Xfce Explained: A Look at One of Linux’s Speediest Desktops

Bertel King 15-06-2017

So you’re switching to Linux because you’ve heard it’s a great way to revive an old PC, but after checking out various Linux operating systems (also known as distributions or “distros”), you’ve discovered that your hardware is still too slow. Unless, that is, you install something like Xfce.


That’s great. There’s just one problem: what does that even mean?

Xfce Is a Desktop Environment

A desktop environment is what you see on your computer screen. It’s the panels that hold your applications, notifications, and the time. It’s how you open applications and switch between them.

xfce application menu

Windows and macOS each provide only one desktop environment. When a new version of Windows comes out, the most talked about features tend to be related to the desktop environment: the presence of a start menu, a flat theme, and the like. The same is true with macOS, which is heavily associated with a dock and having application menus appear across the top.

On open source desktops such as Linux, you aren’t limited to one desktop environment. You can use the one that comes pre-installed, or you can swap it out for a wide range of alternatives Which Linux Desktop Environment Best Suits Your Personality? What kind of computer user are you? Do you leave icons scattered across your desktop? Do you prefer to work in one uncluttered application? Let's find out which Linux desktop environment suits you best. Read More . Xfce is one of many desktop environments to pick from.


A Brief History of Xfce

XFCE began in 1996 as a free alternative to the Common Desktop Environment available for UNIX, which was still proprietary software at the time. The name originally stood for XForms Common Environment. XForms proved to be a limitation for the project. Since the toolkit was only free for personal use, popular distributions such as Red Hat and Debian would not distribute XFCE.

Starting in 1999, XFCE’s founder rewrote the desktop using GTK (also used by the GNOME desktop environment GNOME Explained: A Look at One of Linux's Most Popular Desktops You're interested in Linux, and you've come across "GNOME", an acronym for GNU Network Object Model Environment. GNOME is one of the most popular open source interfaces, but what does that mean? Read More ). Olivier Fourdan would later land a job with Red Hat, the largest open source company in the world.

With XForms gone, the name changed from XFCE (all caps) to Xfce, and the letters no longer stand for anything.

How Xfce Works

The Xfce desktop uses configurable panels. Open applications will typically appear in a list similar to older versions of Windows. In either the top or bottom right-hand corner, you will find a notification area and the clock. The application launcher will be on the left side of the screen.


Since Xfce is customizable, various distros ship it difference. Running Xubuntu will provide a different out-of-the-box look than using the Fedora Xfce spin or Linux Mint’s Xfce edition.

Xfce typically uses a traditional application launcher that lists software by category and name. You’re able to put shortcuts and files on the desktop 15 Desktops That Reveal How We Work at MakeUseOf Does your desktop reveal how you work or how you think? Is it clean or cluttered with shortcuts? Here's how the MakeUseOf team uses its Windows, Mac, and Linux desktops. Read More , a trend that some other desktop environments have moved away from. If you remember using a computer in the 1990s, Xfce may bring back waves of nostalgia.

That’s not to say that Xfce is an interface stuck in time. While there are no animations, you can turn on transparent window borders or make entire windows translucent. You can add virtual desktops, rename them, and arrange them however you like.

And we’re still only getting started. While Xfce is hardly as customizable as the KDE Plasma desktop KDE Explained: A Look at Linux's Most Configurable Desktop Interface What does Linux look like? Sometimes, Unity; other times, GNOME. Oftentimes, though, Linux runs KDE. If you're not using the erstwhile K Desktop Environment on your Linux PC, now is the time to change! Read More , you can still add panels, move them around, and insert various plugins that each expand on what your desktop can do. If you so desire, you can monitor disk space, CPU usage, network traffic, and incoming mail all from icons on your panel.


xfce customization

There are a few apps designed with Xfce in mind. These include Thunar (file manager), Orage (calendar), Mousepad (text editor), Parole (music player), and Xfburn (disc burner).

You can use Xfce in two ways. The first is to download and install a Linux operating system that has it built in. Most distros offer this option. Alternatively, you can install it on your current Linux OS. For example, to install it on Ubuntu, use:

sudo apt update
sudo apt install xfce4

Restart your computer, and at the login screen, click the current desktop icon on the panel. This will give you the choice of switching from the current desktop environment (probably Unity) to Xfce.


Downsides to Xfce

There are only a few apps designed for Xfce. This means the software you use will likely come from a variety of different toolkits and communities. There’s a decent chance that several apps you rely on often will come from GNOME and look entirely out of place on an Xfce desktop. Installing software intended for other environments may also bring in a bunch of libraries and code in order to run, which reduces how much faster Xfce is than other environments.

Compared to other popular desktop environments, Xfce isn’t actively developed. GNOME and KDE have massive communities, with some people having day jobs that pay them to improve the experience.

A few comparable projects with small teams see more contributions, such as Budgie, Cinnamon, and Pantheon. People are still working on Xfce, but new versions tend to be years apart and bring changes that, relatively speaking, seem quite minor. Upcoming releases are focused on transitioning to GTK+ 3 — something GNOME did in 2011.

Who Should Use Xfce?

Xfce isn’t the newest, shiniest, most powerful desktop environment. That can be a plus. When you’re putting Linux on an old machine, giving up animations and transparency are easy sacrifices to make if it means the computer works.

When you want your machine to put maximum resources on the task at hand, whether that’s gaming or encoding a video, then you don’t need the desktop environment sucking up more of your RAM and CPU.

If you’re perfectly happy using the same interface you did ten or twenty years ago, you may not even want the so-called innovations introduced in other desktop environments.

Then there are people who simply enjoy the way Xfce looks!

There are other lightweight desktop environments out there. LXDE uses fewer resources The Best Lean Linux Desktop Environment: LXDE vs. Xfce vs. MATE Tweaking your choice of Linux desktop environment can speed things up a lot. Here we look at three options: LXQt, Xfce, and MATE. Read More , and many people are flocking to Mate. Nonetheless, for such a lean project, Xfce is still going strong after all these years.

What are your thoughts on Xfce? Have you tried it? Did it have all the features you need? Did it leave you wanting more? If so, what desktop environment would you love to see featured next?

Related topics: Linux Desktop Environment, Xfce.

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  1. Gorrn
    August 23, 2019 at 2:36 am

    I'm using Xfce on I7 with 32GB RAM because it's fast loading, lightweight and nice (perfect) looking. I switched to Xfce when KDE switched to 4 because I do not want to wait tor ages to load DE bloated with too many unnecessary options and features.

  2. John
    July 5, 2019 at 9:48 pm

    XFCE is excellent! I don't care that it looks like something from 1995. The design of the early Mac desktops and Windows 95, 98, XP, etc was what people needed & wanted to get real work done. XFCE is much the same.
    Let's remember that Apple and Microsoft spent millions on creating & refining desktops which in essence are very similar to XFCE.

  3. Teemu
    May 12, 2019 at 9:53 am

    Another Xfce fan here. I've used it since the main Ubuntu distribution changed its classic desktop to Unity, and have customized it to look just the way I like. I've occasionally taken a look at other desktops, but always return to Xfce. It just works, and I have no desire for any flashiness in the the desktop.

  4. JHJ
    July 31, 2018 at 1:08 pm

    It just works. It has a small footprint and, most importantly, it does what you tell it to do, and then stays out of the way. With the current hardware, the DE problem was solved two decades ago. KDE and Gnome are just solutions to a problem that does not exist, and resource hogs.

  5. Eddie G.
    June 21, 2017 at 11:40 pm

    XFCE is the perfect solution for desktops or laptops that are more than five years old. I have a Dell Latitude E-4300 from 2008 / 2009 and it runs OpenSuSE Linuc with the XFCE desktop. And you know what?....with just 8GB's of RAM this laptop is FASTER and more responsive than my 2012 Lenovo T-420! So that should be a testimony to it's lightweight design. As for customizations? Well aside from a few minor tweaks here or there, I don't see the need to clutter up my configuration files with things that don't seem to matter that much. When I open up my web browser, I don't need flashy window tricks, I need my browser to open.....the same holds true for anything I do on that laptop, the APPS are why I'm here....not the LOOKS! Granted, some people need the flashy pretty eye-candy, but most people that are looking to USE their devices....want them to WORK, and anything else that comes with it...or that they can install to enhance it's looks?....well that's just extra gravy!...LOL! All in all XFCE is a strong contender for lightweight desktop environment, it has a familiar look and feel for those who are coming from the Windows 7 / 10 camp, and it responds to commands and opens app quickly. If you have a machine that's from the last generation of computing this desktop environment works perfectly on it. And if you have a machine that's more recent or even current?...this desktop will FLY on it! I would recommend anyone who's curious to test this desktop out to see if it fits their needs!

  6. Jouni "rautamiekka" Järvinen
    June 17, 2017 at 10:32 am

    Sure, there aren't that many native apps and the development is slow, but is either really all that necessary ? I mean, Xfce is GTK+ 2 or 3, like most Linux apps, and even if it's not, and even if it's KDE, it's not a problem, and I don't see what there's to fix or improve.

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      June 19, 2017 at 10:51 pm

      It's primarily an issue of visual integration. I find it jarring to install an Xfce distro and see pre-installed GTK 3 applications that look and feel out of place because they were designed for GNOME. Unfortunately, there isn't always a non-GNOME GTK alternative.

  7. Shawn
    June 16, 2017 at 8:03 pm

    I've used it for years. I dabble with other distros, but I grew tired of the issues that came with constant changes that didn't work right away. Xfe just seems to work.

  8. Mattia_98
    June 16, 2017 at 8:59 am

    Who said Xfce doesn't support HiDPI? It's wonderful on a 1080p laptop screen and usable from a TV if you crank the DPI even higher. Haven't you gone through the settings? What version are you using?

    • Bertel King, Jr.
      June 16, 2017 at 6:32 pm

      Egads, you're right! Thanks for letting me know. We'll remove that error from the post.

      • George
        June 21, 2017 at 7:46 am

        Also, it has transparent windows. You just have to set the transparency. There are some handles you have to move to set the degrees of transparency you would like.

      • George
        June 21, 2017 at 7:47 am

        Just go to Window Manger Tweaks.