A Long Overdue Look at XFCE

Here at MakeTechEasier, we’ve covered Linux desktop issues of all kinds, and we’ve examined desktop environments both well known (Gnome and KDE) as well as somewhat obscure (Window Maker, LXDE). For some reasons, we’ve never taken a close look at the very popular XFCE desktop environment. It’s nearly as feature-rich as Gnome, but with a smaller footprint. As it’s been a big name in the Linux desktop world for quite a few years now, it seems we’re long overdue to check out this polished and useful collection of software.

Most distributions with online repositories will have XFCE available. Ubuntu users can fetch it with the Ubuntu Software Center, or from the command line with

If your distribution does not have XFCE in repositories, you can fetch the packages or source code manually from here.

When finished with your install, log out of your current desktop environment and choose XFCE Session from your login menu.

We will be using the current stable release – XFCE 4.6.

Optional Bonus Pack – Some distributions, Ubuntu included, offer a separate package of extras like panel applets. To install it, check your distro for a package with a name like xfce4-goodies.

The example screenshots here are all based on the xfce4 package from Ubuntu’s repositories. If you used a different installation source, your desktop likely looks a bit different.


This setup is very similar to what you’d find in a Windows or KDE desktop, with your application menu in the lower left, as part of a panel with a few basic applets. Other XFCE desktops may be set up in a more Mac-like fashion, and many users like to replicate the Gnome look. XFCE is flexible enough to allow any visual approach you’d prefer.

Much like Gnome, you can right-click any blank space on the panel to access its properties or to add new panel applets.


If you installed the xfce4-goodies package, you should have a fair amount of applets to choose from. If this is not enough, you have the option of installing xfapplet, which allows you to run gnome-panel applets in XFCE.

Each config section is its own module, which can be access individually from from the application menu under Settings. Optionally, you can use the Settings Manager found in the same section.


There are a few oddities in the configuration (such as most of the keyboard config being found in the Window Manager module) but overall it’s a fairly comprehensive and useful set of tools.

While the basic desktop is nice, users always make things a little more interesting. The following are some user-made screenshots to demonstrate some of the flexibility XFCE provides.

Image from labor-liber.org

Image by Leo Scherer

image by stargazer

If you want the benefits of graphics compositing (translucency, hardware rendering) without the bells & whistles of Compiz, XFCE has you covered here as well. To enable the built-in compositing feature, open Window Manager Tweaks from the “Settings Manager” or menu. You’ll find the Compositor tab on the right, where you can enable and configure your graphics settings.


XFCE is flexible enough to look any way you wish, fast enough to run on most any machine, and powerful enough to keep you satisfied. It may not have all Gnome’s features, but it’s not supposed to. XFCE promises to be lean and mean, and it’s this author’s opinion that it delivers on both counts.

If you are looking for a desktop manager with even smaller footprint, check out LXDE/Lubuntu