Open Source Desktop: Xfce’s Advantages

Published on: March 27, 2007
Last Updated: March 27, 2007

Open Source Desktop: Xfce’s Advantages

Published on: March 27, 2007
Last Updated: March 27, 2007

What’s your opinion of the Xfce desktop? Comment on the Xfce in the Datamation Forum.

Most GNU/Linux users choose GNOME or KDE for desktops without thinking. However, many alternatives exist, ranging from minimalist graphic environments in window managers like IceWM to entire alternative desktops, such as ROX.

Of these alternatives the best-known and most polished is Xfce. Now at version 4.4, Xfce resembles a stripped-down version of GNOME, with carefully selected customization options and utilities, as well as a few thoughtful features of its own.

As detailed on the download page, Xfce is available in many distributions. In fact, a growing number of distributions, including Xbuntu, Dream Linux, and Zenwalk use Xfce by default.

Alternatively, you can build Xfce from source code, or use its graphical installers.

However, if you choose the graphical installers, read the documentation first to make sure you understand what you are doing, and the extra steps that you might have to take if you missed a cue from the installation wizard.

Whatever your installation method, you also have the option of enabling Xfce’s composite manager in order to use special effects such as transparent windows.

To do so, open /etc/X11/xorg.conf, the file for basic display configuration, in a text editor and add these lines:

Section “Extensions”
Option “Composite” “true”
End Section

Be warned, however, that on older systems or ones with low RAM that are using the composite manager may slow down Xfce slightly, lessening the desktop’s main advantage.

The Desktop

You can notice the difference between Xfce and KDE and GNOME immediately upon login.

Reducing KDE and GNOME’s default of four virtual desktops to one has an obvious effect on speed on any system, regardless of memory.

By contrast, Xfce, with its default four, is as fast as either of its major competitors with one. Reduce Xfce to one virtual desktop, and its general performance shows a turn of speed that KDE and GNOME can never hope to match.

To improve matters further, Xfce offers this responsiveness without the trade off in customization options typical of many lightweight desktop environments.

Not only can you choose a color, gradient, or image for wall paper, but, more importantly, you can customize the desktop’s fonts and their size, and anti-alias them.

Moreover, the selection of several dozen Window Manager styles, User Interface themes, and icon collections makes Xfce comparable to either GNOME or KDE for visible configuration.

Xfce’s panels support standard applets, including a system tray, a pager to switch between virtual desktops, a task list, a clock, and a button for logging in and out.

A few more options, such as applets for hardware monitoring or searching would round out the selection, but most people’s basic needs should be met by Xfce’s selection.

Similarly, although Xfce does not allow panels of any color except default gray, it does allow panels to occupy less than the full side of the screen, and to float on the desktop — two features unavailable in KDE or GNOME.

The same combination of basic options with a few original touches is noticeable throughout the Setting Manager.

Resolution, keyboard, and mouse all have basic configuration options, and you can set your preferred web browser and email reader under Preferred Applications.

The window manager’s behavior can also be highly customized, including the keyboard shortcuts.

At the same time, Xfce has a few options I’d like to see in GNOME, such as a setup option to change the splash screen that displays on startup, the ability to set a margin in which new windows will not appear, and the choice of whether to enable services designed for other desktops upon startup.

Although most distributions are using the Common UNIX Printing System (CUPS) for printing these days, those using Xfce on older machines to reduce overhead might also appreciate the Printing selection application, which allows users to choose whether to use CUPS or the older, smaller lpr.

Xfce’s options also include a number of choices for accessibility, although these are scattered among other choices, rather than available from a single window.

Overall, the latest version of Xfce looks and acts like a stripped down, more responsive version of GNOME.

The desktop’s panels and their apps, as well as Xfce’s terminal emulator and Mousepad text editor, all closely resemble their counterparts in GNOME.

The resemblance will be even closer if you already have GNOME installed, because Xfce’s and GNOME’s menus and desktop icons are defined in files with identical names, and Xfce will happily use GNOME’s pre-existing files. This similarity has the advantage of easing the transition to Xfce for GNOME users.

However, even GNOME users should be prepared for some differences. Right-clicking the desktop results in a menu of installed programs, rather than desktop options.

Instead, desktop options, including the addition of a new icon, are available by right-clicking on an existing icon and selecting Desktop.

Nor can icons be dragged and dropped between the desktop, menu, and panels. These differences are far from showstoppers, but they can take some acclimatization.

Utilities

After the window manager and other display options, the most important aspect of a desktop environment is the utilities designed to run with it.

In this area, Xfce cannot compete with either KDE nor GNOME, both of which have dozens of specialized utilities.

In particular, Xfce could do with small utilities such as a calculator, and options for configuring a printer and other hardware or installing fonts.

However, given the wealth of existing choices, especially generic ones like Firefox or OpenOffice.org, this lack of choice is not crucial in a modern desktop.

It doesn’t hurt, either, that Xfce opens KDE and GNOME applications faster than either opens each other’s.

One utility that Xfce does include is Orage, a calendaring system that closely resembles GNOME’s panel calendar display.

You set appointments in Orage by selecting a date then clicking File > New to fill in the details and double-click a date to see a list of the day’s appointment.

Past appointments are archived, and you can set the size of the archive to avoid it taking up too much hard drive space. Like the rest of Xfce, Orage is simply but adequately featured, and should be usable by anyone familiar with desktop environments without any problems.

Another major utility is Thunar, Xfce’s file manager. Although similar to GNOME’s Nautilus in general appearance, Thunar opens in about half the time, and jettisons many of Nautilus’ features, such as emblems for classifying files and the ability to burn CDs from the window.

Nor does Thunar have Nautilus’ option for a Delete menu item that bypasses the Trash; you simply have to know to press the Shift key when selecting Delete — a feature that is either a welcome failsafe against carless mistakes or a nuisance, depending on your habits.

But in compensation, Thunar boasts the ability to associate a custom action for one type of file, and an option to choose whether actions on a folder, such as a change in permissions, affect its contents.

Choosing To Use Xfce

Whether you use Xfce depends on your preferred tools and workflow. If you depend, for example, on having a character map utility for international letters on the desktop, then Xfce may not be for you.

At the very least, you will need to be prepared to search for a replacement utility, or check how a GNOME or KDE applet works on Xfce.

However, once you have the desktop configured to your liking, you may find that Xfce provides the best of both worlds, combining the speed of minimalist desktops with customization and a balanced feature that approaches those of heavyweight desktops like KDE and GNOME.

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Written by Bobby

Bobby Lawson is a seasoned technology writer with over a decade of experience in the industry. He has written extensively on topics such as cybersecurity, cloud computing, and data analytics. His articles have been featured in several prominent publications, and he is known for his ability to distill complex technical concepts into easily digestible content.