New Linux Arrivals

Fresh Desktops: Gnome and Xfce

Ubuntu releases tend to come along just after similar, semiannual releases from the Gnome Desktop project. Gnome 2.18 came out just a few short weeks ago, and is included in Feisty. I immediately checked on the status of what I think are the two most annoying bugs in all of Gnome. (I've covered these Gnome gripes before.)

First up was the bug that kept trashed files on removable devices from really being deleted. Great news: This bug has been fixed!

When you unmount or eject removable devices, Gnome now checks to see if they have files in the Trash; if so, up pops a dialog box asking whether you want to delete those files permanently. This is the right idea, so it's a shame the execution is so poor and so contrary to Gnome's simple, non-geeky approach: The dialog box I'm talking about reads in part: "Do you want to empty the trash before you umount?"

Geeky jargon rears its ugly head in Gnome 2.18.
Geeky jargon rears its ugly head in Gnome 2.18.
No, I didn't just misspell unmount -- the box reads "umount," referring, apparently, to the command you enter in a terminal window if you wish to unmount a device manually. Ick! Why is something so jargony bleeding through in my beloved Gnome?

But wait, it gets worse. My other Gnome pet peeve is the longstanding bug that made it difficult to drag and drop files out of File Roller, the Gnome app that deals with .zip files (plus their Linux equivalent, "tarballs" (.tar.gz files), and other archives).

In Gnome 2.18, it is now completely impossible to drag files out of File Roller. I'll elaborate, just for emphasis: You double-click an archive, you see a window full of files, and you're not allowed to drag them out of there to extract them from the archive.

Apparently the maintainer of File Roller fixed the original bug in a way that is incompatible with Nautilus (the Gnome file manager), which also controls the desktop itself, where you frequently want to drop files. So this functionality, which had been broken and quirky but usable, has completely vanished.

This gets me to thinking that something is amiss in the Gnome project. A lot of very talented, motivated, hardworking people contribute their time and their code to Gnome, and by and large the maintainers of Gnome's various pieces do great work. But something (leadership?) seems to be missing at a higher level. No one seems to be saying, "Hey, Nautilus maintainers, can you please put your heads together with Mr. File Roller over there and work something out so our users don't lose out?"

After the File Roller disappointment, I decided to see what Xfce, the lightweight KDE and Gnome alternative I last checked out a couple years ago, is looking like these days.

Feisty includes Xfce 4.4.0, which was released in January. I'm pleased to find that Xfce has made huge strides since I last paid it some attention--and it was already in pretty solid shape back then. The latest Xfce is the first version to allow you to place files directly on the desktop, and therefore the first version you can expect a Windows or Macintosh refugee to feel more or less at home with.

As ever, Xfce is speedy. It loads in about 3 seconds on my main test machine, compared with Gnome's 15 seconds or so. Its new file manager, Thunar, is similarly nimble, even on very large directories (which tend to bring Nautilus to a crawl).

Xfce tends to look a lot like Gnome (it uses the same GUI widgets that Gnome does) but it doesn't feel very much like Gnome. Peek at the options in Xfce's Settings menu (or just look at the official Xfce tour), and you'll see that Xfce strikes a very happy balance between Gnome's tendency to provide too few configuration options and KDE's even stronger tendency to provide far too many. Both of the Big Kahuna desktops for Linux could learn a thing or two from this spry up-and-comer.

On that subject...hey, Gnome developers, check this out: When I double-click an archive in Xfce, an app called Xarchiver pops up, and lo and behold, I can drag files out of there, right onto my desktop, just like the good Lord intended.

Matthew Newton is PC World's QA engineer and unofficial Linux guru. If you're new to Linux and are feeling a bit lost in one way or another, drop him a line and let him know what's vexing you. Or, speak Freely in the Comments section below!
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