The GUI Bloat Effect

Something dawned on me just yesterday. When using a slim and clean-lined theme or skin on GUI based software, the user can be easily convinced that the system is actually running faster and much lighter on resources. Or at least that’s how I see it. It is a psychological case, whether this affects only a small percentage of users or is within our nature to believe so, I am unsure. Read on and let me explain.

The thought came about yesterday when I updated VLC Media Player on my Linux system. I was not only starting to get bored with the default GTK interface used by VLC, but it also doesn’t fit into my IceWM theme. It sort of looks out of place, considering VLC is an application that is open almost all of the time. So I checked out some VLC skins. I decided to install the hx_milky skin.

Not only does the skin take a boring default GTK interface and make it look like a fresh new application, but it also gives the impression that the application is much lighter, thanks to the smaller text, buttons and tweaked layout. I tested the hx_milky skin and then tested the default VLC skinned interface. It seemed to blend in much better to my IceWM desktop. In fact, it closely resembles the theme so much that one could be mistaken for thinking that it was actually part of the IceWM theme itself.

Apart from a fresh new looking VLC Media Player, things seemed to run a whole lot smoother and cleaner. But that’s where I proved myself wrong. I fired up htop in a terminal session and checked the actual resource usage for VLC and for all three of the aforementioned interfaces and skins. To my disappointment and surprise, nothing had changed. VLC uses ~5.0% and 3.9% of my CPU and memory, respectively, regardless of the interface or skin used. This is certainly not a bad thing and in fact probably demonstrates how cleanly coded VLC is with its ability to run any interface and any skin with next to no effect on resource usage.

And then I was led to Linux desktop environments. And it has me wondering whether some users are put off mainstream Linux desktop environments like Unity, GNOME Shell and KDE simply due to the default appearance. And in particular, the appearance of large chunky buttons. All three mainstream desktop environments come with large chunky interfaces and buttons in comparison to a customized and streamlined environment like IceWM, Openbox or any other of the myriad of available desktop environments and window managers available for Linux. Although arguably, IceWM and Openbox are much lighter on resources than the aforementioned environments. But perhaps not as much as what you might initially have thought. Briefly, looking at those large buttons in KDE4 can easily give the impression of bulk, bloat and a slow system.

It’s a strange psychology that I would actually like to dive into a little further some time. I’d like to hear some other users’ experiences and thoughts on the topic. Post your opinions in our comments section below.