Five tips for a lighter, leaner Linux desktop

With a little tweaking, you can achieve a noticeable increase in speed for your Linux desktop. Jack Wallen looks at a few simple steps for tuning up performance.

The Linux desktop is flexible, powerful, and reliable, and it's certainly ready for your business and/or home needs. One of the many reasons why the Linux desktop can handle numerous needs is its ability to be highly tuned to meet the requirements of the user. In addition to customizing the desktop, you'll sometimes want to tweak it so that it's as light and lean as possible. For example, you may have a slower piece of hardware you want to eke more life out of. Or you might have an application that requires a larger amount of CPU cycles than a standard desktop allows. Regardless of the "why," we're going to focus on the "how." Here are five ways you can have yourself a lighter, leaner Linux desktop.

1: Use a lighter desktop

There are plenty of options available. From Enlightenment to Fluxbox to Xfce, Linux has plenty of options (all with varied feature sets) that allow you to have the lightest possible desktop. One of the lightest of all (outside of console only) is Fluxbox. Although this desktop may require you to do some manual configurations, the result is an incredibly fast desktop -- likely the fastest desktop you have ever experienced. You can install many of these lightweight desktops right from your Package Management system. For Enlightenment, however, I would go with a distribution that offers E17 as an option or as the default (such as Bodhi Linux.)

2: Don't use indexing

As with the Windows desktop, indexing can cause a significant slowdown on your Linux desktop. Both KDE and GNOME use indexing (with the help of Strigi and Beagle, respectively) to enable more powerful desktop searching that is accessed not only by end users, but by applications as well. The act of indexing is when either the Beagle or the Strigi indexing daemon indexes every file within the configured directories. Both tools allow for the configuration of specific times to handle indexing, which is one way to get rid of the issue at hand. But if you don't do much searching or you don't use applications that depend upon desktop searching (such as a groupware suite like Evolution), you can disable the indexing services altogether.

3: Turn off visual effects

Yes, visual effects are cool. That Compiz cube can't be beat for desktop awesomeness. But Compiz (and other compositors) can really put a hit on your system. Just because your GPU can handle the task doesn't mean your CPU or RAM can handle the added load. For slower systems (or when you really need as much CPU as you can get), disable visual effects completely in GNOME or KDE. The latest KDE (4.6 as of this writing) has a nice feature that will automatically disable visual effects if they take too long to load or cause a noticeable hit on the system. For GNOME, just click System | Preferences | Appearance and then disable Visual Effects from within the Visual Effects tab. For KDE, click K Menu | System Settings | Desktop Effects and uncheck  Enable Desktop Effects in the General tab.

4: Remove KDE Plasmoids and GNOME widgets

With either KDE or GNOME, the more widgets you use, the slower your desktop can get. By default, KDE 4 will ship with a single Plasmoid, which won't create a noticeable hit. But if you long for a bit more speed, you can remove that Plasmoid. Same thing with GNOME. I have seen the GNOME Do widget in a GNOME panel cause slowdowns on a system. Of course, with GNOME 3, this all changes, as you can't add widgets to the Panel. You can think of these Plasmoids and widgets similarly to Windows startup applications. They require resources to run and the more you have, the more resources they will use. This is especially true if you have visual effects turned on, since the Plasmoids often make use of those effects. And if you are using Plasmoids or widgets that are updated from a network feed, you could easily see a slowdown should your connection fail or suffer a slowdown.

5: Use a different file manager

I know this might seem counterintuitive, as both Dolphin (KDE) and Nautilus (GNOME) are integrated file managers and should be optimized for use. But the thing is, those file managers are notorious resource hogs. Yes, they offer an incredible number of features and are hands-down the most user-friendly, feature-rich file managers you will ever use. But when speed is the key, you want a file manager like PCMan File Manager or Thunar. Both offer some unique features for a file manager and both will blow the competition out of the water when it comes to speed. Between the two, you will find PCMan File Manager to be the lighter weight, as it doesn't depend upon the Xfce libraries that Thunar requires for installation. But both of those solutions are blazing fast and will not slow down your system in the slightest.

When trying to decide upon which Linux desktop to use, you should rest assured that (unless your hardware demands a much lighter desktop) you should be able to tweak your desktop to the point where the increase in speed is noticeable. Although many would argue that today's powerful machines can handle anything thrown at them, not all businesses or homes can afford the latest-greatest. In those instances, it's always nice to know a leaner, lighter desktop can be had, thanks to Linux.


Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.


I would be more interested in using Thunar (not very familiar with PCMan) if they made it easier to access networked devices, such as a printer or NAS box. They make me jump through unnecessary hoops, to do that.


Yeah, the eye candy is too tempting so on my primary machine I put up with a bit of a performance hit. But on secondary (or older) equipment the options are incredible. I use blackbox or IceWM for a thin DE, and whenever I need to get to files and operate on them quick I go to FileRunner. It's just as capable as the likes of nautilus, except for the view, it only has a list view for files/folders. I'm with Jack on enlightenment, particularly e17. It's just too dang cool, ever see the look on a windows slave when they see e17 in action?


Your article is excellent and well founded. As a long time Ubuntu user some of your options are just hard to part with. For example I love spreading out my work using Compiz; maybe not the most efficient way to get work done but it works for me. I have tried several different file managers and I seem to drift back to Nautilus. Same is true of Gnome; I have tried several other "lighter" desktops and drift back to old comfortable. Thanks for your article!


I believe you refer to the ability to mount devices or shares through the file manager directly. This is indeed one of the functions shed by the 'thin' file managers in order to speed up their basic reason for being. PCmanfm does have this feature, for example plug in a USB drive and an icon shows in a panel at left. Click on it and the device is mounted as well as contents displayed. For any file manager there is always the ability to have mounted a resource (NAS for example) at some point in the local file system. Then it's just a matter of pointing the manager to that location. The twin-pane FileRunner I mentioned has no trouble accessing anything that has a local mount point, regardless of what the device is or where it's physically located. You just can't find and mount them with FR, you have to manually set that up beforehand. I really love FileRunner, it's like the old midnight commander with a better user interface. It's never let me down. I had to sort through over 30,000 files that had been stuffed into a single folder once. Konqueror would take hours, literally, to enumerate the contents and display them. It was useless so far as manipulating the files was concerned, it was too bogged down to so much as right click to get a context menu. I used FileRunner and was able to get the work done in about a day. At first I thought it was locked up when I entered that folder, but after a few minutes it came back to life and I could see all the files. I could have used the command line for the tasks at hand but it would have taken a lot longer, actually. There was a lot of trial and error involved, being able to check a file's properties with FR was a time saver. No other file manager could handle that huge wad of files.

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