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.

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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.

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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