moving or copying files now show the progress for individual files, rather than the overall progress of the entire process. Similarly, you can now drag and drop from application launchers from the panel, menu, or file manager to add them to the desktop -- a simple step that Xfce has needed for several releases. Both these enhancements are small in themselves, but well in keeping with Xfce's ongoing efforts to avoid unnecessary complexity.
The same is true of the new eject button in the file manager beside removable devices. In earlier releases, you could remove a device via the context menu, but 4.8 eliminates the extra click. And if you add a shortcut to a directory in a panel, then clicking on its icon automatically shows sub-directories.
The Xfce 4.8 desktop
Yet another change is the reorganization of the Setting Manager. Unlike in KDE, Xfce's setting window includes all the customization options in one place, including those for the calendar, panel, and file manager, so that you don't have to search the desktop clicking one item after the next searching for options. For the first time, as well, configuration dialogs for printing and sound are included as well.
These are the sorts of finishing details that quickly add up -- and all too often are delayed in other desktops in favor of developing new features.
Still, on the whole, most of the biggest changes are behind the scenes. If you are a non-English speaker, you may notice substantial updates to translations in almost all aspects of the desktop from libraries to applications -- not just in western European languages like French and German, but also Romanian, Greek, Hungarian, and Arabic.
Although I couldn't find an explanation of this change, the most likely reason is to make better use of the Xfce project's limited number of developers by not allotting resources to a feature that is already well-developed elsewhere. At any rate, anyone who uses technologies such as FTP, Windows Shares, WebDav and SSH servers should benefit directly from the change, even though they may be unaware of the change.
The Panel Facelift
At a time when GNOME and Ubuntu's Unity desktop are simplifying the panel, Xfce is keeping its standard panel and rewriting it. The result is still recognizable as the quirky feature of early releases, requiring you to select Move from a context menu before repositioning a launcher or plug in, but is otherwise more flexible.
For one thing the 4.8 panel has more customization options than its predecessor. While in the previous release, you could adjust a panel by size, position, and width and set it to autohide to give you more screen space, in the new release, the panel can also be locked and given a background consisting of a color or an image. You can also adjust a panel's size by either pixels or percentage of the total screen in 4.8.
In addition, the 4.8 panel introduces the concept of what might be called item spacing. That is, instead of being automatically added to the panel, as in old releases, an icon or plug-in must either be added to an existing space, or else a new space must be created for it.
This arrangement seems needlessly fussy at first, but it helps you to organize the panel more to your liking, and reduces the conflict between panel width and the number of items on the panel.
Moreover, each launcher space can become a sub-menu or drawer of its own, with its own items. These sub-menus are a practical alternative to too many icons on the desktop, or to the various efforts to eliminate the space occupied by the classical or accordion-type main menu when it is open. Either way, the sub-menus help to keep Xfce simple in its layout.
Xfce's 4.8 panel
Back to the Basics with a Timely Release
Xfce 4.8 tweaks the desktop here and there, but mainly it should please existing users by being an updated version of what they already have.
However, the new release is also a timely one. For one thing, as the market for netbook and tablet computers continues to grow, Xfce's design philosophy may be exactly what users need.
Just as importantly, the second quarter of 2011 should see the release not only of Ubuntu's Unity desktop but also the release of GNOME 3.0. Both push the graphics capacity of free video drivers to the limit, and -- despite Unity's simplistic appearance -- neither is particularly fast or response if the pre-releases are any indication.
Moreover, while both Unity and GNOME 3.0 have their supporters, both also have large bodies of detractors (or, at least, very vocal ones). In both cases, the complaint is the same: the new desktops are being developed without paying much attention to what users want. For this reason, the releases of GNOME 3.0 and Unity seem likely to be accompanied by a number of dissatisfied users.
If that happens, Xfce might easily see a sudden increase in interest. Unlike GNOME 3.0 or Unity, Xfce does not try to change how users interact with the desktop. Instead, it focuses on the basics, providing a basic desktop and focusing on speed and efficiency.
Faced with a choice of two new desktop concepts, some users may turn to KDE. But others just might consider Xfce -- and, if they do, then the 4.8 release will be ready to give them a clear alternative.