posted by Howard Fosdick on Sat 7th Jun 2014 00:53 UTC
IconOver the past several years, mobile devices have greatly influenced user interfaces. That's great for handheld users but leaves those of us who rely on laptops and desktops in the lurch. Windows 8, Ubuntu Unity, and GNOME have all radically changed in ways that leave personal computer users scratching their heads.

One user interface completely avoided this controversy: Xfce. This review takes a quick look at Xfce today. Who is this product for? Who should pass it by?

Since 1996, the Xfce desktop environment has evolved at a steady, non-disruptive pace. It's reliable. I've used it for six years and have rarely encountered bugs. Most important, Xfce presents a simple menu-driven interface on a traditional desktop. Anyone who's ever used a computer can sit down with it and immediately become productive. No mysteries here about "Where's the Start button?" or "Does it have a menu?" or "How do I add a desktop icon?"

Xfce is the default desktop for about ten Linux distributions. Over 80 others offer it in their repositories. For this review, I worked with Xfce 4.10 on Xubuntu 13.10 and Zenwalk 7.2. Xfce version 4.12 has been in development for two years and should be released soon. Read about upcoming version 4.12 features here.

A Traditional Desktop

Here's the default Xfce desktop presented by Xubuntu 13.10. It contains a top panel with some minimal information and a menu button. There's also a bottom panel that you can't see in this screenshot: it remains invisible until you move your mouse cursor over it. The bottom panel contains icons for ten common applications.

I've clicked on the menu button (in the upper left hand corner of the screen) to show the drop-down menu and some of the default apps:

Xubuntu Desktop

Menus and configuration work as anyone who has ever used Windows (pre-version-8) would assume. To add an icon for an application or folder to the desktop, just right-click on any empty spot in the display and select "Create Launcher" or "Create Folder." Right-clicking also allows you to control "Desktop Settings" including desktop background, menuing options, and the default desktop icons.

Similarly, you can add and delete application launchers and plug-ins to the default panels. Just right-click on the panel. You can relocate panels to any edge of the display, and add and delete new panels at will. I alter the panels according to my screen's size and shape.

The "Settings Manager" selection in the main menu lets you configure Xfce and your operating system. No mystery here about how to tailor the system to your needs.

Here's how I altered the default Xubuntu desktop to suit my preferences in just fifteen minutes. I deleted the top panel, and made the bottom panel permanently visible. I changed its icons to launch my favorite apps. I added a second panel on the right-hand side of the display and placed launchers there for some system tools. Finally, I altered the desktop background and added a couple program icons to the desktop. To top it off I reduced my screen resolution for better readability:

Modified Xubuntu Desktop

Given its flexibility, most distros pre-configure Xfce. So the default desktop you'll see varies by the distro. For example, here's the initial desktop for VectorLinux 7 Standard Edition. It features a centered top panel with common launchers and a Mac-like dock at the bottom. If you move the mouse cursor over the dock the icons in focus enlarge. In this screenshot, the cursor points at the Pidgin app in the dock:

VectorLinux 7 Desktop

What Xfce Includes

Xfce is a full desktop environment (DE). It bundles both a user interface and programs to support common desktop tasks. Its core components are:


Window Manager
Manages windows on the display
Desktop Manager
Manages screen background, icons, root window
Session Manager
Controls sessions, login, power management
Settings Manager
For easy configuration
Manages panels and their icons
Application Finder
Finds apps
Xfce libraries
Underlying functions and widgets
Client-server configuration
Thunar File Manager
Default file manager

Xfce also bundles a default set of applications: Midiori for web browsing, Xfburn for creating optical discs, Ristretto for viewing images, Orage for calendaring, Mixer for audio tracks, and Terminal for a command line interface. Distros often modify this list by their own additions and omissions.

Compatible and Lightweight

Xfce has a minimalist philosophy. The idea is to provide a basic desktop environment, to which you add any applications you need. You can add GNOME or even KDE apps without package dependency problems. You can also start GNOME or KDE services automatically upon startup. I often install Xfce along with MATE and various GNOME and KDE apps in a single Linux Mint instance. It all works without conflicts.

Xfce is lightweight. Most Xfce-based distros download to a single CD, rather than requiring a DVD. Memory use is significantly less than for KDE or GNOME. Interactive response is quicker, too.

I've installed Xfce on many Pentium IV HT and early dual-core systems, as part of Xubuntu, Mint, or VectorLinux. These systems are up to ten years old and often have as little as 512 megabytes of main memory and 256 megabytes of video ram. With this lightweight software, even these old computers are responsive. They can perform nearly all the same desktop functions as state-of-the-art hardware.

All those Windows XP boxes people are throwing out? Most could continue in service simply by installing a good Xfce-based Linux.

Who is Xfce For?

If you're looking for a flashy interface or bells and whistles, don't bother with Xfce. You'll probably find it boring. If you want your PC to mimic your handheld, try Windows 8, Ubuntu Unity, or GNOME. And if you hanker after all the latest features, Xfce will disappoint.

I recommend Xfce for those who want to concentrate on their work rather than their software. It's a simple, traditional desktop. PC users like it. It's an excellent choice for when you install and configure a system for a family member, friend, or other end user. You won't have to train them on how to use it. While other interfaces have morphed out of all recognition over the past few years, Xfce stayed the course. It's stable and reliable; bugs are rare. The product is fast and lightweight, so it works well on low-spec and older computers.

If simplicity, usability, and reliability top your goals, Xfce is worth a close look. To learn more, take the Xfce 4.10 tour, read the Xfce introduction, or explore the online wiki.

Howard Fosdick is a database and systems administrator who works as an independent consultant. He frequently writes technical articles and has an M.S. in Computer Science.
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