In one of my previous postings, I hinted at some of the issues I initially had with the Linux workstation at my new job (we use Redhat Enterprise 3.0). The UI was very sluggish, the memory usage high, I was unable to get Bluetooth support working, etc. Some of these issues have been resolved in the mean time, at least for the time being.
Our home directories are on a network share, which adds significant overhead with desktop environments like Gnome that frequently need to access dot files in the user’s home directory. Moving these dot files to a local directory and symlinking to them from the home directory brought some performance gains. The memory usage was still high, though.
Ultimately, I ended up switching from Gnome to XFCE, which brought a tremendous improvement. XFCE is much leaner than Gnome and thus requires much less memory. It does not offer all the desktop functionality that Gnome has, but it has everything that I really care about, such as an extensible and configurable panel, a task bar, virtual desktop, etc. Like Gnome it is built on top of the GTK library, and all Gnome applications I have tried work and look fine under XFCE.
I never really got all that much into the whole desktop metaphor, to be honest. Perhaps, because I never had a Mac… The year or so that I ran OS/2 in the early 90s was perhaps the closest I got to a nice desktop environment. On Windows, I usually just use the start button or quicklaunch bar to launch applications, and Windows explorer to manage files. I never use the desktop itself to store and manage files. Therefore, a desktop environment with support for icons really isn’t very important to me (although I believe there are ways to extend XFCE to support this, for example by integrating it with the Rox file manager). Most of the time, I end up using the terminal for all file management tasks on Linux (somehow everything else just doesn’t feel quite right under Unix…), and I rarely even use the Gnome, KDE, or XFCE file managers.
Anyway, I can heartily recommend XFCE as a lean alternative to the bloated Gnome or KDE. It is much more complete desktop environment than simple window managers such as Fluxbox provide (which is one of the best super-lightweight window managers I’ve used), yet very quick and sporting a conservative resource usage. It supports themes and other eye candy, is easy to configure, and supports many useful, optional plugins.