After about a year and a half of development, the Xfce team has announced the alpha release of Xfce 4.6, codenamed
Xfce is the desktop environment and main reason for the existence of Xubuntu. It provides the file manager, panels and much more, keeping your desktop fast yet easy to use. Thus, Xfce is one of the most important parts of Xubuntu, and the 4.4 release has been enjoyed by many users of Xubuntu since it was released.
Obviously, the 4.6 release will be very significant for Xubuntu, and this is an important milestone in the road towards that release. While it was initially hoped that this release would make it into Xubuntu 8.10 (codenamed “Intrepid Ibex”), the Xfce release schedule suggests that, with three beta releases and two release candidated still scheduled, that target won’t be met. However, you can expect to see the new release in Xubuntu 9.04 (codename “Jaunty Jackalope”), and if you’re running 8.10 you can try the alpha release by adding the xubuntu-dev PPA to your software sources. (Note: at the time of writing this the packaged version is not this actual alpha but a version before that, however, this alpha will be packaged soon.)
The new version of Xfce comes with many new features. Xfce now has a new configuration backend called xfconf, similar to gconf, but simpler and easier to work with. This brings more flexibility and better integration between Xfce components. You can now control your desktop settings through the command-line – this is not only handy for people helping on IRC (i.e. there is no more need to guide the user through all kinds of settings dialogs – though, IMHO, that would be less confusing for the user), it also means automated scripts can easily update your settings. One use I see for this is being able to change your keyboard layout using a key combination, an oft-requested feature by programmers.
Speaking of key combinations: the confusing keyboard shortcut-themes have been removed and conflicts between keyboard shortcuts and window manager shortcuts are now easily resolved. All these new settings also come with updated settings dialogs, which can be started standalone as they are now, but also embedded into the settings manager – a feature of which Jannis made a screencast.
Furthermore, Xfce now ships libxfce4menu. This is a software library aiming to implement the menu standard also implemented by GNOME and KDE and partly implemented by Xfce 4.4. While it is currently in use only by the desktop and the Appfinder (the latter of which has been completely rewritten to support libxfce4menu), it paves the way for a proper menu plugin in the panel that you can actually edit.
Apart from the libxfce4menu support, the desktop manager xfdesktop has also received a few small improvements over the previous version. It has a redesigned preferences dialog, includes a few more options for the desktop background (such as colour saturation adjustment), and can now automatically start and stop managing a new desktop when you respectively plug or unplug a monitor.
Finally, the Xfce mixer plugin has been completely rewritten to use gstreamer. One effect this has is that Xubuntu will probably definitely be switching to gstreamer-based applications (Xubuntu used to include a xine version of Totem, the movie player, but recently switched to the gstreamer-based version). The biggest benefit this brings users is that it will automatically ask to search for additional media support when it is not installed yet, which happens e.g. when you try to play an MP3-file on a freshly installed Xubuntu.
All in all, though not as big as 4.4 was, this is shaping up to be another fine release of Xfce that has me looking forward to it.