posted by Thom Holwerda on Fri 17th Jul 2009 10:17 UTC
IconWhile we regularly discuss Ubuntu, and to a lesser degree Kubuntu, there's also a version of Ubuntu tailor-made for the Xfce desktop environment. As most of you are aware, it's called Xubuntu, and after trying it out for the first time, I have to say that I find that it provides a better and more coherent experience than Ubuntu (let alone Kubuntu).

This isn't a review; these are just a few quick notes about Xfce and Xubuntu.

I find Ubuntu to be the best Linux distribution there is. It's easy to install and use, has a good balance between stability and bleeding-edgeness, and makes it very easy to overcome some of the hurdles of desktop Linux such as restricted drivers, encumbered codecs, and non-Free software. On top of that, I'm simply biased towards it because it's Debian-based, and I feel most at home on Debian.

Where Ubuntu fails, in my opinion, is the overall aesthetics of the system. I know themes and the like are easy to change, but the brown and orange just had its time, and while it serves its role in giving Ubuntu a distinctive look, it also means having to do extra work to get it to look to my pleasing.

I've tried Kubuntu on a number of occasions, but it just doesn't come even close to the amount of polish Ubuntu delivers, and it seems to have only gotten worse with the advent of KDE4. The Kubuntu guys just do not seem to be able to implement KDE4 to its fullest potential, which is a shame. Then again, I must say that other distributions also seem to have trouble with really utilising the flexibility of KDE4 to its fullest.

So I figured I'd give Xubuntu a try, and I must say, I was very, very pleasantly surprised. I haven't used Xfce in a long time, so it was also a good opportunity to find out how this other desktop environment is doing. As it turns out, both Xubuntu and Xfce have grown up, and I can honestly say that I find Xfce more pleasant to use than GNOME, and Xubuntu more polished than Ubuntu.

Xubuntu's presentation of Xfce is more professional and grown-up than that of Ubuntu-regular. Instead of an eye-piercing orange, the default theme and colours of Xubuntu are more subdued, making it more pleasant to look at. Xubuntu opted for the Murina Gtk+ theme engine, with StormCloud as its Gtk+ style, which goes very well with my favourite part: the beautiful default Xfwm4 window decorator. Again, it looks much more professional than the default Ubuntu theme.

Moving on from the shallowness of themes, Xfce is like GNOME, but just less of it. It's like a miniature version of GNOME, but with additional goodies. One of those is of course the excellent file manager for Xfce: Thunar. Thunar is small, lightweight, and it has a clean and unobtrusive interface. Sure, you can install Thunar on Ubuntu, but that's besides the point: defaults matter.

Another very welcome goodie is Xfce's support for iconification. Sadly, it does feel like an afterthought, and not a core part of Xfce. For instance, icons on the desktop are an OR...OR situation; you can have or regular icons, or iconified windows. I want the ability to have them both, with iconified windows being distinctly different from regular icons. In addition, it would be nice if it had a subtle visual cue which would indicate where the window is iconified to. I had hoped Compiz could solve this issue, but sady, Compiz' minimise effects will only "minimise" to the task list.

Still, iconification earns Xfce major brownie points, and hopefully future versions will improve the concept.

The compositor built into Xfce also deserves a mention. It's simple and limited, but it works very well and makes the whole experience of using Xfce just that little bit smoother. Some sort of method of extending functionality would be welcome though; a plugin framework of some sort like Compiz has. You can run Compiz on Xfce too, of course.

Overall, Xubuntu made a good impression, and if you haven't tried it yet, I suggest you give it a go. It provides all the benefits of regular Ubuntu, but it all looks a bit more polished and professional. Until the Ubuntu team implements a more coherent and less eye-piercing default look, Xubuntu will be my new variant of choice.

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