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29 March 2010, 13:22

Minimalist Linux desktops

by Richard Hillesley

Lightweight desktops have a multitude of uses, on netbooks, for mobile devices, for older hardware, for users with limited requirements of their systems, for connecting to applications in the cloud, and for bare knuckled programmers who prefer to work closer to the metal.

Zoom Puppy lightweight Linux.
The most popular desktops for Linux – KDE and GNOME – are are equal to the demands of most users, but if you are a sysadmin or programmer who does most of his or her work in a shell, or on the command line through vim or vi or Emacs, your demands of a desktop environment or a window manager may be relatively limited. A fully-featured desktop environment may, perversely, sometimes get in the way of useful work.

For such users a minimalist window manager becomes desirable because it gives the ability to open multiple shells, to test and run programs and simultaneously browse files or the web, read mail or play games - but does away with the need for the unused extras, hidden libraries and add-ons, surplus menu options, applets and panels which may be seen as superfluous to the main objective, of getting your work done.

All that is required from the window manager is that it is efficient and economical with space and memory, provides a file manager, allows opening multiple windows and gives access to a limited range of software.

Window dressing

Linux users have a wide variety of alternative and minimalist desktops to choose from, some of which are more useful, interesting or adventurous than others.

In this context the lightweight desktops that are available for GNU/Linux can be broadly separated into complete desktop environments, such as LXDE, ROX Desktop or Xfce, and window managers, such as Enlightenment (E17), Window Maker, Openbox or Fluxbox . A window manager may be incorporated into a desktop environment or run as a self-sufficient entity. Puppy Linux logo

The tiny Linux distributions, such as Puppy Linux or Damn Small Linux, are designed to run on USB sticks or business card memory and use a window manager such as Joe's Window Manager (JWM), which gives to each of these distributions a passing imitation of a classic desktop, although the programs that are fired up by the window manager are independent applications. In contrast, the applications used in an integrated desktop environment, such as GNOME and KDE, are written using a common toolkit and incorporate a common look and feel.

Other popular distributions, including versions or derivatives of Ubuntu, Mandriva and Linux Mint, use LXDE, Xfce, Fluxbox or Openbox as their desktop managers - and most distributions offer the option of downloading a range of alternative desktops and window managers which can be selected from the log-in screen. DSL logo

A lightweight desktop or window manager isn't to everyone's taste, and may lack the easy functionality of an integrated desktop, but for those users who don't care for, or need, the superfluities and window dressing of a classic desktop, a lightweight desktop environment or window manager is far less profligate with processing power and memory, and can be just as useful.

Only idiots will use it

A feature of full blown desktop environments such as KDE and GNOME is that they hide the complexities of the underlying system. Configuration is made easy and the options are restricted to protect the user.

A side effect of this approach is that it can also limit the possibilities for other kinds of users, as Linus Torvalds noted in December 2006 when he complained to the GNOME usability mailing list that "This 'users are idiots, and are confused by functionality' mentality of GNOME is a disease. If you think your users are idiots, only idiots will use it. I don't use GNOME, because in striving to be simple, it has long since reached the point where it simply doesn't do what I need it to do."

Three years later he changed his tune when the KDE team radically changed the look and feel of KDE with the release of version 4.0. "I thought KDE 4.0 was such a disaster I switched to GNOME", he is reported to have said. "I hate the fact that my right button doesn't do what I want it to do." GNOME, like most of the successful products of open source, is subject to relatively rapid change.

Nonetheless his original complaint against GNOME does explain why some users who are familiar with the power and versatility of the command line can find the conventional desktop limiting and restrictive, and may prefer to work from within a minimalist windowing environment.


Such a minimalist environment is offered by LXDE, (Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment), which sees itself as the fast, energy saving and lightweight solution for "computers on the low end of the performance spectrum such as new generation netbooks and other small mobile computers," as well as performing well on older computers.

Most minimalist desktops for Linux have a relatively long history and pre-date the coming of KDE and GNOME in the late nineties, but LXDE is relatively recent, begun in 2006 by a Taiwanese programmer, Hong Yen Jee, also known as PCMan, who developed the first component of LXDE, the PCMan file manager, and gave as one of his reasons, "because re-inventing the wheel is cool, and we love it."

Considering its lack of bloat, LXDE is surprisingly fully featured, includes an image viewer and audio player, can be configured with an "EeePC like Launcher user interface or a MS Windows like application panel," and will perform well on a Pentium II with as little as 192MB of memory.

LXDE claims to use about 45 MB of memory on i386 machines, although such figures can be compromised by the utilities you choose to run, and on older machines it is probably wiser to run a lightweight office suite such as AbiWord rather than OpenOffice. LXDE is highly configurable, and performs the simple tasks well. The PCMan file manager is fast and fully featured, with tabbed browsing, volume management, drag and drop and search facilities, and is in the process of being rewritten to improve its usability.

For the cloud

Zoom The LXDE desktop.
LXDE is written in GTK+ 2.0 and uses OpenBox as its default window manager, although the user is free to use another window manager. There is a healthy developer community, who work to a set of design principles which stress the reduction of dependencies on external libraries to reduce the kind of bloat that tends to afflict larger projects.

Contributors are also asked to "consider the conventions of both GNOME and Windows, and try to follow the habit of most users. Do not deliberately make the GUI different only because you want to be different from Windows. Usability is always the top concern. Windows might not be good in some areas, but like it or not, most computer users in the world are used to it. Trying to fight your users is apparently unwise. "

LXDE is "designed for cloud networks such as local freifunk [free radio] clouds or the global Internet cloud," is used on Eeebuntu, can be installed on Intel, MIPS or ARM machines, is licensed under the GPL and LGPL, and is probably the speediest of the alternative desktop environments, comparing favourably with the better known Xfce in adhoc benchmark tests performed by the Linux Mint developers.

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