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Flipping the Linux switch: Enlightening experiences with window managers

e17 desktop screenDo you remember our youth? The good times we had, the games we played, and that great discussion we had about what makes a window manager different from a desktop environment? Then our relationship sort of got stuck on desktop environments.

It's understandable, of course. Most new Linux users feel more comfortable with something a little heavier than a window manager like Fluxbox or WindowMaker. The interesting thing, of course, is that many new users are either consciously or unconsciously playing the field of not only distributions, but desktops.

Rest assured, KDE will not text you a hundred times a day to beg, plead or curse if you switch desktops. GNOME will not mail you a dead fish from the opposite side of the country, book rate. In this relationship, it is always okay to have a wandering eye, not only for what is out there, but for what's on the horizon.

We like Enlightenment as it stands now. It's one of our favorite window managers. It doesn't feel too foreign to the new user, but it is still extremely lightweight. If there was a spectrum with the heaviest desktop environments on the right, and the lightest window managers on the left, just right of the middle would be the venerable Xfce, and just to the left of the middle would be Enlightenment.

But as for what's on the horizon for Enlightenment? We have seen e17. Right now it's an alpha release, and we're waiting not too patiently for the coming out party. We are smitten.
The kind folks who develop Enlightenment call e17 a "desktop shell." It's an interesting term, and is actually quite descriptive. e17 is minimalist, clearly less than something like Xfce, and more than its ancestor e16. There are familiar bits on the desktop. There's a panel dock, there are menus, there are icons on the desktop. But it doesn't feel like a desktop environment.

We'll reiterate here that e17 is an alpha release. It's a pretty early alpha release. We first tried it a couple of months ago, and whereas it worked fairly nicely (for an alpha) there were obvious hiccups and bugs that would have made even semi-regular use a bit trying, to say the least. We've been running e17 for a few days now, tossing it around and testing it, and it has come a long way. Do things crash? Of course. None of the crashes are disasterous, and (for us) most often seem to be widgets segfaulting on occasion. e17 is one of the more stable alphas we've run across lately.

Certainly the biggest drawback to the alpha status is the fact that packages are hard to come by for some distributions. We got e17 installed in Ubuntu with very little effort by using a tutorial on the Ubuntu forums. Some other distros have unofficial packages. It's disconcerting to install (at least in Ubuntu) because we found many, many e17 packages are skipped in the process. Again, keep in mind, this is essentially a developer's release, and a lot of the skipped packages are defunct or unnecessary developer tools.

e17 desktop screen shot

So what makes e17 stand out? Plenty of window managers are fast, plenty of desktop environments are functional. And of course, e17 is both of these things, or it wouldn't be worth giving you a sneak peek at it. What is most remarkable about e17 is the integration of applications that are built on entirely different libraries into a unified sort of environment. Will you be able to tell a GTK application from a Qt application? Yes. But the effect on the eye is not nearly as jarring as running K3b in GNOME or GIMP in KDE.

Some parts of e17 are extremely well developed already. We are in absolute love with the configuration panels. They're easy to understand, manipulate and logically laid out. Some neat things that can be done include changing languages -- without having to log out and restart the X server. The spirit of the configuration panels doesn't end with just wallpaper, theme, and font configurations, either.

e17 configuration panel

Every window manager (or desktop environment) has some sort of little widget or module system. However, e17's polish really shines when you mix the really useful little modules with the really logical configuration panel. Our e17 desktop came with a few default modules on the panel. Hold on to your hats... they were actually useful (or hey, consisted of stuff geeks like us like to see but hate to configure). So we had a temperature monitor, a CPU frequency widget, a battery monitor and an analog clock. We deleted the battery monitor, since we're on a desktop, and included a module to easily scroll through and manipulate open windows.

e17 module configuration shot

Further module configs

The panel (or dock) is an arranged "shelf." You can delete the shelf altogether, although at this stage in development it seems to really tick Enlightenment off and things grind to a halt. It's a better idea to tweak the shelf through the configuration options (right clicking on the shelf). Some of the configuration options (such as the "invisible" shelf) cause crashes. If we chose to recover rather than exit, we've still got a very functional desktop. But remember, at this stage in the development game, this is expected.

e17 panel shot

Like the Enlightenment versions before it, e17 spits out menus when you click your mouse on the desktop. To a new Linux user, or even a seasoned Linux user used to other desktop environments, this can be a little unnerving. Trust us when we say that eventually you get over this. We got over our annoyance with this feature while using WindowMaker, and Xfce. Now we find ourselves using all sorts of colorful language when our mouse button doesn't bring up the appropriate menu in KDE, GNOME, (or XP).

Another upcoming feature of e17 is a native file manager. At this stage, it's not terribly remarkable. Opening the file manager from the "Files" menu option gives "Favorites" (root, home, and Desktop, with the ability to add more). We imagine, of course, that file manager development is a monumentally huge task, and that major improvements will come in time.

And yes, of course, e17 has retained all those cool window manageresque window options and behaviors -- things like locking, pinning, sticking, and sending to desktops.

Should you try Enlightenment? Well... That depends. If you're a not-so-new to advanced Linux user, e17 shouldn't be terribly difficult to get running provided there are either packages or good tutorials for your distro. Will you want to run it as your only desktop environment/window manager? No, most likely not. As we said, it is very stable for an alpha. But it is still an alpha. It's also really fun to play around with.

If you like the idea of e17, and the speed and feel of a window manager with a little more oomph, we'd strongly encourage newer users and users who need day to day stability to take e16 for a spin. It's got charm, and is certainly more than capable.

And it's always nice to have a new release to be looking forward to.

Tags: alpha, desktop, desktop environment, DesktopEnvironment, enlightenment, linux, linux-switch, open source, OpenSource, testing, window manager, WindowManager