Sunday, 26 February 2012


One of the things I love about Linux, and the reason I spend more time using Linux than Windows, is that it just allows me to get the job done.  There are times when I actually need to boot into Windows, and I find it infuriating.  First of all, it takes an age to start, and then all the applications and things I want to do take place at a glacial speed.  Much to my horror, I saw Linux going the same way.

For as long as I can remember, there have been people who love GNOME and people who love KDE.  I have no problem with this, because Linux is all about choice.  Personally, when Ubuntu switched their main desktop environment to Unity, it was just a step too far for me - it clearly wasn't ready, and the interface actually got in the way of me getting things done.  Maybe that's personal preference, but I see no reason to fix something that isn't broken, and Unity was more like a smartphone interface than the traditional WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointer) environment of GNOME.  I had easily made the switch to Ubuntu-based GNOME from KDE-based SuSE and Mandriva systems I used earlier.  Yes, there were differences, but it was still a traditional WIMP environment.  We should start using that acronym again - I prefer it to it's modern equivalent, GUI.

I switched to the Debian edition of Linux Mint, which had kept with the GNOME environment.  Once again, I was happy with the interface between myself and the things I wanted to get done.  However, a stream of updates to the system conspired to slow things down; not to the snail's pace of Windows, but certainly to an extent where I noticed.  GNOME was becoming bloated.  I wondered if switching back to KDE would make a difference but, looking at reports on the internet, and trying it out for myself, I came to the conclusion that it would not.

I have used XFCE in the past, and I'm a big fan of that desktop environment.  It is a traditional desktop environment.  I have some brief experience of GNOME 3 and, until Windows 8 comes along, I find it even more infuriating than Windows.  XFCE was originally modelled on a standard UNIX desktop called CDE, and it is all the better for that.  It is not difficult to use, it works in the manner I expect, and it simply gets out of the way and allows me to get things done.  For now, this is the interface I have with my computer in Linux.

I'm becoming increasingly interested in LXDE, though.  Compared to GNOME, KDE and XFCE, this desktop gets little attention from the big Linux distributors.  Lubuntu - a LXDE version of the insanely popular Ubuntu - is an exception, and bundles LXDE as the desktop environment, but I found it to be incredibly unstable.  It is, after all, based on the unstable branch of Debian, I guess.

My interest in this comes from a desire to run Linux on older computers.  Imagine how many perfectly usable  computers go to landfill each year, just because they can't run the latest version of Windows.  Think also of poorer countries, where they would be happy to have ANY computer, as long as it is functioning.  I ran some tests, on various distributions, and found that LXDE uses an average of 40MB less memory than XFCE.  It also quickly became apparent that everything in LXDE happens at lightning speed.  Yes, I could use even less resources by opting for a straight window manager, but I prefer the comfort of a desktop environment.  I want the operating system to get out of the way and allow me to get things done, remember? A desktop environment is just more friendly than a simple window manager.

I'm seriously considering switching to LXDE as my main desktop.  For me, it does not lack anything and it is simply a joy to see how responsive my computer is under that desktop.  It just allows me to get things done quickly, without getting in the way.  I'm currently running it on Debian Wheezy, though my default desktop is still set to XFCE.  If there is a downside, it's that Windows feels even more lethargic by comparison now.

I hope they iron out the bugs in Lubuntu.  In the meantime, I would like to see more Linux distributors get behind this UI.  My fear is that Unity and GNOME, much like the upcoming Windows 8, are aimed at touchscreen computing.  I suspect that touchscreens cost more to produce, so we are heading down a road which makes computers more expensive, thereby excluding those lower down the social order and reinforcing disadvantage.  In the developing world, the majority of people can not afford a computer as things are, and that is a serious hindrance in these times.  My interest in desktop environments that use few resources comes from a desire to get things done, without the interface getting in the way.  However, if it also allows older computers to become usable again, that has environmental benefits (less waste) and may, for a few people who are less well off than the rest of us, serve as something of an equaliser.