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 jackwallen.com.

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