Xfce customized to be more like my Gnome desktop. After only a few minutes work, the results are already pleasing. Lets not forget though its Sabayon 6 - an excellent distro! (Oh and the Space Marine desktop is due to the fact I'm currently loving it on PS3)

It’s no secret that Gnome 3 (and Gnome-shell) are not being well received by everyone.  Canonical is going with its Unity and for many other Gnome users, the future is Gnome-shell.

KDE is/was never an option for me, I simply don’t like it.  Over the last few years I’ve tried to get on with KDE, but found myself time and again going back to Gnome after only a very short period of time.  Maybe that’s because when I migrated fully to a Linux desktop, I mostly used Gnome and have now become indoctrinated in working with it.   Series 2 offered everything I wanted, it was simple, clean and familiar, however with its move to 3 series I find that it no longer has a place in my heart.  Without repeating views which I’ve stated many times in the past, I will merely say that Gnome-Shell to me feels as if it should be on a smart phone, not a desktop form factor.  My personal comfort zone in desktop computing is not having a “cushion” between myself and the OS (Gnome-shell).  People may disagree, people may like Gnome-Shell.  I do not.

My first Xfce experience came a couple of years ago with the distro Wolvix and at the time Xfce impressed me with the same simple functionality that Gnome had previously offered me for so long, it seemed then only natural that when Sabayon (my distro of choice) was returned to my desktop, I went with Xfce.

My previous Sabayon (Gnome) desktop. As you can see, I'm not far off realizing my goal of an Xfce alternative.

So lets look at  Sabayon 6 Xfce, where I’ll be dropping in my observations of Xfce as we go along.  For this review I’m running the 64bit version.

Sabayon is a strange distro, in all the experiences I’ve had, it offers out of the box support for hardware, rock solid stability but its never achieved the ranking on DistroWatch that it so rightfully deserved.    I understand (as I highlighted in a recent TechBytes episode) that the ranking is in no way indicative of the actual usage stats, but even so, I would expect Sabayon to have more people talking and ergo more hits on its Distrowatch page.

Installation – Sabayon the unsung hero!

Whilst its common to read about the simple installation of Ubuntu, Mint et al, Sabayon has been running with a simple installation certainly before I migrated over originally.  After choosing your partition options (in simple English) you are taken step by step through the rest of the process without the “l33t speak” which can put some users off.  Again, I go back to what I said earlier and it’s a surprise why Sabayon has not received more attention.

Sabayon prides itself on providing many proprietary packages at install time, its no bad thing for the user who does require some proprietary solutions.  I am almost 100% sure that on previous releases of Sabayon you could “bulk accept” licenses, which now seems to be replaced by having to click on each one separately.

So whats included in a default install?

One comment I’ve made time and time again when looking at a distro is the need to customize much of the default flavour with my own preferences.  This is not said as a complaint and its to be expected that all an individuals requirements are not going to be met out of the box with the developers vision of the distro.  That being said, Sabayon Xfce really was by far the most “ready” after install for me.

Entropy covers all your package needs. Its very simple to use however can be rather sluggish on operation.

Xfce is 4.8.0  which is the most recent version, released on January 16 this year, Thunar 1.2.2 is the file-manager, a lightweight offering that serves its purpose well and compliments Sabayon Xfce as a distro for those on more limited hardware, however more powerful machines will be given an easier time – more time to dedicate to running essential applications, not the platform from which they are launched (the OS).

Chromium as its default web browser scored points since I’ve been using it from early in its development (and I believe 5.5 bundled Midori so it was a relief to see that gone), LibreOffice is presented in version 3.4.3

There’s none of those play once games included either, which saves the job of removal after installation.

There were a couple of surprises for me though.  There was no mail client (Thunderbird at the ready!) and instead of Audacious (or similar) we were given Exaile, a package which I have never used before.  Quite why this decision was made I’m not sure, in terms of footprint and cpu usage there’s very little difference (that I’ve found) so to me, the aesthetically more pleasing Audacious would have been a better choice (that’s if you choose to run it in Winamp Classic interface!). – I think Sabayon Xfce needs to consider that it will no longer only be a choice mostly for those on very limited hardware.

The default image viewer is ristretto 0.0.93 which is a rather bemusing choice, it’s quite laggy (especially when zooming in and out of large files), that I replaced almost immediately with Eye of Gnome 3.0.2 which offers a far better experience on my rig.  There was also no screen grab utility present, so currently I’m using Shutter – something I think will be replaced shortly.

Unless I’ve missed it, there is no media burning software included.  That didn’t matter much to me, as I’ve yet to see a non-KDE distro package K3b, my package of choice there.

Transmission 2.33 is present and I think its been (unofficially) decided that as far as most people are concerned, it’s the defacto BitTorrent client for the desktop (in the Linux world).  I’m still waiting for anyone to come forward with advantages of Deluge over Transmission.

Entropy Store is your package manager and whilst its a simple enough affair to use, its a little bit of a pig performance wise, even running on a quad-core.  That doesn’t detract from its flawless operation and simplicity – however I think its something which should now be addressed (its been this way ever since I first tried Sabayon).

My requirements had me introducing a few packages, LottaNZB, K3b (as stated above), Skype, VLC and as I’ve said in the past,  Sabayon repo’s are large and comprehensive.

Conclusions

Previous versions have had some complaining about boot-time.  Whilst Sabayon is not the fastest “booter”, it’s certainly no slouch and I can have a net-ready machine in around 35 seconds.   I’m sure with a little work, I could trim that down a little, however in days of Windows machines that I’ve seen taking over 2.5 minutes (and apparently being acceptable to the user) I don’t really feel the need to complain about 35 seconds of my life.  Conversely, shut down takes around 10 or so seconds which again is respectable.

Having been a Sabayon user previous (albeit in a Gnome incarnation) you have a Gentoo based distro which is speedy (more so with Xfce) and reliable.  The Sabayon repo’s are comprehensive and the default packaging on the whole (with a few surprising omissions) was good.

With Sabayon almost certainly making the move to Gnome 3 sooner or later, perhaps what critics once touted as a flaw of Linux (the amount of diversity and choice) is now paying dividends.  For Linux users, we are not forced to follow the visions of the big name distros and as you will see in the Xfce observation below, the amount of choice means that finding replacement is usually no problem at all.

For those looking for a rock solid, punchy distro I would wholeheartedly recommend Sabayon.  For those wishing to migrate away from Gnome, I can thoroughly recommend Xfce.

The XFCE Solution?

Whilst I have briefly reviewed Sabayon, the main purpose of this article was to explore Xfce.  As mentioned earlier, Gnome 3 is not for me.  I am not alone either since it appears from numerous forums that many people are already looking for Gnome alternatives.  Prior to installing Sabayon Xfce, I spent a couple of hours with LXDE.  I’ll probably be covering that over on Diaspora in due course.

With moving to Xfce, my first task was making it as similar to my Gnome 2 series desktop as I possibly could.  Having a taskbar at the top of the screen for my applications menu/shortcuts and the bottom for virtual desktop management and open packages.  It’s the way I work, maybe not the way you do.  I was recently talking about DE’s and noted that any machine running just the single “tradition” single taskbar at the bottom of the screen, has me getting flashbacks of Windows, not pleasant ones I hasten to add.

Getting to grips with Xfce was rather simple.   As you can see in the screen-shot, I have what already resembles a Gnome desktop and this was only a few minutes of work.  I have noticed a few aesthetical features missing from Xfce (which maybe someone can answer) the main one being I’m offered no transparency on my taskbars – hardly a deal breaker though. I should just elaborate, for some reason, the transparency slider just does not effect the taskbar (this may be an issue my end and I’m looking into it)

I am very happy with my Xfce “emulation” of my familiar Gnome desktop and I believe people would be hard pushed to differentiate my rig now from its previous Gnome incarnation.  I can confidently say for anyone looking to jump off the Gnome ship before 3 settles in, you can not afford to ignore Xfce, especially if, like me you were less than comfortable with KDE.

I said earlier that migrations away from Gnome have been mentioned in many forums and that in itself poses many question, notably:

How will the (presumed) surge of users to Xfce affect the development? – With the last release (4.8.0) being in January this year, can we expect a more rapid (with assumed more contribution) cycle?

If Gnome 3 is in the most part to appeal to the more casual/average user, will this fragment further the Linux desktop? With Canonical moving in its own direction (and doing very well I believe) we could see a very different Linux landscape this time next year.

These questions will be answered in due course, but I think that one thing is for certain, the Xfce user base will expand considerably over the next few months – and rightfully so, its a fantastic collection of projects.

Tim (Goblin)

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Mail: bytes4free@googlemail.com
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I can also be found in #techrights on freenode.net.