Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

Xfce making great strides with version 4.6

A little more than two years after version 4.4 was released into the wild (on 21 January 2007), the Xfce development team has announced the availability of the new version of the Xfce desktop environment yesterday (yes I’m late to the party…).

In an email, release manager Stephan Arts announced the new version 4.6 (only even numbers are used for stable releases), which has already been picked up in various articles all over the web’s darkest corners.

Xfce is an integral part of Xubuntu. In its role as the desktop environment it provides vital applications such as the panels, the desktop, the file manager and the window manager (i.e. the thing that paints the borders around your windows and handles how they are placed in your screen), among others. In fact, it is the primary reason for Xubuntu’s existence – when Jani Monoses founded the project he did so because he wanted to combine the features of Xfce with the advantages Ubuntu brings.

So what’s new?

Due to technical problems, I haven’t been able to run Xfce 4.6 on my personal computer as of yet (something which I hope to change in the coming week), so I’m going to base myself on the excellent Xfce tour prepared by Xfce developer and previous Xubuntu developer Jérôme Guelfucci and my experiences while running Xubuntu from my USB drive. I’ll also be using the screenshots provided by Xfce developer and Xubuntu-Xfce Liaison Jannis Pohlmann because I’m lazy.

First of all, Xfce’s panel (xfce4-panel) has received some love with lots of bugs fixed that especially the proud owners of multiple monitors won’t mind to miss. It also comes with updated panel plugins. This adds nifty new features to e.g. the system tray, which now allows you to hide certain icons. This is quite useful to hide, for example, that NetworkManager icon that always sits there yet is almost never needed after your network has been set up.



Although not part of the release, the screenshot plugin has been developed into its own application by Jérôme Guelfucci (and David Collins added some nice new features, too) and is now named Xfce4 Screenshooter. It, among other features, allows you to capture a region of the screen or a single application. Now the keyboard shortcut for PrtScn can be set by default :).



The desktop manager, xfdesktop, now includes an oft-requested feature: rubber banding, or the ability to click and drag to select multiple icons to manipulate. Furthermore, the Xfce menu is now a submenu of the context menu when you have icons on your desktop – something that some people have expressed dissatisfaction about.

On the xfce4-mixer front, Jannis Pohlmann has rewritten it to sport a more polished interface, and to use Gstreamer. Some refer to this as bloat, but it really makes for a more maintainable application that supports multiple sound systems more easily, is better tested and will work on the systems of more people (although it will undoubtly not work on the systems of some others, namely those who can’t get Gstreamer to work).

With the new mixer also comes a panel plugin that allows you to change the volume with a mere scroll over the panel icon, which is very useful unless you don’t have a scroll wheel.

The session manager has also received some love. Based on code in Xubuntu, originally written by Jani Monoses, but almost entirely rewritten, Xfce now supports suspending and hibernation by default. Though the Suspend and Hibernate buttons might attract a bit too much attention with their size, considering how often they’ll be used, it’s a useful addition nonetheless.



A feature that will help out a lot of users and will save me a lot providing support, is its ability to automatically restart important applications if they just so happen to crash. The reason this is so useful is because the panel has a habit of occasionally crashing seemingly without reason, with people left not knowing what to do.

Of course, the Xfce Window Manager, xfwm4, was also updated, mainly thanks to the work of the Xfce project founder Olivier Fourdan, from France. It can now see when an application is busy and won’t respond, and offer you to force it to quit.



It also offers a useful new “Fill” option that allows you to resize a window to use as much space as possible that is left unused by other windows. This can come in handy when working with applications such as the Gimp. Besides these improvements there are some other tweaks and stability and performance improvements.

Xfce’s file manager that Benedikt Meurer developed for Xfce 4.4, Thunar, has received attention from Nick Schermer and Jannis Pohlmann. Being one of Xfce’s show-off applications, it just got a little better with many bug fixes and performance improvements coming in. It also ships a new plugin to set an image as your wallpaper from within Thunar, and now follows the XDG user directories specification, which basically means that it provides you with folders for Music, Videos, Pictures, etc. and translates their names if you use another language.



Furthermore, connected drives that have not been mounted (i.e. prepared for reading by the computer) will be distinguishable by their translucent icons. Encrypted devices are now supported as well. As for Xubuntu, word has it that we may get folder sharing in 9.04, which many people have been clamouring for.

Jannis Pohlmann and Jasper Huijsmans have been working on a rewrite of the AppFinder. It now has a cleaner interface and updates in real-time, as always allowing you to easily find installed applications and, by dragging them to the Launcher-creation interface, easily create panel shortcuts.



The Xfce menu has also been updated to really comply with the freedesktop.org standard (perhaps you noticed that the menu in previous versions was structured a bit oddly). Unfortunately, no menu editor is included and, with menu merging not being supported yet, using an alternative menu editor like Alacarte won’t work either. It’s manually editing the files or making do with the menu as-is, for now.

And last but certainly not least, one of the biggest new features: xfconf. Admitted, you won’t (shouldn’t) notice much of this, but it’s quite the improvement. Basically, it provides a new, central configuration system for Xfce similar to, but simpler than, GNOME’s gconf.

It does offer some nifty new useful applications though. For example, there’s now one central place to edit the settings of all applications that use xfconf – the Settings Editor (xfce4-settings-editor).



It also includes a command-line tool, and it is this that looks extremely valuable to me. Not because I like to type commands, but because you can bind them to keyboard shortcuts. Yep – editing preferences with a simple key combination.

For example, if you’re a programmer, it can be very useful to switch your keyboard layout on-the-fly – use dead keys when doing normal stuff like writing a blog post, and stop using them when you’re programming and want your quotes to appear directly. With xfconf, this can be done very easily. For example, the command to set your keyboard layout to the US layout without dead keys, you’d use:

xfconf-query -c keyboard-layout -p /Default/XkbLayout -s "us" && xfconf-query -c keyboard-layout -p /Default/XkbVariant -s "altgr-intl"

Similarly, if you wanted to change the layout to US with dead keys, you’d use:

xfconf-query -c keyboard-layout -p /Default/XkbLayout -s "us" && xfconf-query -c keyboard-layout -p /Default/XkbVariant -s "intl"

Now all you need to do is bind them to a keyboard shortcut and you’ll be set!

Of course, this is some pretty advanced stuff, but it’s there when you need it and hardly noticeable when you don’t. Plus, it might make for a good blog post in the future, so if you have any more useful applications of this, do tell me :).

With the new settings backend comes a new Settings Manager which allows you to edit many of the settings in one window and is more neatly organised and better suited to small monitors in general.



Furthermore, a lot of the settings windows have been redesigned and options have been added – I’ll kindly refer you to the excellent tour for an overview.

So how do I get it?

You can download Xfce in source code form or using the oft-praised graphical installers. Packages for several distributions will without doubt already be available. However, the easiest and recommended way is to wait for your distribution to provide the packages. Xubuntu 9.04 will have Xfce 4.6.0 and already has Release Candidate 1. If we’re lucky, version 4.6.1 will even make it in time which will contain the first important bugfixes and translation updates.

If you’re running Xubuntu 8.04 “Hardy Heron” or 8.10 “Intrepid Ibex”, then you’re lucky, because Jérôme Guelfucci has prepared packages with help of the Debian Xfce group and Lionel Le Folgoc.

So what is ahead?

The Xfce development team is already looking forward to version 4.8. The plan is to do a shorter release cycle this time, with one (probably optimistic) guess targeting a new release in about a year. Some excellent features have already been developed to be included in 4.8, such as my pet peeve drag ‘n drop support for panel icons (no more messing with commands in launchers!), menu merging so you can actually use a menu editor, and several improvements to Thunar.

All in all, this has shaped up to be a very nice release with some excellent new features, some of them nowhere to be found in other desktop environments, which demonstrates once again why I like Xfce for more than performance alone. With some of the improvements for 4.8 already checked in and many more waiting in line, I’m already excited. I’ve fallen far short when it comes to attributions, failing to name Xfce’s excellent translation team, the people behind the Xfce distros, the various communites, Brian Tarricone, Mike Massonnet, -I guess I should stop naming people because I’m bound to forget many more, or even people of whom I don’t even know they’ve contributed.

To whomever contributed to Xfce in any way: thanks! 🙂

This is Gutsy

As the release of the next version of Xubuntu, 7.10 “Gutsy Gibbon”, is set to arrive soon, I took a test drive with the release candidate, looking for bugs to be solved just before the final release, and to find out what’s new. This release will bring you many improvements inherited from Ubuntu but also tons of Xubuntu-specific improvements. Prepare for a long read 😉

Oh, by the way, I also made a little screencast giving a quick overview of the new features that you can download in Ogg (recommended) and Avi formats. And yes, it’s kind of random (I didn’t prepare it), but at least you can get a quick peek at the look and feel of Gutsy.

The looks

The very first thing you will notice in this release is Xubuntu’s spiffy new theme (MurrinaStormCloud) and the sleek new background image.



To be honest, when I saw it on screenshots, I was quite unimpressed. However, once you actually get to use it, ut just “feels right”. What’s more, this theme uses the Murrine engine. Basically, this means that it will run faster and feel more responsive than the previous theme which used the Clearlooks engine.

Software updates

In the six months that have already passed since Xubuntu’s previous release, much of the software included enjoyed updates that added a few new features.
For example, Ubuntu’s Add/Remove… application, for easy installation of additional software, has had some minor improvements, mainly in the use of language.



Even though Firefox 3 has been released yet, there are some minor but very useful additions to good ol’ Firefox 2.0, provided by the Ubufox extension, allowing the installation of third-party enhancements to Firefox to be done “the Ubuntu way”.
The first one can be seen when you open the Add-ons window from Tools->Add-ons. At the bottom right-hand side you will observe a link that says Get Ubuntu Addons.



Clicking it opens the familiar Add/Remove… window from which you can browse through some Firefox extensions that are packaged specifically for Ubuntu. Don’t worry about the limited amount of available extensions though, because you can still install extensions the way you used to.



The second one takes over the installation of plug-ins (software that allows you to play certain media, such as Flash, from within Firefox). In opening a website with an element that requires the installation of a plug-in, you are presented with the normal FIrefox placeholder in place of that content. However, clicking it doesn’t open the normal Firefox plug-in finder service you are used to, but a customized Ubuntu one. For example, when you try to open a Flash file, you are presented with two available Flash plug-ins: the official Adobe one, and the open source Gnash. Since Adobe’s one supports all Flash versions up till version 9, that choice is selected by default.



Selecting one of them and clicking Next opens a confirmation window.



The plug-in will then be downloaded and installed the Ubuntu way.



Once it’s finished you can close the window and you’ll be back in normal Firefox, which will know the plug-in to be installed.



And ta-da! You can view the content you so longed to see! (It still says on top, though, that a plug-in is needed, but that will disappear when you leave the page)


Xubuntu Gutsy also ships Pidgin 2.2.0. The reason it is listed under Software updates is because Pidgin is the new name of Gaim, the Multi-Protocol Instant Messaging client (for MSN, Google Talk, etc.) which used to be included in Xubuntu. Pidgin includes support for even more protocols than Gaim used to do, so you can really keep in touch with all of your friends.


Also included is the awesome new Gimp 2.4, which is an enormous improvement over the previous version (2.2), with so many enhancements that it would be one hell of a job to list them all here. Luckily, an extensive overview of new features in the Gimp 2.4 is already available. In any case, I’m loving it already 🙂

New software

Apart from the usual software updates, Xubuntu Gutsy features a whole host of new software which will all greatly improve your user experience and does away with under-developed or featureless applications.

The Screens and Graphics application is an Ubuntu application that is part of a bigger effort called BulletProofX, which makes sure that you will never be left without a graphical environment. If it so happens to crash, no longer will you be presented with a blue screen with unreadable text, instead, you will be presented with the Screens and Graphics window allowing you to reconfigure your graphical settings. You can also run it normally, allowing you to easily configure multiple screens.



You can also use it to select a graphics card driver.



You can choose a driver by the name of the driver, or by the model of your monitor.


Also just as Ubuntu, Xubuntu Gutsy ships ntfs-3g. This does not really interest me, because I hardly know what ntfs is, but I still saw it was a Good Thing™ when I got my dad to boot Xubuntu Gutsy, who was delighted that he could delete files from his Windows partition.

Then Xubuntu inherits from Ubuntu the latest Linux kernel (core) that includes dynticks. Again, I’m not too sure what exactly it is, but I read that it makes sure Xubuntu uses less power and makes your computer produce less heat, which should especially appeal to laptop users.

Yet another thing inherited from Ubuntu of which I don’t know exactly what it does: AppArmor. According to Wikipedia, AppArmor is software that provides yet another layer of security allowing for even stricter definitions of what software is allowed to do.

To replace Xarchiver, which was viewed by some as user-unfriendly, Gnome’s file-roller Archive Manager is now included. It allows you to easily create archives, in formats like .zip, .tar.gz or .tar.bz2.



It also easily allows you to open compressed archives and view the contained files.



However, it is slower than Xarchiver, and since that one is still being actively developed I am of good hope that by the next release of Xubuntu, it will be considered user-friendly enough to make a comeback.

At first, Xubuntu Gutsy was to include a Places Plugin for the panel, just like Ubuntu has. Unfortunately, despite the usefulness of this panel plugin, it is considered too unstable for inclusion (as in: it crashes when trying to open a certain type of folder) so it won’t make it into the final release. Hopefully it will be stable enough by the time Hardy Heron, the version after Gutsy, is released. And of course, it still is available so you can add it to your panel yourself.




To replace the user-unfriendly Gxine, the Totem media player is now included by default. Unfortunately, it is named a bit odd in the Applications menu (Movie Player) because it will also play your audio files with ease.



However, as opposed to Ubuntu (which uses Gstreamer), Xubuntu uses xine behind the scenes to play your files. This is mainly motivated by the fact that, by using xine, Totem has better support to play DVD’s (Gstreamer for one has problems displaying the menu). The downside of this, however, is that it does not include support for automatic lookup of suitable codecs to play your files. This means that it will produce and error when trying to play files restricted by legal issues, unless you have installed the suitable codecs yourself. If Gstreamer were used, it would ask you whether you’d want to install the required codecs and then automatically look them up and install them for you.




Brasero replaces the redundant Xfburn, which was no longer in development and missed a few important features. The choice of a burning application for Xubuntu was a difficult one. Most of the settled applications where either no longer in development, missed important features or were specifically made for KDE. Brasero, however, seems like a good choice.




To replace and complement xfce4-taskmanager, Xubuntu now includes Gnome’s System Monitor. When you open it, you will be presented with the Resources tab open, displaying the current load on your system.



There is yet more though. Take the System tab for example. This tab is amazingly simple yet invaluable because it is the first graphical way of seeing which version of Xubuntu you are running (and yes, for now, if one has this application installed, you already know he’s running Gutsy). The System tab also displays your host name (the name of your computer), the version of the kernel, the amount of memory and type of processor, and the available disk space.



But lets not forget the Processes tab, which displays all running processes just like xfce4-taskmanager used to do. However, System Monitor displays a bit more information than xfce4-taskmanager (most importantly: it has icons next to the processes and an easy button to force an application to quit).



Finally, there is the File Systems tab, which I think is supposed to display information about your different partitions, but (probably because I was working from a LiveCD) it was empty for me.




Enabled by default in Xubuntu Gutsy is Update Notifier, which, surprisingly, notifies you when updates are available and allows you to easily install them.

Network Manager is an excellent application that makes it extremely easy to switch networks, which is very useful for laptop users often using different networks (e.g. one at work, another at home). It is represented by an icon in the system tray.



Clicking the icon pops up a list with available networks which take a single click to configure. Once you’ve configured your networks, it will be able to connect automatically next time it finds it. Unfortunately, I am on a computer that only has a wired connection (with which, by the way, it automatically connected), so I cannot show it to you.



Clicking Manual Configuration opens Network Admin, which was already present in previous Xubuntu versions. You can still use it to configure your network without using Network Manager (yes, I find the names confusing too) by disabling roaming mode. Both methods support WPA encryption if your hardware supports it.

Gutsy also ships Character Map, a simple applications that makes it easy to look up special characters like é, á or even Æ, õ and ø!


Automatic printer configuration should automatically configure your printers when they are plugged in (you can’t get it easier than that!). Unfortunately, I do not have a printer so I could not try it out.

The next one in fact concerns not one, but seventeen (!) applications, but since it’d be a lot of work to discuss them all I’ll just mention them as one: Gnome’s Games! I can tell you that, at least for me, this is a very welcome addition. And the quality of these games is excellent!



One of the included games is the hyped Sudoku puzzle game, which my mother greatly enjoys 🙂



The little things

Apart from all these big improvements, there are also a few subtle little changes that make the whole experience just that tiny bit more pleasant.

As every default application now has an icon in the menu, the key combination Ctrl+Alt+Esc couldn’t lag behind. This key combination allows you to click a window that might have crashed in order to force it to close. However, in previous versions, the cursor would change to an ugly black skull. Now, however, it is an elegant cross that fits in with the rest of the cursor theme.

In order to make Xubuntu even easier to get used to, and so as to prevent people from missing the documentation that was crafted with such care by all those superb volunteers, Xubuntu now by default has a help icon in the panel.

When saving or opening a file, you can now view Recently Used documents and Search for them.




Instead of displaying six buttons in a row like done in previous versions of Xubuntu, the Logout dialog now displays the buttons in two rows.



And you can still remove either or both the Suspend and Hibernate buttons which will neatly resize the buttons on that row to make it of equal width to the row above.







In previous versions, when shutting down, you would first see scary console text flying by for a bit until it switched to the easy-on-the-eyes logo with the progress bar. Well, that still happens, the scary text isn’t visible as long as it used to.

Speed

As you might have noticed from the screenshots, the machine I tested this on was quite a high-end machine. However, for those of you worried about the speed, Carrie offers reassurance in the comments:

I just installed Xubuntu 7.10 over the weekend on a PII 400 Mhz, 384 MB RAM test computer I have. I love the new look default theme on it. I was highly impressed with everything I saw as I clicked around in the menus and different settings. I enabled the effects as well and they worked beautifully.

One thing I noticed right away with the 2.6.22-14 kernel is everything is much more responsive than before. A very happy surprise. Including booting up. Instead of a two minute start up time under Feisty, it takes about a minute and a half.

Conclusion

That was a long, long read 🙂
I think this may well be considered the most important release since 6.06 “Dapper Drake”, which was Xubuntu’s first official release. Just as Ubuntu’s, Xubuntu’s goal has always been to be a user-friendly distribution, and it took a giant leap forwards and is even more so with this release. It will also be a good base to build on for the next Long Term Support version, 8.04 “Hardy Heron”, slated for release in April 2008.

Have you also tried Gutsy, and did you find it as awesome as I did (or perhaps you found it to be the worst release ever), or have I missed anything? Do not hesitate to use the comment form below!


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