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frugal technology, simple living and guerrilla large-appliance repair
Thu, 19 Jul 2012

My new Xfce 4.8 desktop in Debian Wheezy -- screenshot, tweaks and Xfce vs. GNOME 3

(Click the image above for a full-sized screenshot of my Debian Wheezy Xfce 4.8 desktop)

After a few weeks in GNOME 3, which I actually like, I decided to give Xfce 4.8 a try as the desktop environment on my recently upgraded Debian Wheezy laptop.

Above is a screenshot of the bare desktop. I've made a number of tweaks to the default Xfce configuration. Xfce in Debian generally requires a bit more configuration than distributions for which Xfce is the primary desktop environment such as Xubuntu, Linux Mint Debian, etc.

The changes I've made so far include:

  • Changed desktop wallpaper to the blue, traditional Aquarius.svg image (I'm not terribly fond of the new Debian Wheezy desktop theme; the Squeeze SpaceFun theme was my favorite of all time, and the new Wheezy theme just doesn't measure up)

  • Added two extra desktops to the Workplace Switcher for a total of six

  • Used the custom format %c in the Xfce Clock widget in the upper panel to get "day, date, month, year, time, AM/PM, time zone" output.

  • Added the xfce-mixer widget to upper panel

  • Turned on "enable editable accelerators" -- do it in the menu at Settings -- Appearance -- Settings, then check the proper box under Menus and Buttons (why this is turned off by default, I don't know) and added launchers for Gedit and Icedove/Thunderbird to the lower panel

  • Switched to the xfce-smooth desktop style

  • Switched to the Cantarell font, 11 point, with full hinting (This font was one of the things I really liked about GNOME 3 in Debian Wheezy, so I am glad to have it in Xfce; the "stock" Xfce font is definitely not to my liking)

  • Shrunk lower-panel size from 40 to 35

  • Enabled one-click file-opening in Thunar

  • While I kept Thunar as my default file manager (I still have Nautilus if I want/need it), and Xfce Terminal as the default terminal, I set Gedit as my default text editor. I like Gedit a lot, though and it's not the only text editor that will open files over ftp/sftp through either Thunar or Nautilus. I booted into GNOME 3 to make sure this wasn't an Xfce-only problem (it's not). I have tried more than a few tweaks to get Mousepad, Geany and Gvim to open files over ftp, and nothing is working. For some reason, I can now edit over ftp/sftp with editors other than Gedit. I don't know if this is the result of an update to Debian or something else (though I did nothing to make it happen), but I can now edit remote files with Mousepad or, in the case of this particular file on this particular day, Gvim.

That's pretty much all the Xfce tweaking I've done. It's been a long time since I've set up an Xfce desktop for actual use, and I'm a little rusty, truth be told.

I have definitely noticed a performance improvement vs. GNOME 3, where GNOME Shell and its use of 3D acceleration is eating its share of CPU. It's nothing compared to what the Chromium browser is consuming, but the hit on performance is something I can definitely feel.

You might ask why I don't just use the 2D GNOME Classic mode? Well, I've tried GNOME Classic, and I like it. But you don't have the configurability -- in any version of GNOME 3, really, and especially in GNOME Classic -- that you have in Xfce.

After a full day in Xfce, I've finally stopped mousing into the "hot corner," GNOME Shell-style, and I'm getting used to moving among my virtual desktops and various applications the old-fashioned way.

I'm still a fan of GNOME 3, but it's nowhere near as resource-lean as GNOME 2. On better hardware it probably isn't as noticeable, but on my Lenovo G555 -- circa 2010 -- with a dual-core AMD Athlon II CPU, 3 GB of RAM and an ATI Mobility Radeon 4200 HD video chip that doesn't have its own memory (it steals 300 MB from system memory), at the moment Xfce is a better fit.

Still, I am fully aware that the web browsers I'm using right now -- Chromium and Iceweasel/Firefox -- and some of the Javascript-filled Web pages I work with are hogging a lot more CPU than GNOME Shell ever did, especially after prolonged use. But a lighter desktop environment doesn't hurt.

I gave GNOME 3 a pretty good try over the past few weeks, and I plan to do the same with Xfce.

Later that day: I had the same problems with browsers eating at my CPU over the course of the day. Quitting and restarting the browsers clears up the problem. This is by no means a Linux problem. The same thing happens on Windows and Mac systems. Browsers are just lousy applications, and the World Wide Web is rife with resource-hogging scripts that conspire to sap your system of its very strength.

I'm not ending my trial of Xfce early by any means, but in the interest of comparing the Xfce 4.8 and GNOME 3.4 environments, I logged out of Xfce and logged back into GNOME.

One thing I do notice is that while GNOME Shell does take CPU when you're in the middle of a desktop-navigation operation that uses 3D, it "gives back" that CPU fairly quickly. Unlike certain browsers on certain web pages.

The thing I'm going to keep in mind: Is the eye-candy and functionality of GNOME Shell worth the performance hit over what I can do in Xfce? I'll be keeping an eye on resource utilization to see if GNOME gives back those CPU cycles as quickly as a session lengthens over the course of a work day.