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LXDE: This Lightweight Distro Isn't Missing Much

LXDE: This Lightweight Distro Isn't Missing Much

LXDE at first blush closely resembles other X window managers tweaked for popular Linux distros. But the LXDE Project picks up with functionality where the Xfce Desktop leaves off. The default graphics in LXDE might be a turnoff for some users, but the goal is not to have lots of eye candy that bloats the concept of a lightweight desktop.

By Jack M. Germain
03/07/12 5:00 AM PT

It's no wonder that the Linux desktop operating system is not attracting hordes of new users from Microsoft Windows and the Mac OS X platforms. Linux has almost too many desktop choices, and most of them are far from good.

One clear exception is the Lightweight X Desktop Environment, or LXDE. I am becoming increasingly enamored with it as the near ideal Linux OS desktop environment.

LXDE Desktop
LXDE Desktop
(click image to enlarge)

Consider the other choices. Developers continue to monkey around with the functionality of Gnome 3 and KDE 4 desktops. The upcoming version of Ubuntu will sport a new heads-up display (HUD) that will take its Unity desktop further afield of many users' comfort zone. And the newest kid on the block, the Cinnamon desktop, may be too spiceless to fix what is broken on Gnome and KDE desktops.

On the other hand, LXDE blends a nice balance of aesthetics and performance. It has been growing in popularity since first introduced in 2006. Its community seems to have succeeded in designing a fully-functional desktop with a lightweight yet powerful desktop manager.

Performance Counts

I have put LXDE through a variety of challenges on a bevy of desktop computers, laptops and netbooks. Only one of the computers was built around the latest family of hardware niceties.

The other units ranged from two to four years of slower, older components. One machine especially groans when I attempt to run the latest versions of Ubuntu and Linux Mint under iterations of Unity, Cinnamon, unfettered GNOME 3 and revamped KDE 4.

But one performance factor is indisputable. All five of my computers consume less CPU and RAM running LXDE under both Ubuntu 11.10 and Linux Mint 12 than any other desktop environment. And they all share yet another common characteristic.

LXDE performs nearly as fast on all of these configurations as does Puppy Linux on the same gear. This is quite significant. Puppy Linux loads into available system RAM. So firing up applications and processing data is humorously fast.

Look and Feel

LXDE at first blush closely resembles other X window managers tweaked for popular Linux distros. But the LXDE Project picks up with functionality where the Xfce Desktop leaves off. Xfce, another lightweight desktop environment, in my view is a bit kludgey compared to LXDE.

The default graphics in LXDE might be a turnoff for some users. But the goal is not to have lots of eye candy that bloats the concept of a lightweight desktop. So if you do not insist on a fancy photo display as your background, LXDE can work fine for you.

For example, the desktop background image is clean and fresh-looking. It displays the project's logo in the right center of the screen. What appears to be a bird in flight forms the shape of the X in the LxDE image. Colors come in three gradient choices: blue, red and green.

Bar None

The menu bar for Linux users is a staple that newer desktops want to do away with. Not so here. LXDE has a traditional panel which is easily configurable with about a dozen options.

It sits at the bottom of the screen. In fact, one of the options lets you add another panel on the top edge of the screen. The panel contains a menu button, default application buttons for file manager, terminal window and Web browser as well as a button to either iconify or collapse all windows.

You can add or remove panel elements with a click of a check box. That includes setting up or removing a system tray. In fact, you can place it anywhere you want on the panel. Options for content within the system tray include a CPU monitor, screen lock, power down button and clock.

LXDE includes the Open Box window manager. Access to its configuration manager is found in the Preferences menu. You can also reach it by right-clicking on the desktop.

Menu Mania

I like the easy flow to the menu system in LXDE. It works like you would expect in more traditional Linux configurations. A single left click on the menu icon to the far left of the panel bar pops up the menu category list. Hovering the mouse pointer over any category opens the menu to expose the installed apps.

Another click on the application's name loads that program. It could not be any easier.

A handy feature is the ability to right-click anywhere on the desktop. This opens a basic systems menu that provides access to a terminal emulator, Web browser, virtual desktop navigation, OpenBox Configuration, system restart and exit.

Missing From Action

As part of the lightweight design, I suppose, two features are missing from the LXDE's bag of tricks. One of them is the ability to use the panel as a launch bar. The other is a menu search tool.

I can live without these two menu tools. But the launch bar concept is a functionality that I would like to see added to LXDE. It would provide a handy convenience, for example, to have the launch bar in a second panel at the top of the screen.

I have not found the menu search tool to be of much use. By the time I remember the name of a program I want to launch, I could find it in the menu.

Have It Your Way

Do you prefer using desktop icons to launch applications rather than scrolling through the menu? With LXDE you never have to choose one method over the other.

Being able to place app icons on the desktop makes up for not having launch bar capability. I rely heavily on virtual workspaces on the Linux desktop. LXDE gives me the ability to set up workspace switching with the click of a window on the panel bar. And I can move from workspace to workspace without taking my fingers off the keys.

The alt/tab key combination makes it easy to switch among open windows on the same workspace. The ctrl/alt/arrow keys enable jumping from workspace to workspace.

Bottom Line

LXDE is convenient, fast and reliable. It offers a near perfect alternative to navigating the Linux desktop. It does this without having to make multiple clicks or suffer other slight-of-hand tomfoolery that is built into the more bloated desktop alternatives.

LXDE is aesthetically pleasing without resorting to system-hogging eye candy. I've tried the rest. I keep coming back to LXDE as the best desktop environment choice.


Jack M. Germain has been writing about computer technology since the early days of the Apple II and the PC. He still has his original IBM PC-Jr and a few other legacy DOS and Windows boxes. He left shareware programs behind for the open source world of the Linux desktop. He runs several versions of Windows and Linux OSes and often cannot decide whether to grab his tablet, netbook or Android smartphone instead of using his desktop or laptop gear.


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