Arch + XFCE: The perfect Desktop (for now)

July 24, 2010

In the past week I’ve used Ubuntu 10.04, Mint 9, and Arch + GNOME, but Arch + XFCE seems to beat all of those.

While Ubuntu and Mint are both excellent, and very user-friendly, they both had a problem with Rhythmbox import errors. Basically every song with a strange character in the name (e.g. Alizée – A quoi rève une jeune fille) gave an import error, even though it was imported correctly. Switching to Banshee didn’t help much: it only found 214 songs out of close to 7000. Mint, being Ubuntu based, did the exact same thing.

Banshee in Arch found my collection just fine, but with GNOME startup took way too long. There’s still some kind of issue there, because I’ve had the same problem since 2.26. Arch with XFCE proved to be the winner though, being fast, functional and beautiful, all at the same time. Some things take a bit more time to configure, like multimedia keyboard button shortcuts, which should have worked out of the box with banshee, but didn’t, things like that. Nothing major.

Pacman has had a recent upgrade, and now seems to be even faster, and there are some improvements when you want to install a local package. Definitely still the best package manager out there. Chromium, Banshee, Emelfm2, Comix, Audacious, Transmission and Brasero were quickly installed, which only left a good twitter client. I enjoyed using Gwibber in Ubuntu, but in Arch it isn’t available in the official repositories. It’s in the AUR, but required a 100+MB download and…left me with a blank screen. I enjoy using Tweetdeck in Windows, but while it worked fine in Ubuntu, it doesn’t in Arch. Again, it’s only available via the AUR, and for me, it simply didn’t work. Pino came to the rescue, but again, it’s not available in the official repositories. All in all, I don’t get the impression that the Arch devs and packagers are big twitter fans 🙂

I’ve also grown fond of Docky lately. For some reason, I always resisted using a dock, probably because my few experiences with Mac OSX weren’t that positive. However, I realised that what I like about Windows 7’s taskbar are it’s dock-like abilities, so I tried out Docky. Now I don’t know how to live without it. It does require compositing to be on (not a problem these days, easily switched on in XFCE, GNOME and KDE), in order to have some eye candy, but things remain discreet and tasteful. On IntelliHide it provides a bit more screen estate, which is nice.

Configuring GDM’s layout and background isn’t that easy these days, and the Arch Wiki article didn’t work for me, so I switched it for LXDM. I read on the forums it may be unstable, but it has been working like a dream on my Lubuntu netbook, so I wasn’t nervous about giving it a try here. Big plus: the configuration file is plain text, so changing the background and GTK theme was very easy.

It’s in my nature to keep changing my desktop, because I get bored easily and can’t resist shiny new software. But I’m very happy with this. For now.

Obligatory screenshots:

San


Zenwalk 5.2 GNOME Edition (beta)

August 12, 2008

Finally.

Since 1995, when Patrick Volkerding announced that he would no longer include GNOME in Slackware, people had to rely on projects like GWARE, GNOME Slackbuild or Dropline to enjoy their favourite desktop environment on the oldest Linux distribution around. Or, of course, build GNOME yourself. This has been the case for three years, and despite the popularity of GNOME-based distributions like Ubuntu or Fedora, not one of the many Slackware derivates jumped at the opportunity to combine the simplicity and stability of Slackware with a good looking GNOME desktop. Until now.

Zenwalk, formerly known as MiniSlack, has been around for quite a while now, and is something of a fan-favourite. It focuses on stability, speed, and rationality, meaning one application per task. It’s latest offering, Zenwalk 5.2, has been getting positive reviews. By default, the Standard Edition comes with XFCE. Now, there’s the GNOME Edition, and while it’s still a beta, I’m very impressed.

Installation

Unlike the Standard Edition, Zenwalk Gnome is not a Live CD. I’ve said before in my Pardus 2008 review that to me, that’s not a big deal, but it may be to others. The install isn’t very pretty, but it’s easy enough for someone who has used Linux before. Mind you, it’s not Mandriva or Ubuntu easy. You do have to know something about your hardware, like the partitioning of your hard drive, and what kind of graphic card you have (the installation of restricted drivers doesn’t happen automatically).

At first boot, you can configure your system further, and this is why installing Zenwalk is easier than installing Slackware. Here, you’ll have to add a user, set up sound, locale and numlock, and agree to some licences. Afterwards, you end up with a very familiar looking desktop, because it looks exactly the same as Zenwalk’s standard XFCE layout. According to the Zenwalk devs, “[t]he looks are not xfce-like, they are Zenwalk-like. The way XFCE looks in Zenwalk is far from the default xfce looks in the first place.[…]We have chosen that layout for XFCE and gnome because we believe that it’s the best layout for a desktop PC.” I guess that makes sense.

Zenwalk Gnome Edition

Zenwalk Gnome Edition

Configuration and documentation

Zenwalk doesn’t provide the standard Applications – Locations – System panel layout that a Gnome distribution traditionally has, but the Gnome Configuration Center, with all the familiar modules, is available from the menu and the bottom panel. There’s also the Zenwalk System Tools manager. I’ll provide a screenshot, because listing all the options would take too long.

Zenwalk Configuration

Zenwalk Configuration

To be honest, Zenwalk didn’t need much configuration. Most of the stuff that can be changed in the Tools manager was already taken care of during first boot, and working well. I added my favourite key shortcuts in the Gnome Configuration Center, and that was it.

Package management is taken care of by Netpkg, which is simple and works well. Of course, if you base your distribution on Slackware, there will always be the problem that there aren’t as many packages available as for, say, Debian. Normally, Slackware is perfectly suited for users who want to compile their own software, but Zenwalk is aimed at another kind of computer user. That means the bigger the repositories are, the better. And the Zenwalk repositories, while extensive, show at least one curious hole. For a Gnome edition, the omission of Rhythmbox is at least curious. It’s not even available as an alternative. Banshee is, but the version in the repositories isn’t the new 1.2. Instead, we get gMusicbrowser. There’s nothing really wrong with it, but in my opinion it suffers from an overabundance of (unneeded?) options, and some strange playlist handling…in short, it’s not my favourite choice. I understand their one-application-per-task policy, and gMusicbrowser is indeed a lighter application than Rhythmbox and Banshee, so it makes sense that it’s the Zenwalk default. Still, I’d have liked an alternative to be in the repositories.

gMusicbrowser and Netpkg

gMusicbrowser and Netpkg

Any distribution that has a Wiki and an active user forum gets brownie points from me, and Zenwalk has both. In the Wiki the HOWTO section is particularly useful, but the newsletters aren’t very current. I guess you can’t really expect it to be when the latest one introduces itself as “your hopefully monthly update on the Zenwalk GNU/Linux OS and the community around it.” 🙂 The fora are very active, which to me is a sign of a distribution’s health.

Using Zenwalk

Zenwalk was a joy to use. It must be one of the most beautiful distributions I ever installed, but don’t ask me why. The default theme is Clearlooks, which is nothing special, but the icons are a modified Discovery set, which look very nice. At first sight, the desktop background is the typical blue swirl, with the Zenwalk logo, but even that looks great in my opinion. After I installed the nvidia drivers and switched on the Metacity compositor things looked even better.
I expected the unusual panel layout to be irritating, since the bottom panel is twice the hight of a normal Gnome panel, and it leaves a lot of room unused at the left and the right of the screen. Immediately after that thought, I forgot all about it, so I guess I was wrong.

As I mentioned before, the choice of applications is a bit different than what’s “normal”. It’s a mix of standard Gnome software like Brasero, Gimp, Totem, Pidgin and Evince with light-weight software like Asunder (for CD ripping), Leafpad, the aforementioned gMusicbrowser, Galculator, htop, Gnumeric and Abiword. Browsing and email are handled by Iceweasel and Icedove (the rebranded versions of Firefox and Thunderbird). OpenOffice isn’t installed by default, but available from the repositories.

Multimedia support is fairly good out of the box. I could play all my audio and video files, but to play DVDs you have to jump through a few hoops. Firefox Iceweasel handles embedded media with the Totem plugin, but flash has to be installed seperately.

I never, ever felt like I was using a beta release. Literally everything worked as it should have, and the only app that crashed was xscreensaver, and then only the first time. It didn’t cause a lock-up, and it didn’t happen again. I guess that one of the many screensavers that xscreensaver provides just didn’t work.
It wasn’t just stable, it was speedy too. Even with the Metacity compositor turned on, it didn’t slow down. It felt only a little slower than my Arch installation, but that one uses Openbox instead of Gnome, and no compositor. I was very impressed.

Conclusion

I didn’t expect to like Zenwalk this much, but I do. It’s stable while being a beta release, it’s speedy, it just works and it does all of this while looking good. Without the installer, which requires a bit of knowledge, it would a be perfect for a Linux newbie. But as soon as it’s installed, it’s a pleasure to use. Since I installed Arch, thee’s not a single distribution that has tempted me so much. I never knew Gnome could be this fast, or look this good. In my opinion, the only thing that’s needed to make it perfect is to expand the repositories a bit.

The best thing about this distribution, is that it finally brings Gnome to Slackware fans. It has taken some time, but it has been worth the wait. Zenwalk 5.2 GNOME Edition is one of the best Linux distributions I’ve ever installed. Try it out.

San


Give KDE and Gnome a unified look

July 23, 2008

Out of the box, both KDE3 and Gnome look like crap. There, I said it. Default KDE still uses Everaldo’s Crystal SVG icon theme, which dates from 2001. That’s about the time I started using KDE, and I loved it at the time, but these days, icon sets tend to be a little less bright. I remember KDE being compared to Playmobil a lot at that time… The default theme, called Plastik, isn’t much better. It’s perfectly all right, and more than a little bit boring.

Gnome is even worse. The default icon theme is so completely drab it doesn’t even deserve its own name. Concerning the widget theme, I think Gnome comes with Clearlooks as the default these days. Just reread what I wrote about Plastik. If I were your general average internet troll, I’d write “yawn” here (to all you trolls out there: stop doing that. It drives me nuts).

But all that doesn’t really matter. I might as well start complaining about the default theme of one of Ubuntu’s alpha releases. Themes and icon themes are easily changed, and with sites like gnome-look and kde-look, there are enough possibilities to keep you experimenting happily for years. No, the problems start when you mix KDE/QT with Gnome/GTK applications. Ever had a Quattro Stagioni pizza? That’s how well KDE and Gnome applications go together.

Look, I don’t mind that visually, KDE and Gnome are very different. They should be. I just wish more (icon) themes were made for the both of them. QTCurve is a nice example. This theme isn’t very exciting, but at least it makes your KDE and Gnome applications look the same.
Using GTK-QT-engine is another possibility, but that only makes your gnome applications look like KDE, not the other way around. If you happen to like a particular GTK-theme, you’re out of luck.

Icon themes is a little bit easier. Gnome-look and KDE-look are filled with people who produce icon set after icon set, and many of those are ports. It didn’t take me long that the (excellent) KDE4 icon theme Oxygen has been ported to both KDE3 and Gnome. The ports don’t look exactly the same, but they’re close enough to my tastes.
Of course, I just had to notice an excellent black version of Oxygen on Gnome-look, without a counterpart at the KDE side…*sigh*.

Anyway, this is how my desktop looks now:

Comparison of Gnome and KDE themes

Comparison of Gnome and KDE themes

Yes, I have a lot of applications open and it’s a bit hard to see where one application stops and where another begins, but that’s the point. From left to right you can see Amarok (KDE), Transmission (Gnome), K3b (KDE) and Abiword (Gnome). As you can see, there’s no difference in the appearance of the menu bars. At the bottom, there are two file dialogs. They’re not exactly the same, but the buttons are. That’s all QTcurve.
As for the icons, they look the same too, apart from some minor differences and the lack of a “Desktop” icon in the KDE file dialog. I think it looks okay.

But it would be nice if more themes were made for both KDE and Gnome. There are a lot of zealots on either side of the fence, but I don’t prefer one over the other. In fact, I’m using Openbox. Most of my applications are Gnome, except K3b and Amarok (they’re just better than everything else)…and Thunar as a file manager (It doesn’t have tabs, but I just can’t live without batch renaming).

So come on, all you artists and theme-ing enthusiasts out there. Give us some cross-desktop-environment artwork.

San