How to customise your Linux desktop: LXDE

Part six(!) in my Linux Desktop series, I'm looking at LXDE on Debian GNU/Linux and Raspbian.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

So far in this series I have looked at customizing Xfce, KDE, Gnome 3, Cinnamon and MATE. That covers a lot of territory, and there has been some significant overlap in focus, features and capabilities between those desktops.

This time I'm going to look at LXDE, and I think the difference will be clear - LXDE is focused on being lightweight and low overhead but still easy to use and configure.

I'm going to use a Debian GNU/Linux Testing distribution (stretch/sid) for demonstration this time. I have been trying to confirm that this has the latest version, but LXDE is not released in completely packaged and consistently numbered sets, so I can't say that it is "version x.y". What I have been able to confirm is that it is running lxsession 0.5.1 and lxpanel 0.8.1, and according to the LXDE.org web site those are the latest versions.

The default LXDE desktop on Debian GNU/Linux looks like this:


LXDE Desktop on Debian GNU/Linux

There's nothing radically different here than we have seen with the previous desktops - wallpaper, a Trash icon, and a panel that spans the bottom of the screen. At the left end of the panel there is a menu, represented by an icon of the LXDE logo, and some application launchers. At the right end of the panel there are some system controls and monitors.



Clicking the icon at the left end of the Panel brings up the LXDE Menu. This is a typical category/cascading menu.There is no search function in the standard LXDE menus.

I think that I have covered enough desktops, configuration and customization, that I can forego the long descriptions of some of the simpler configuration steps. Some things I will simply say "you can do this...", or I might write just a line about how/where/what to do. When there is more of a difference with LXDE, or something is particularly interesting, I will go into more detail.

Also, as I did with Xfce and MATE, I want to write this with some specific goals, as a sort of "how do I get from here to there" dialog, rather than just abstract configuration possibilities. So I am going to try to configure this Debian LXDE system so that the screen looks like the default Raspbian LXDE desktop, shown here:

Raspbian Desktop

Raspbian LXDE Desktop

Hmm. Well, that doesn't look so difficult, does it? I mean, we're all Linux Desktop Customizing Professionals now, aren't we?

The first step is going to be trivial, just changing the wallpaper. We are certainly not going to find the Raspberry Pi wallpaper in the Debian collection, but we can at least look and see what is involved in changing it, and what other capabilities it might (or might not) have.


There are two ways to get to the dialog where you can change the wallpaper. The simplest is to right-click on the desktop and choose Desktop Preferences from the menu, but in some situations you don't get the necessary menu when you right-click. The alternative is to go to the LXDE Menu, and then in Preferences you will find Desktop Preferences.


LXDE Desktop Appearance

Choosing an image is simple enough. There are only three to choose from in this version of Debian, but as with all the other desktops, you can use any other image that you want.

The second tab in this window lets you choose what Icons are displayed on the desktop. The default is just the Trash Can (do people really use this on Linux?), but you can add a Documents folder icon, or dynamic icons for mounted removable volumes.

I'm a bit baffled by that last one, because I thought these desktop volume icons were intended to give you a convenient way to either access or eject/unmount removable filesystems. But when I right-click the icon for a USB stick I don't get any kind of "Eject" option. Weird. I can select the file manager (PCManFM), and then eject it from there, but there is a permanent icon on the Panel for PCManFM, so why bother going to it this way? There must be a reason, I just don't get it. Oh well.


Advanced Desktop Settings

The third tab in the Desktop Preferences window contains an option which relates to the comment I made above about right-clicking the desktop might not bring up the same menu. If you select this, you get... well, just what it says, but that then depends on what window manager you are using with LXDE.

Moving on... the next thing I need to do is move the Panel from the bottom to the top of the display. I liked Simon Long's comments in the Raspberry Pi Blog about this when he moved it. Basically he said that the vast majority of European/American users read from left to right and top to bottom, so when confronted with a new document our eyes automatically go to the top left corner. That makes sense to me - and when after I had been using my Pi systems that way for a little while I was convinced. As Simon said, "Apple got this right and Microsoft got it wrong".


LXDE Panel Preferences

To move the Panel, right-click anywhere on it and choose Panel Settings. That will bring up the Panel Preferences window, where you can select the Position, and set various other size and alignment parameters. It doesn't get much easier than this...


Note the Height and Icon size settings in this window. If you increase the height to more than double the icon size, it will automatically switch to two rows of icons - and the "Desktop Pager" (workspace selector) will switch to a vertical display, which is pretty cool. Combine this with the "Minimize Panel When Not In Use" option on the Advanced tab (aka Autohide), and I think it comes out pretty nice, I like it!

The Raspbian desktop has a group of application launcher icons at the left end of the Panel. We have two of the same ones in our panel, for the File Manager and Web Browser, but we need to add a couple more and also to get rid of the Workspace Selector.

Well, it turns out that those launcher icons are actually contained in a special LXDE Panel object called an Application Launcher Bar. To add something to it, you right-click on the launcher icons and choose Application Launch Bar Settings.


This window contains a list of displayed launchers on the left side, and a reproduction of the LXDE Menu on the right side. If you have been poking around in the menu yourself, you might have noticed that unlike most of the other desktops, when you right-click a menu item on LXDE there is no "Add to Panel" option. This window is the next-best thing to that. You can Add, Delete and change the order of launchers here.

I can add LXterm to the launchers, but the other two items on Raspbian don't exist on my Debian system (Wolfram and Mathematica). So I will add one of my more commonly used applications, GIMP.


Removing the Desktop Pager (Workspace Selector) is dead easy, just right-click on it and select Remove "Desktop Pager" from panel. You could do the same by right-clicking and selecting Add/Remove Panel Items, which brings up this window, and here you would actually see that there are panel spacers on either side of it, so you might want to remove one of those as well.

Ok, I think that gets us close enough to the Raspbian desktop. I still need to add/remove some of the items at the right end of the panel, but the procedure is going to be exactly the same as I have just done, so I won't include that here.

There is one more area of customization possible with LXDE - adding shortcuts to the desktop. I'm not a big fan of this, because I have seen far too many desktops which were so covered with icons, launchers, shortcuts, bookmarks and whatever else that there was actually no background visible - and no hope of ever finding one particular item that you might be looking for. Other people think desktop icons are wonderful, and swear that they are the most efficient way (for them) to work. So who am I to argue?


The simplest way to put an application shortcut on the desktop is to find it in the LXDE Menu, right-click and select Add to Desktop. I have been taking lots of screen shots for this series of posts, so for convenience I could add a shortcut to the screen shot program to the desktop.


Hmmm. Ok, good... well... what is that, exactly? It's not a normal "icon", because we saw those back when we were looking at Desktop Settings. It's not a normal "launcher", because it has that funny arrow at the top left corner. It's a new object, a desktop shortcut, and it is implemented in a very simple way.


Advanced Desktop Settings

Remember the Desktop Preferences / Advanced window from earlier? See the item about using the desktop as a folder? That's the key here. Uncheck that, and the shortcut disappears from the desktop. Check it again, and the shortcut returns. Pretty spiffy.

Now you can peek behind the curtain, by just starting the PCManFM File Manager, and opening the Desktop folder in your home directory. There you will see Shutter, and if you look closely you will see that it is a "shortcut to URI". But if the desktop is really being used as a folder, then we should be able to put whatever we want in there - and we can!

Try it for yourself. Of course you can right-click on the desktop and then choose Create... to make an empty file or folder. But you can just as easily put something else directly into the Desktop folder yourself - copy a file, or save a LibreOffice document there, for example. Anything you put in there will immediately show up on your desktop.

So, given that I don't like desktop shortcuts, I have now opened up the Gates of Hell by explaining what they are and how to create whatever you want. Sigh. Sometimes it seems that I will never learn.

I think that covers all of the basic configuration and customization possibilities for LXDE. As I said at the beginning, LXDE is considered to be a lightweight desktop, and I think the information presented here shows that. While it certainly can be customized in many of the same way as the more 'advanced' desktops (wallpaper, panels, desktop icons) in each case you can see that the extent of the configurability is less than with the other desktops we have seen.

It is possible to go further, with additional effort, so things like a wallpaper slideshow that is standard in many of the others can be created in LXDE, likewise, it is possible to write your own LXDE Panel plug-ins, so if there are plug-ins (or widgets) in other desktops that you absolutely want on your LXDE desktop, you could do that.

But in my opinion, that's the point - LXDE isn't as big, or as bulky, or as filled-out as the other desktops, and that is one of its advantages. People who choose LXDE want basic functionality without a lot of overhead, so what I have tried to show here is how the basic system can be fine-tuned to make it a bit more comfortable.

I had originally thought this would be the last desktop configuration that I looked at. But there have been a number of requests for me to include some of the even lighter-weight options, so I will probably write one more time, about Openbox and Enlightenment, which are actually more like Window Managers rather than complete desktop environments.

But first, I'm going to have a good look at Ubuntu MATE on the Raspberry Pi 2!

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