Xfce 4.12 after almost three years

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The Long Road

Xfce 4.12 has been under development for almost three years and is now ready to take over for Xfce 4.10. This article looks at improvements found in version 4.12 and what the long release cycles mean for the user.

When I first came into contact with Xfce [1] in 2001, it was still in version 3 and based on GT1. Olivier Fourdan began the project as an extension of the very sparse FVWM desktop and based it on XForms. In fact, the acronym Xfce still stands for XForms Common Environment. In the meantime, even if the acronym has lost its original meaning, it continues to be the name for the desktop.

Almost everything about Xfce but its name is different from how it was back then. Olivier Fourdan is still associated with the project but the one-man show operation of Xfce is over. In place of the original panel, Xfce has become a mature desktop environment.

The panel is still one of the units, but Xfce also has a Window manager by the name of Xfwm, a file manager by the name of Thunar, and a playback program for media files. It even has a web browser in the form of Midori, which uses WebKitGTK+. The biggest strengths and the unique characteristics have always been found in the area of resource consumption. Although modern environments like KDE and Gnome gladly take up several gigabytes of working storage to work properly, Xfce is made to be frugal.

Many target groups welcome this frugality. Xfce has become something akin to the first choice for systems that are older and no longer equipped with the most up-to-date hardware. Even users with fast computers appreciate the qualities of Xfce. Because complex graphics effects are missing, the work interface is straightforward and fast (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Xfce continues to be a simple, straightforward desktop. However, the developers have built a lot of convenience into version 4.12.

Darling of the Creator

Providers of diverse Linux distributions have discovered the advantages of Xfce and therefore offer the program as a part of their packages. For Ubuntu users, there is even Xubuntu, which relies solely on Xfce as the environment for desktops. Not much maintenance has been done on the corresponding packages in the past three years.

Xfce 4.10, released in April 2012, puttered along without any updates worth mentioning, which gave rise to concerns on Xfce mailing lists that the project had come to a halt. At the end of February, however, an answer came in the form of Xfce 4.12. Naturally, this release is somewhat larger because a lot has happened in three years. By the time this article went to press, Ubuntu packages for Xfce 4.12 were standing ready for Ubuntu 14.04 and 14.10 and offered a preview of the desktop. Here are the first observations of this apparent resurrection.

The Window Manager Xfwm

Olivier Fourdan was convinced that the creation of a full-fledged windows manager was essential to the transformation of Xfce from a simple FVWM extension to a complete desktop. Back then, KDE was an exception because it was a comprehensive desktop environment, and the typical combination was made from panels like Gnome and other window managers. Xfwm was perfectly integrated in the emerging desktop environment from the beginning.

The developers focused on two characteristics of Xfwm for Xfce 4.12. The dialog that appears when Alt+Tab are pressed together got an overhaul. The task switcher on Xfce had previously consisted of just a bar with symbols to show which programs were running – along the lines of OS X. In the Xfwm of Xfce 4.12, users have the choice of three types of look and feel.

Mode 1 mirrors the old optics and behavior, but the visual display can be improved all around with Xfce Theme.

Mode 2 has a list of window titles on the display screen instead of symbols, which is especially useful when several windows differing only in their title are open at one time, as might be the case with terminal emulators.

Mode 3 is quite elegant. In this mode, Xfwm displays a program window of reduced size inside a frame together with the respective program icon. Depending on the size of the font, it may even be possible to read text found in the windows. However, the prerequisite for this mode is the compositor mode, which is significantly more hardware intensive than the other modes.

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