Updated: April 18, 2012
Most of the Linux desktoposphere revolves around Gnome and KDE. This means that most Linux programs are written, designed and tested for these desktop environments. There's nothing wrong with that, but if you're using one of the less popular alternatives, you might struggle a little finding the right software. Let me help you.
In this article, I will try to present you with the best programs suitable for use on top of non-Gnome and non-KDE desktops. Please note this does not mean they cannot be used with either Gnome or KDE with great success. Nor does it mean that programs not listed here are not suitable for your box. The whole purpose of this compilation is to expose you to some less known, lightweight programs that will offer the best performance and usability on older, possibly low-end machines running Xfce, LXDE, and others. Demonstrated on recently tested Dreamlinux and Vector, both flavored with Xfce. Now, follow me.
Abiword - best word processor
I have reviewed this program in detail in the past. It's really a splendid beast with a lot of cool features. Tiny yet fierce, it supports numerous file formats, including MS Word 2007 Office Open XML (DOCX), PDF, OpenOffice, LaTeX, KWord, PostScript (PS), even Outlook mail. It also has an equation editor and even Computer Modern fonts.
Audacious - Best audio player
This nifty little player has it all. It supports MP3, AAC, AAC+, FLAC, Vorbis, WMA, Apple Lossless, numerous chiptune formats, PlayStation Audio, Nintendo DS Sound Format, CD audio, and many other formats. Moreover, the player has various plugins and skins.
Chromium - Best browser
Chromium is an open-source browser, with many common elements like Google Chrome. It's fast, light and simple, with a built-in PDF reader and Flash player. It has excellent HTML and CSS standards support, plus it can be enhanced with extensions.
ePDFview - Best PDF reader
The choice of PDF readers for Linux is not a trivial deal, but you should be able to find your way around. ePDFview is quite similar to Evince. It's fairly light and basic, but it will get the job done.
GIMP - Best image processing suite
I believe GIMP needs little introduction. It's a superb program, which can do pretty much anything, from simple retouches to fancy animations. You can significantly enhance your productivity using additional plugins, scripts and filters.
Gnumeric - Best spreadsheet software
If you are not in the mood for installing the fully featured office suites like OpenOffice or LibreOffice, or perhaps your machine cannot handle their weight, the combo of Abiword and Gnumeric should serve you well. Gnumeric is fast and accurate. The program comes with many features you'd expect in a typical spreadsheet. It has more than 580 mathematical functions, of which almost 200 are unique to Gnumeric. It also supports many file formats. However, Pivot tables are not yet supported.
Grsync - Best data backup software
Rsync is the mother of data transfer protocols. With a fancy GUI, it becomes a great tool in the hands of professionals and home users alike. Need I stress the importance for frequent data backups? Perhaps you should take a look at my tutorial here.
Liferea - Best RSS reader
There are a million ways you can read feeds, including native support in your browser. But if you're more of an old-fashioned type or perhaps follow hundreds or even thousands of news sources, then Liferea can come handy.
LyX - Best text processor
LyX is one of my favorite programs of all times, the thin line dividing between ordinary people using word processors and superior geeks using LaTeX. Jokes aside, LyX is a simple, lightweight frontend for LaTeX, allowing you to work in a mixed GUI mode with LaTeX commands and syntax. The end results will be impressive documents in HTML, PS or PDF format rendered with unbeatably beautiful Computer Modern fonts. And then, I've a handful of productivity tips that should make your work even more professional and better looking.
Midori - Second best browser
Overall, I am not fond of many derivative browsers out there, and Midori is no exception, however in its own category, as a lightweight alternative for old machines running non mainstream desktop environments, it has its uses. Like Chromium, it runs the WebKit engine, fully supports HTML5, and has extensions that support gestures, speed dial, and more.
Osmo - Best calendar and tasks program
Osmo is a handy personal organizer, which includes calendar, tasks manager, address book and notes modules. Currently, Osmo has many features, including calendar import and export, task reminders and alerts, birthday browser, Google Maps integration for address search, rich text, and more.
Pidgin - Best IM client
Pidgin is a multi-protocol client and will allow you to connect to several networks, without using several (often) bloated and unneeded IM programs. Pidgin supports AIM, ICQ, MSN, Yahoo!, IRC, Jabber, Gadu-Gadu, Silc, GroupWise, SameTime, and Zephyr networks.
SMPlayer - Versatile media player
SMPlayer is a complete, lightweight frontend for MPlayer. The program supports numerous features, including configurable subtitles, video equalizer, multiple speed playback, numerous filters, autorepeat, shuffle and random, and more.
Transmission - Best P2P/BitTorrent client
Transmission is a simple, no-nonsense BitTorrent client. It features extremely low memory usage, prioritization of tasks, magnet links, encrypted peer connections, torrent file creation, peer exchange that is compatible with Vuze and uTorrent, automatic port mapping, peer caching, blacklisting, scheduled bandwidth limits, global caps, filtering, HTTPS support, DHT for both IPv4 and IPv6, local peer discovery, uTP, UDP, and more.
VideoLAN (VLC) - Best overall player
VLC is probably the most popular open-source player, not just in the Linux world. Its major selling point is: it plays everything. And this is true. If VLC doesn't play a file, it probably means the file is broken. Hell, it will even stream temporary files in your eMule/aMule download directory.
VLC also has a ton of plugins, extensions and skins, all of which make it somewhat of a wonder player. Some of
the features are specific to certain operating systems, like the DirectX wallpaper for Windows. However, when
it comes to subtitles, screenshots, radio streaming, recording video, it works
majestically on any platform.
Some other programs and considerations
I was not sure about some of the available software. For example, the choice of the mail client still eludes me. And so does the CD/DVD burning software. If you have some really good recommendations, then please send them. For example, is Sylpheed any good?
There's a lot more. And remember, the fact you don't see it here does not make it bad. For example, my fairly old T60p machine with a dual-core 32-bit processor and 2GB RAM is capable of running numerous programs at the same time, including the heavier Gnome and KDE frameworks. This means that I can comfortably run a lot of other programs too. The big difference probably manifest on extremely old and under-powered machines. However, if the non-mainstream choice of desktop environments stems from aesthetic reasons and not performance consideration, then you can run just about anything you want.
You may also want to read ...
How about checking out my mega-compilation of Linux must-have programs?
And there's also this - Xfce suggested programs.
There you go. I hope you will find this article useful. While I am not a non-Gnome and non-KDE user myself, I took my time studying this topic, trying to compile the best available list of alternative, lightweight programs that should meet your demands. If you have an old, weak computer or perhaps dislike the popular and populistic software choices, you might like this bunch of tools.
Once again, I'd like to reiterate, you can use any or all of these programs on any Linux desktop. Whether you fancy Xfce, LXDE or even Gnome, they will run well. Moreover, you are definitely not limited to this short list. You can use anything you want, especially if you have a powerful machine capable of handling resource-hungry programs. Well, that would be all. I sure welcome suggestions and additions, so feel free to ping me.