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Torvalds' temptress comes of age: Xfce 4.12 hits the streets

Is it enough to turn into a fully-fledged lover?

By Scott Gilbertson, 3 Apr 2015

Review April brings not just showers but traditionally a new release of Ubuntu, this time 15.04. With Ubuntu 15.04 will come Xubuntu and with that an update to Linus Torvalds’ briefly favoured Linux desktop (Xfce), version 4.12.

Some of what's new in Xfce 4.12 has already been a part of Xubuntu for some time, but Ubuntu 15.04 will see the rest arrive.

Xfce 4.12, released recently, is a major update for the desktop that very nearly became the Debian default. Xfce has grown in the last few years as the project has become something of a refuge for those unhappy with GNOME.

Torvalds, in a now-deleted Google Plus post, had called Xfce "A step down from GNOME 2, but a huge step up from GNOME 3".

Xfce's biggest problem seems to be that no one sticks with it. Torvalds soon moved back to GNOME and, after experimenting with Xfce, Debian also went back to using GNOME as the default for the upcoming Debian Jessie.

Perhaps some of that is due to Xfce's sometimes clunky-looking interface. And while it's similar to GNOME 2.x, it's also just different enough to be a little confusing for GNOME 2.x users. Settings are in different places, panel controls don't behave the same way and GTK3 support has, until now, been spotty.

Fortunately, Xfce 4.12 is a huge leap forward, both in terms of interface design – which is vastly improved in this release – and functionality. The most immediately noticeable changes are the numerous instances of added visual polish to the user interface.

The result is a desktop that's not just an alternative to GNOME and Unity, but one that's every bit as sophisticated and refined.

Xfce 4.12 desktop

Visual polish on the Xfce 4.12 interface is noticeable

The first thing long-time users will notice is that the window manager (xfwm4) has been updated with full support for GTK3's "Client-Side Decorations". Client-Side Decorations is the fancy name for the titlebar-less windows you'll find in GNOME Shell, where the window buttons have moved down into the actual menu bar.

That's not how the default theme looks in Xfce, but it will work for themes that expect it. Previously, themes that were expecting Client-Side Decorations in Xfce looked pretty bad unless you installed some workarounds to disable. Thankfully, that's no longer necessary.

The Xfce window manager gains support for corner tiling, just drag your window to any corner and it will snap to that quarter of the screen. It's now possible to zoom any window holding the Alt key and scrolling your mouse wheel. The Alt-zooming does not appear to work with trackpads.

Screens and monitors

If you're short of vertical screen real estate there's a new option to hide the window title when you maximize the windows. It's not much, but on cramped screens such as my old EeePC I'm always looking to save every bit of screen real estate I can, and hiding the title bar definitely helps.

Those with the opposite problem – multiple monitors – will also love this update. Display settings have been revamped, with quick, easy-to-set-up multi-monitor support.

The Alt-Tab window switcher dialogue looks a bit different as well, with a couple of new switching modes, a list view and a windows thumbnail view. The window switcher is fully themable, so third-party themes can customise things as well.

The new built-in Alt-Tab themes are nice, and there's mouse support as well. That means you can click on items to switch to them if you want to mix some mouse movements into your keyboard short-cuts.

Xfce 4.12 Thunbar

Thunar packs some long-awaited improvements

Perhaps the best news for anyone with an HiDPI screen is there are two new themes with HiDPI support. That's a welcome change given how bad Xfce looked on HiDPI screens. Gone are the jagged corners on icons and, worse, the janky, pixelated text.

Among the smaller, but welcome changes is a long-awaited improvement to the default Xfce file manager, Thunar, which finally supports tabs for opening multiple folders within a single window. There's even a handy menu item "File >> Detach Tab" that will open the currently selected tab in its own window, should you want to separate something out.

Thunar's folder properties display gets a new blue bar that shows the remaining free space available. In fact, speaking of the properties pane, you can now open the properties pane for multiple files at once, making it easy to get the total file size of a group of files.

There's also quite a few new options in the Xfce Power Manager. The Power Manager can track any devices that are plugged in and offers such fine-grained controls as separate settings for what happens when the lid of your laptop closes, depending on whether or not you're plugged into a power source. For example, you can set it so it just locks the screen when you're plugged in, but does a full hibernate when you're on battery.

The popular Whiskermenu alternative panel menu plug-in, which has long been the default menu panel in Xubuntu, is now an official member of the Xfce family. Another alternative interface, the XfDashboard – a GNOME Shell-inspired launcher – is also available as a standard part of Xfce.

Other updates in this release include an update for Xfce's task manager, which added a search bar for quickly filtering processes, and the default terminal app which can now be used as a drop-down terminal and includes some new default colour schemes, like the developer favorite, Solarised.

Xfce 4.12 arrives too late to make the upcoming Debian Jessie, but look for other distros to begin incorporating Xfce 4.12 into their releases later this year.

All in all, Xfce 4.12 is a big step forward. It might even persuade passers through – as epitomised by Torvalds – to stick around. ®

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