Saturday, June 29, 2013

10 things to do after installing Debian Wheezy XFCE

Debian Wheezy is a great operating system, and XFCE is a great desktop environment- especially for older computers, and for people who prefer a traditional desktop paradigm- but it does have a few quirks. I've just installed it on my old Presario 900 laptop, and I'm going to mention a few things I did after installing to make the computer more usable and nicer looking.

1. Install necessary firmware

Debian doesn't come with non-free firmware installed by default. On booting after installation, I noticed some warnings about firmware not found. Enabling the non-free repository and installing the firmware-linux package and its dependency firmware-linux-nonfree got my graphics card (such as it is) working.

2. Put a volume control icon in the panel

I don't know why this isn't there by default, but it's easy to rectify: right click on the panel, select Panel and then Add New Items, and add the Mixer. Click on it and then on Select Controls. Tick Master or PCM- whichever works best for you.

3. Sort out screensaver and power management

XFCE in Debian Wheezy comes with two applications capable on controlling power management, which can result in some perplexing behaviour.
  • The screensaver comes on, but the screen doesn't shut down after the set period.
  • The screen blanks, but the backlight stays on, leaving a ghostly illumination.
  • VLC is set to disable power management, but the screen blanks 10 minutes into a video.
I suspect that Power Manager works if a screensaver (set in Screensaver) is off, but if a screensaver is set in Screensaver, it doesn't, except in VLC. If a screensaver is set in Screensaver, then the power management settings in the  Screensaver Advanced tab are the only way to shut down the screen.

Confused? You should be!

There's more. A random screensaver is enabled by default, but not all of the screensavers selected are installed, meaning that sometimes a screensaver will start, some times the screen will blank.

Practically, if you want to use a screensaver, enable power management in Screensaver (note that all three settings, Standby, Suspend and Off are the same- this sems to be fine for a laptop anyway) and make sure the On AC > Monitor > Put display to sleep when computer is inactive for: value is greater than that set in Screensaver.

[Update: although this originally worked for me, my screen started going blank while watching videos again a few days ago. I don't know why, because the settings seem to be the same and I haven't had this problem for months.  Setting the XFCE Power Manager slider to Never seems to have fixed it. Not sure why I didn't do that in the first place.]

If you don't use a screensaver, Power Manager Monitor settings can be used to shut down the screen.

4.  Create some special folders icons for the Tango icon theme

Tango is the default icon theme for XFCE, yet it has a very annoying bug: it has no icons for special folders in the home directory, meaning that these folders are displayed with an icon from the Gnome icon set. You can of course use another icon set that does include special folder icons, but I rather like Tango. The only solution I have found is to copy the default folder in the Tango theme and rename it for all the special folders. (Well, actually creating symlinks would be a more elegant solution, come to think of it...) You can see what I've done in this screenshot.

Of course what is really needed is for somebody to produce some special folder icons for Tango...

[Update: if changes don't take effect, update the icon cache,
gtk-update-icon-cache /path/to/theme/directory/
as described on XFCE Docs.]

5. Enable anti-aliasing

If fonts look bitty, go to Settings > Appearance > Fonts and enable anti-aliasing. Experiment with the level of hinting for the best appearance.

[Update: also see this post on enabling LCD hinting (it's not a GUI option).]

6. Enable the compositor

Go to Settings > Window Manager Tweaks to enable compositing. XFCE has its own fairly minimal compositor. It provides windows shadows and transparency, and will enable docks that require compositing to run.

Although the compositor on XFCE is very minimal, I found that video lagged severely with compositing enabled on this laptop. Watch out for this issue on older hardware (10 years in this case).

7. Enable multimedia

Enabling multimedia in Debian used to be a big issue, but not any more. Debian now has multimedia support. Wheezy plays my music and video files out of the box. There are only a couple of things to mention here.

Install flashplugin-nonfree if you want to view Flash content on web pages.

To enable DVD playback, download and install libdvdcss2 as described on

8. Install a nice theme

Debian doesn't pay any attention to making XFCE look nice, but XFCE itself is very customisable. has lots of themes. Themes need to be set in Appearance and Window Manager. Themes can be placed in /home/user/.themes, but for system applications like Synaptic, they need to be in usr/share/themes. Some themes may require additional engines to display correctly. GTK3 applications like Network Manager will require GTK3 support to display correctly.

Here's my own desktop. Keeping it minimal, this theme doesn't require additional engines. Its a modification of the Axiom theme with added GTK3 support. The icon theme is Tango, but with panel icons from the Elementary icon theme.

9. Enable the Print Screen button

The prt sc button is not enabled by default. The excellent ArchLinux XFCE Wiki describes how to enable it. Add the command as described then press the prt sc key to bind it to that key.

10. Enable quick search in Synaptic

Install apt-xapian-index. Building and rebuilding the index may take some CPU time, but will speed up searches.

Monday, June 10, 2013 now "registered by someone unknown to Debian"

Debian recently got multimedia, but previously to that, Debian users may have added a repository to enable multimedia. This changed to to make clear that it was not part of the Debian project.The domain is now "registered by someone unknown to Debian".

Sound advice I think for Debian users would be to make sure they don't have that repository in their sources files.

A look at XFCE 4.10 on Debian Jessie

4.10 is not a radical upgrade to 4.8 available in Wheezy. XFCE is not in the business of overhauling the desktop paradigm like Gnome 3. It's not so much of a work in progress, more of a finished item, getting a few minor improvements.

I won't bother listing all the changes because that information is available at

I'll just mention a few things that have stuck me in a few days of using 4.10.

The audio mixer plugin for the panel has been updated, and seems a lot easier to set up and less buggy.

4.10 supports a Synaptics touchpad where 4.8 doesn't.

Windows can be tiled by dragging to the edge of the screen.

The application finder has been updated and looks nice. If you have used Gnome 3 and got into the habit of opening an application via a search, the application finder can be a quicker way to find and launch an application than the menu approach.

The biggest change that I noticed in 4.10 was in Thunar, which now has tabs.

The ability to tile windows makes comparing two folders almost as easy as the (now removed and much missed) 'extra pane' feature in Nautilus.

So, is 4.10 an absolutely must-have upgrade to XFCE? Probably not. Is it a useful upgrade that you might be annoyed at having to wait two years in Debian Stable to get? Possibly.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Life with eternal upgrades- XFCE 4.10

So I'm running Debian Jessie, the testing version of Debian, and living life with eternal upgrades.

A day or so ago, a upgrade to XFCE from 4.8 to 4.10 came through. I noticed some problems with theming: the panel loaded grey before turning to my theme-selected colour, panel icons appeared from the wrong theme, before (usually) changing to the correct theme icon, and highlighted text in Firefox was the default colour that is used whenever a theme is broken (a dark greyish blue).

At first I thought there must be a problem with my theme, but other themes had the same issues. Then I thought it must be a bug in XFCE.

While looking around for a solution, I came across a post on the XFCE forum which, while it didn't relate to the issues I was experiencing, seemed worth a try. And indeed, it did solve my problems. Something in the sessions cache was breaking the GTK2 theme.

The solution was to rename the following folder:
XFCE 4.10 is not a radical change from 4.8, but there are some notable differences. I shall write about those in another post.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Firefox UI update to arrive in October

Back in February 2012 I wrote about a planned update to the Firefox user interface. Well it looks like it's finally going to arrive at the end of the year (probably October) in Firefox 25.

Tech Crunch has the details and the Linux version looks like this.


Sunday, June 2, 2013

Debian Stable to track Firefox ESR

Debian has up to now put its own version of Firefox (Iceweasel) into the stable release and maintained that version until the end of life of the release. This meant Squeeze users were stuck for two years with version 3.5, while Firefox had advanced to version 19. Wheezy users were going to be stuck with version 10 for the next two years, by which time Firefox could be at version 35 or more.

However, it seems that under the weight of security updates, and the hard work involved in backporting them to Debian's own version, Debian Stable will now track Firefox ESR (something testing already does, as I reported here).
Multiple security issues have been found in Iceweasel, Debian's version of the Mozilla Firefox web browser: Multiple memory safety errors, missing input sanitising vulnerabilities, use-after-free vulnerabilities, buffer overflows and other programming errors may lead to the execution of arbitrary code, privilege escalation, information leaks or cross-site-scripting.

We're changing the approach for security updates for Iceweasel, Icedove and Iceape in stable-security: Instead of backporting security fixes, we now provide releases based on the Extended Support Release branch. As such, this update introduces packages based on Firefox 17 and at some point in the future we will switch to the next ESR branch once ESR 17 has reached it's end of life.

Debian Wheezy users can expect to see an update from Iceweasel 10 to 17 (and one from 17 to 24 at the end of the year). So Debian Stable users can now have (reasonably) up to date features as well as stability.

And Debian Wheezy users who would like to try out the latest features in the release version of Firefox (currently 21 at the time of writing) can get that too, as described here.