Monday, October 1, 2007

Lego Set

The more I work with Linux, the more I am impressed with how different it is in its approach to the user than Microsoft Windows.
Take for example the user interface. The Windows XP or Vista desktop is essentially a unified seamless block of steel, whereas a Linux desktop is more like a Lego set.
Windows provides a standard look and feel with its icons, backgrounds, window appearance etc. This is great if you have the hardware to run Windows well but what if you don't? It'll be slow or crippled or won't run at all.
Linux is far more flexible. A typical graphical user interface for Linux is made up of three interdependent components:
(1) X Window System - this basic means of displaying graphics in a window (it's called "X" generally) has been around in one shape or another since 1984. X is the standard way a Unix-based operating system displays stuff. However on its own it can't do much. It requires a manager.
(2) The Window Manager. The window manager tells X how and where to display its windows. There are a variety of these around and the combination of X and some sort of window manager is pretty much all you need to get things running graphically in Linux. One of the best lightweight window managers is called Fluxbox and I use it on my old Compaq laptop. Fluxbox is Zen like in its simplicity - no icons, no easy graphical way to set up a background. A right-click brings up a basic list of applications like your web browser, but that is it. To make the system more user-friendly, the window manager needs:
(3) The Desktop Environment. Add this in and you are really getting close to a Windows type of operating system. The desktop environment adds a file manager, icons, toolbars - pretty much all the eye candy. It comes at a price though. All the extra graphics requires more powerful hardware to run at a reasonable speed.
The two most sophisticated Linux desktop environments are called Gnome and KDE. Both of these look and feel great if you are running a powerful enough computer system. They are sort of like Windows XP in their system requirements. However both of them are bog slow on an old PC like my Compaq Armada from 1998. There is a third desktop environment called Xfce which is lighter and faster, but it's not optimal for really old slow machines.
I found that the best solution for the Compaq was to forget about a sophisticated desktop environment entirely and just install the window manager Fluxbox. Then I added in a file manager called Rox-filer. Rox allows you to set a wallpaper background and add a few icons on your desktop if you want. This Flux-Rox combination is perfect for an old slow computer and still looks good.
It takes a bit more time to roll your own desktop but this is the beauty of Linux. At the end you get a fast and responsive system that satisfies your needs and in the process you learn more about his interesting alternative to Windows.

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