Taking LXDE For a Test Drive

There are a lot of contenders in the ring when it comes to open source desktop environments. The most well known would probably be Gnome and KDE in the heavyweight class, XFCE for middleweight, and any number of small, fast desktop environments and window managers in the lightweight ring. When it comes to the lightweight options, it’s no secret I’m a Window Maker fanboy. Recently, I’d been hearing more and more about a new challenger for the lightweight crown, LXDE. Can it stack up against the likes of Window Maker, Enlightenment, and Openbox? I decided to find out.

I began by installing LXDE from my apt mirror. If you’re not sure how to do this, open a command terminal and enter

apt-get install lxde

As always, your distro of choice may have a different installation method.

Once everything’s installed, log out of your current desktop environment and log back in under LXDE. Each distribution’s package may have different settings, but for me I got the following as my default desktop:

Full LXDE Screenshot

As you can see from the screenshot, LXDE uses a roughly Windows-like setup, with a panel at the bottom, “Start” button, desktop icons, etc. That should make it a fairly easy transition desktop for those just switching from Windows.

It may not be fair to stack LXDE against Openbox in particular, as LXDE is essentially Openbox with some additional utilities. Essentially, what the creators have done is take Openbox as a window manager and add some custom-built applications to turn it into a full-featured, consistent desktop environment. The tools you’re likely to encounter in an LXDE installation are:

  • PCMan – File Manager
  • LXLauncher – Application Launcher
  • LXPanel – Desktop Panel
  • LXSession – Session Manager
  • LXAppearance – Theme Manager
  • LXTerminal – Terminal Emulator
  • LXTask – Task Manager
  • LXNM – Network Manager

Of these, I’ll be focusing on PCManfm, LXPanel, and LXNM, as they have the most effect on the overall desktop experience.

PCMan File Manager

PCMan File Manager

I thought it fitting to start with the PCMan File Manager as it was the first component of what eventually became LXDE. I’ve tried most of the file manager GUIs out there and found PCManfm to an easy, comfortable program that so far has met all my needs. Some of the key bindings didn’t match what I’m used to from other file managers, but that’s mostly a matter of preference. There’s nothing really fancy here, just a nice fast little file manager that gets the job done.

LXPanel

LXDE Panel

The panel at the bottom of the screen in LXDE is another example of an app that just seems to focus on getting the job done without any revolutionary new concepts. It’s got the “Start” button, quick launch bar, desktop pager, all the usual items you see in your average panel. It supports various panel applets including those meant for Gnome.

LXNM

The network manager, LXNM, wasn’t as simple as the rest of the system for me. I was a bit surprised to see that LXNM was not part of my LXDE installation. The network manager panel applet in the screenshots above is the same applet found in recent Ubuntu releases, the nm-applet program for Gnome.

When I tried to install LXNM from my apt repositories, it said nm-applet had to be removed. No problem, I let it remove the Gnome applet and install itself. On launch, however, the LXNM applet failed to load and threw a screen full of errors at me.

Eventually I removed LXNM and reinstalled the Gnome applet and all was well. I’ve got no problems with running the Gnome applet as I’ve always found it to be a simple and powerful network manager, especially when compared to the tangled mess Vista calls the “Network and Sharing Center”.

I did some searching on LXNM and found that it has had a more troubled history than most parts of LXDE, and is currently being redesigned. My advice: stick with the NetworkManager applet until LXNM has had a little more polish applied.

Configuration

This is one point where I felt LXDE was a little bit lacking. As I said above, LXDE uses Openbox as the default window manager, so you do have obconf for some of the system configuration.

Openbox configuration manager

This will give you some of the config options you may need like setting dock preferences and themes and such. The downside is that any other configuration must be done in one huge XML file. Normally I don’t mind editing config files by hand but this one is enormous, and XML isn’t always the easiest thing to read and edit by hand. If you do find yourself needing to change configuration for something that isn’t in the Openbox config utility, load up your favorite text editor and open ~/.config/openbox/lxde-rc.xml. I Highly recommend using a text editor with XML highlighting such as Kate.

Conclusion

I found LXDE to a pretty nice desktop environment. It’s certainly fast, comes with a reasonable amount of good quality tools, and a nice appearance. There’s room for improvement, however, particularly when it comes to configuration. I would count it as a good option for recent Windows converts, particularly those with older hardware that might have trouble running a beefier desktop such as Gnome or KDE. Has it pulled me away from my beloved Window Maker? I don’t think so, but it’s progressing nicely and I’d love to see what the developers come up with down the road.

I’d love to hear your experiences with LXDE, or other lightweight desktop environments.