Over 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
Xfce is the default desktop for about ten
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
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:
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
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:
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:
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
|Settings Manager||For easy configuration|
|Panel||Manages panels and their icons|
|Application Finder||Finds apps|
|Xfce libraries||Underlying functions and widgets|
|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
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
Xfce is lightweight. Most Xfce-based distros download to a single CD,
rather than requiring a DVD.
is significantly less
than for KDE or GNOME.
Interactive response is quicker, too.
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
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
people are throwing out? Most could continue in service simply by
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
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.
I use XFCE, and agree with the author that it does a good job of staying out of the way. But I have removed Thunar and the power manager in favor of commandline alternatives.