XFCE: Your Lightweight, Speedy, Fully-Fledged Linux Desktop

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lightweight linux desktopAs far as Linux goes, customization is king. Not only that, but the customization options are so great it might make your head spin. If you’ve been following my last couple of articles, you might notice that I’ve been stressing that fact quite a bit. I mentioned the differences between the major desktop environments available on Linux in this article, and then realized that we at MakeUseOf have only been talking extensively about two of the three desktop environments that I mentioned. So, without further ado, here’s your crash course on XFCE.

About XFCE

XFCE, short for XForms Common Environment, is considered to be the most popular lightweight desktop environment available on Linux. It uses a surprisingly low amount of memory (especially when you come from a Windows perspective), while at the same time looking good and working just as well as any other Linux flavor. As such, it is a popular choice for machines that don’t have a lot of hardware on them, so you’ll still be able to use a machine for your enjoyment that has, say, 256MB of RAM or less.

In fact, if you use a distribution called Alpine Linux, you can run XFCE on just 40MB of RAM. 40MB! Of course, people also put XFCE on machines where hardware isn’t the issue, but speed is critical. Installing XFCE on high-spec hardware will let you do all of your tasks at lightning speed.

For this tour I’ll be using the popular Ubuntu spin known as Xubuntu (pronounced Zu-buntu), although it is available on most popular distributions such as Fedora. Xubuntu, however, has a pleasant default theme while Fedora’s XFCE spin doesn’t. That, of course, is all customizable once it has been installed, but I did not have the time to do all of the tweaking that I would normally have liked to do.


lightweight linux desktop

As you can see from the screenshot, XFCE on Xubuntu looks very clean. You get a nice panel at the top of your screen that will probably remind a lot of people of what the old GNOME looked like. Therefore, those that preferred the old GNOME over the new GNOME or KDE may find a haven in XFCE.

General Features

lightweight linux desktop environment

Xubuntu hides the XFCE application menu under the little Xubuntu icon, while others such as Fedora display a much larger button to access the application menu that stretches across part of the panel. From the screenshot you can see that XFCE offers the same, consistent organization of applications in its menus, as well as how beautiful such a lightweight solution can be.

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Speaking of applications, you’ll notice that on most XFCE-spins, the set of applications changes slightly to include more lightweight alternatives. This change is very visible in Fedora’s spin while Xubuntu tends to include more programs that you’re used to in the original Ubuntu variety (such as Thunderbird and Pidgin in the latest release).

lightweight linux desktop environment

Like the other popular desktop environments, XFCE is highly configurable in a number of areas on your system. XFCE offers a control center that is similar to the other desktop environments. If you have a XFCE desktop to play around with, spending some time in the control center is recommended to see what you can tweak to your liking.

lightweight linux desktop

Last but not least, XFCE offers its own little dock. In Xubuntu it will be hidden until you move your mouse to the very bottom of your screen, while in Fedora it is constantly visible. This setting can be changed in both distributions, and only reflects a difference in the default value.


Thankfully, that’s all there is to XFCE, really. Any more features and it might not be considered lightweight anymore. Personally, I find it to be enough. XFCE is a great way to have a nice desktop that doesn’t get in the way. Since there’s not that much to it, you’ll be forced to concentrate more on your applications and work that needs to get done.

What are your opinions about XFCE? Do you like it more or less than GNOME, Unity, or KDE? Let us know in the comments!

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Comments (44)
  • Mrsfixit

    I use Ubuntu 10.04 on my desktop computer and 2 laptops. My third laptop dual boots Windows 7 and Mint 11 Gnome.
    I can’t *stand* Unity. And Gnome 3 has gone down the same path as Unity. Both are like tablet GUI’s, and the lack of features and inability to customize things are a deal breaker for me. So I’m distro hopping again… :-(
    Right now I am typing this on my Win7/Mint notebook- only I’m running Xubuntu 11 from a thumb drive.
    I have to say so far- I’m impressed. This is the first distro where the problematic Broadcom wifi chip is working OOB. All I had to do was set the password and basic info. Even in Mint I had to blacklist the Acer-wmi driver to get it to work.
    Not bad. I love Gnome 2, Gnome 3 is NOT for me, but I think I can live with Xfce. It isn’t bad…
    I hear there’s a Mint 12 Xfce version coming soon…

  • Willgrimes

    I am an ex-Ubuntu user.  Some 30+ years ago, I ran SCO.  I started to use Linux in 2007 when I got totally fed up with the crashing of XP Pro.  I tried several distros of Linux and settled on Ubuntu.  I loved Ubuntu and since Unity, I am between Xubuntu and Mint.  I use VMWare and Virtualbox under Ubuntu 10.04 to try various OSs.  I think making Unity the default is like Netflix’s screwup – both, to me were stupid. 

    • Danny Stieben

      I think 12.04 is going to be a major release in which people will either stay with Ubuntu or jump ship.

      I would like to be able to choose my distributions, but my desktop’s parts are apparently too new for the display server on most distributions. Except Fedora. Go figure.

  • P.V.

    Xfce is generally nice and fast but I dislike it’s default way to show icon texts in the desktop. If the name is long, it is only partially visible on one row with solid color background.

    Icon text should go several rows if long name and without any bottom color.

  • Frederick Wrigley

    Interestingly, I installed Xubuntu 11.10 and the top and bottom panels on the live CD disappeared upon booting from the hard drive, with only the right-click interface to get anything done. I’m currently running Ultimate Edition 2.9 and using XFCE as an interface. It is certainly the best beginners’ (and power users’) interface AT THE PRESENT TIME.

  • SamSam

    I simply like that I can leave only one panel on the bottom and have it look more or less like Windows. I don’t care as much about speed. Honestly –  IMHO – that’s easiest DE to switch to from Windows. My mom uses Xubuntu for christ sake.

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This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.
Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.