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

Danny Stieben 10-11-2011

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 What's The Difference Between Linux Desktop Environments? [Technology Explained] If you've been introduced to the world of Linux, it probably didn't take too long to notice that it doesn't have a single "face". Linux can sport all kinds of desktop environments, or none at... Read More , 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 Linux Just Got Better With The Fedora 16 Beta Distribution Linux distributions have been improving by leaps and bounds, and those improvements are becoming visible in the latest beta releases. Fedora, one of the flagship distributions carrying GNOME 3, is no different and should have... Read More . 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.

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 Ubuntu 11.04 Unity - A Big Leap Forward For Linux It's here. The newest version of Ubuntu sports an entirely new user interface: Unity. It also includes a much-improved Software Center, alongside the usual updates for the thousands of free programs Ubuntu offers. Canonical decided... Read More , or KDE? Let us know in the comments!

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  1. Don Graham
    January 8, 2019 at 9:54 pm

    I've tried cinnamon, mate, plasma, lxde, and xfce. I have decided to stick with xfce. Here's my run-down: Cinnamon was nice on my 7 year old Toshiba Satellite with average hardware and an i3 chip. More animation and eye candy, but it would get sluggish sometimes. I tried Mate. It looks pretty much the same with minor differences from Cinnamon, but it ran smooth. I tried Plasma. It was nice to be able to configure it however I wanted, but I found it stalled out on me at times and icons became unresponsive on this old machine. Having said that, I had it on a kick ass machine and it ran great! I never liked Gnome. Seems like a sideways android. Just didn't like it. Personal taste I'm sure. I tried lxde but I like some extra software. Besides the extra software, it's not much different than xfce. Xfce I find is just right. Everything just works. Not a lot of eye candy and animations etc, unless you configure it to do so. But it's functional and it works and I don't care about eye candy. It's a nice compromise between a flashy DE with lots of eye candy and a barebones DE like lxde. It's just the right balance for me. But I'm different from others and have different needs, but if you're looking for a computer that just works, I suggest xfce.

  2. Bozzer
    December 29, 2016 at 1:56 am

    Apple OS and Windows tend to be for people who just want their computer as a tool; switch on, do job(s), switch off, fine, but I'm one of those strange creatures that likes to dig deeper into the dark, inner workings of the hardware itself so Linux has been a bit of a lifesaver (sort of reminds me of MS-DOS from back in the day!) So there doesn't seem to be one OS for all, in any case, there's always dual-boot or VM!

  3. Mrsfixit
    November 20, 2011 at 12:37 am

    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...

  4. Willgrimes
    November 14, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    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
      November 18, 2011 at 2:17 am

      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.

  5. P.V.
    November 14, 2011 at 9:16 am

    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.

    • Danny Stieben
      November 18, 2011 at 2:14 am

      I guess it mimics what Windows does with long file names?

  6. Frederick Wrigley
    November 13, 2011 at 2:30 am

    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.

  7. SamSam
    November 13, 2011 at 2:05 am

    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.

    • Danny Stieben
      November 18, 2011 at 2:12 am

      Great that you've had so much success with Xfce, SamSam!

  8. Barton Phillips
    November 12, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    Upgraded to Ubuntu 11.04 and them did an 'apt-get  install xubuntu-desktop' right away. Can't stand Unity. Xfce is more than enough GUI for me. I live at least 50% in the command line anyway so other than web browsing there isn't much left. X11 and a very minimal GUI is plenty, if I want 3D etc. I'll buy an Xbox or PlayStation etc. Computers are for computing!

  9. Chris Brandon
    November 12, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    Xfce is functional, customizable, and very fast. I liked Xubuntu's 11.10 version, but audio support (for external microphones, etc.) is broken due to a well-known bug in the underlying Gnome libraries. So, I moved to the Xfce version of Linux Mint Debian Edition, and absolutely everything works on my Lenovo X220 tablet laptop, including drawing with a stylus on the 12" tablet. Wow!

    I use tint2 as an upper panel to navigate between open applications and desktops, and the Xfce dock as the lower panel, with both panels set to auto-hide. Very efficient, and preserves the screen real-estate. Really don't like the new "everything's a smartphone" trend.

    • Danny Stieben
      November 18, 2011 at 2:12 am

      LMDE is a pretty interesting project in which a lot of people see much promise. So do I, but I'm not sure if I'm ready to try it out physically.

      As for the smartphone too. Me too.

  10. USA Sunrise
    November 12, 2011 at 5:33 pm

    Good article. XFCE is my new desktop, what with all the illogic of all the other over-complicated desktops. Ubuntu now looks like someone hung a bunch of pot-holders on a nice wall.

    • Danny Stieben
      November 18, 2011 at 2:37 am

      The major distributions are definitely going all out in "breaking the mold" of traditional desktops. No doubt about it.

      • Anonymous
        December 30, 2011 at 10:35 pm

        I really don't understand why everyone is moaning. Unity has some useful features and is changing the desktop paradigm completely. This is just laying the foundations for something better later on. That's what paradigm shifts do.

        You can stick with a basic GUI if you want. Personally, I replaced Ubuntu with Xubuntu as well (I now use Ubuntu server), because I didn't want to use Gnome 3 or Unity. But I'm definitely happy to know that those options are there and something like that exists.

        Because Linux is so customisable, I'd have thought there'd be much less people moaning if their favourite platform/distro moves in a direction they don't like. If OS X or Windows changed everything, we'd have no recourse but to switch. You guys can do ANYTHING. I hope you're not taking that for granted.

        Be thankful you're not using Wndows 8. That looks like a whole new direction, which some might like, but they can't change it whether they like it or not.

  11. Neeraj
    November 12, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    Actually found lxde (Lubuntu) better...Xfce has become bit bloated over years. Moreover Thunar is bit irritating to use for lack of tabbed browsing.

    • Danny Stieben
      November 18, 2011 at 2:10 am

      I thought they added that in the latest release, 4.8? If not, hrm....

  12. Ryan McCracken
    November 12, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    I'm a huge Xubuntu fan. Been using it for a couple years now. I tend to distro-hop a few times a year but I always end up back at Xubuntu.

    • Danny Stieben
      November 18, 2011 at 2:09 am

      Proof of true love right there. ;)

  13. dadarek
    November 12, 2011 at 9:17 am

    Everyone, who can't stand this choppy windows (during moving) - please, claim bug about Xrender synchronization!

    (the is due to Xrender's lack of vsync. So, everything is rendered 'on the run'. Compiz and OpenGL can do vsync -  that's why it works  smooth together. Xrender + xfwm4/openbox/metacity/name_it - can't.)

    • Danny Stieben
      November 18, 2011 at 2:09 am

      Thanks for the tip, dadarek!

  14. TCWriter
    November 12, 2011 at 4:15 am

    One thing I forgot to add; my older desktop (with GeoForce 7100 video card) stumbles over Gnome 3 and Unity a bit -- the window zooms are very choppy, yet I've never, ever noticed a performance issue with it before. 

    It's very fast with LXDE, but I guess the "standard" Linux desktops no longer run acceptably on even slightly older machines...

    • Danny Stieben
      November 18, 2011 at 2:09 am

      It might be possible. However, eventually Linux will have to move and evolve with all other software, and that means making it harder for low-spec hardware to run it smoothly. I believe Linux took a big jump in that area in the last year and will probably stay at this level for quite a while.

  15. C F Wright
    November 12, 2011 at 12:31 am

    i've tried xfce in different guises in so many's ....bland! to me it's just a halfway house; if your system is strong enough then you use kde or gnome; if it's not; if you've got an old laptop then you use lxde and add stuff as and when you wish...i hate gnome 3 and unity but i certainly don't see a vast speed improvement with xfce

    • fLaque
      November 13, 2011 at 12:59 am

      Obviously you just did not know how to set it up, as Xfce is a great and really lightweight desktop environment. You just have to know how NOT to turn it into Gnome or some kind of mixes of desktop environments. Or maybe you were just trying Xubuntu instead of pure Xfce and don't know what you're saying.

      • Danny Stieben
        November 18, 2011 at 2:07 am

        Fedora provides as a vanilla Xfce experience, as you can tell by the lack of a decent theme. :P That's where configuration comes in, though!

  16. Rickmorrison9
    November 11, 2011 at 11:20 pm

    Sampled it a couple of years ago but stuck with Gnome. KDE to flashy for me and now that Gnome is changing, I have switched to Xfce and love it.

  17. IGnatius T Foobar
    November 11, 2011 at 10:43 pm

    Xfce now seems to be the choice for Linux users who just want the computer to look and act like a computer, not an overgrown smartphone or tablet.

    If you're going to install on a new machine, I would recommend ditching Ubuntu entirely (Ubuntu has jumped the shark with Unity and is effectively at the end of its life now) and just installing an ordinary Debian, which gives you a choice of desktop environments at install time.

     -- a former Ubuntu user  :)

    • Danny Stieben
      November 18, 2011 at 2:06 am

      Sadly the downside to that is outdated packages, unless you switch to Debian Testing. Though some of my updates have been acting funky under that setup...

  18. TCWriter
    November 11, 2011 at 10:34 pm

    I can't stand Unity (why are we talking away the panel that tells me what I've got open and running??). Muddling by with "Gnome Classic" but have been testing Xfce and LXDE. 

    Right now I've got LXDE running on my slower desktop, and may switch to it. 

    One interesting problem; in Gnome 2.X I had turned my CapsLock key into another Control key, but really had to dig to figure out how to do that in Xfce...

      November 12, 2011 at 7:23 pm

      make file ~/.xmodmap with content:

      ! Swap caps lock and escape
      remove Lock = Caps_Lock
      keysym Escape = Caps_Lock
      keysym Caps_Lock = Escape
      add Lock = Caps_Lock

    • Anonymous
      November 13, 2011 at 5:10 am

      I've got Ubuntu 11.10 installed on a 2nd computer. I'm a newbie and while Unity looks good, I find I have to take extra steps to complete a task that once took only a click or two (or typing in a command). Since Ubuntu was working so well on that computer, I ended up installing 'Cairo dock'. It was a godsend! For average use I'm able to use my customized Cairo dock but the Unity Launcher is still available for the occassional times I need it for something (otherwise I have it set to autohide). The desktop kind of looks like OSX but gives the functionality of Gnome 2.x (for me at least...maybe not to a poweruser so I won't speak for them). I'm going to also set up a multi-boot environment where I can try out other distros and GUIs and look forward to trying Xfce.

  19. Cpujazz
    November 11, 2011 at 10:18 pm

    I switched to XFCE about six months ago and love it.   Clean, lightweight, and fast using it on my laptop and on a virtual desktop install.   

  20. chrisbee
    November 11, 2011 at 9:35 am

    I've tried Xubuntu on a newish netbook and it proved to be a bit unstable.  It's now running LXDE and seems OK provided wireless is off at boot up.  I've got a feeling that GDM might have been the problem in Xfce (and variations of Mint).. The netbook is an Acer Aspire 1 model 522.

    • fLaque
      November 13, 2011 at 12:55 am

      Please don't judge a great desktop environment based on your experiences with a buggy distro, that doesn't ship mainstream packages but provides a heavily modified environment. You should be judging Ubuntu + xubuntu-desktop package

  21. Nick
    November 11, 2011 at 4:23 am

    What about LXDE?

    • Danny Stieben
      November 18, 2011 at 2:03 am

      I haven't found it to be visually pleasing, though I may write an article about it soon, as I've gotten a tip for a distribution that makes LXDE look nice.

  22. Edmenje
    November 11, 2011 at 3:42 am

    Xubuntu is my 'buntu of choice. I use it in Virtual Box on my main desktop machine, have installed it in dual-boot on an older machine I received as a gift, and an old laptop inherited from a family member. I have also used it on an old machine at work (that was very sluggish with Windows XP) to be our PA-System Music player using a load of mp3s, Audacity, and crontabs set to automate start and stop of the music. I love the customizability of Xfce and have even gone as far as to making my own derivatives of existing desktop themes by editing the theme files and images. I haven't found anything else that is as easy to modify to suit my tastes.

    Also of note is that Linus Torvalds (the creator of the linux kernel) has switched from Gnome to Xfce desktop when the latest version of Gnome was a radical departure from previous incarnations. Gnome and Unity have discarded customization in an attempt to compete with Microsoft and Apple for the average user.

    • Danny Stieben
      November 18, 2011 at 2:03 am

      Torvalds switched to Xfce? Why didn't I hear about this?!?! Thanks for the tidbit, Edmenje!

  23. Ace_jack17
    November 11, 2011 at 2:05 am

    KDE > Xfce > LXDE > gnome 3 > unity

  24. Idealmodernsystems
    November 11, 2011 at 1:23 am

    I'm posting this on a computer I installed Xubuntu on last week. This old laptop is turbo-charged compared to how it worked on Windows. It's got a (mainly) free software downloading environment included in the operating system that functions a bit like iTunes that lets you easily access eveything you need for free (including Photoshop clones, Chromium browser (looks/works like Chrome) as well as excellent software for torrenting, VLC player, Clementine - a fantastic mp3 player to rival iTunes).

    It's worth noting that you can download and ISO of a live cd that lets you try Xubuntu *without having to install anything on your system*.

    I can't recommend it highly enough.

    • Danny Stieben
      November 18, 2011 at 2:01 am

      Satisfaction can't go any higher, eh? :)

  25. Lula
    November 11, 2011 at 1:21 am

    XFCE is really cool, behaves better than LXDE, is softer than Gnome... I guess is it a midle term betwen them...

  26. Saša ?etkovi?
    November 11, 2011 at 12:56 am

    It's not an acronim anymore, it's now called Xfce, not XFCE.

    • Danny Stieben
      November 18, 2011 at 2:00 am

      My apologies! I knew that :P Just happened to forget.