In the hunt for lighter Desktop Environments for your Linux system, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the number of choices available to you. The community will send you all over the Internet looking at different DEs, and you’ll end up confused and looking to go back to whatever you had before. We’ve taken the liberty of narrowing the list down to just two choices: LXDE vs. XFCE. We discuss here which is the better lightweight desktop environment.
Before We Get Started
I’ve already gone over each of these Desktop Environments in depth in their respective reviews, which you can find here and here. In an effort to standardize, I’ll be using LXLE to represent LXDE and Xubuntu to represent XFCE. They take away a lot of the uncomfortable things for me about their respective DEs, and it makes it easier for me to focus on the important parts of the DEs. They’re also both based on Ubuntu, so there is little difference in the underlying system itself.
Introducing the Players
LXDE is widely regarded as one of the lightest Desktop Environments around. One of the ways it accomplishes this is that it is built up of many separate components, each of which can be installed separately or swapped out for other components. An example is Window Managers – Openbox is the default, but you can choose from many others to suit your wants and needs. LXDE is incredibly simple and minimal, and for users looking for a DE that’s light and stays out of your way, LXDE is a great choice.
XFCE is an incredibly popular Desktop Environment. It’s lightweight, but not so much that you can’t still use it the way you’d expect. Similarly to LXDE, there are components that can be swapped out. In my original review, I mentioned that the stock install of XFCE is not particularly appealing to me, but the way the Xubuntu team manages XFCE is really attractive. It’s a couple of theme and icon changes along with a better screensaver, but those little choices add up. Overall, XFCE is an excellent choice for those users with less than optimal hardware that are looking for a lightweight, responsive, but still fully featured DE.
LXDE vs. XFCE Performance
In terms of performance, both DEs are excellent in identically provisioned virtual machines. They each have access to two cores of my i7 2600s and access to 2 GB RAM. Programs open immediately, windows drag around the screen with no dropped frames, and interacting with portions of the desktop like menus and tray icons is really snappy. Where things get interesting is when you start to look under the hood.
LXDE vs. XFCE System Resource Efficiency
This is where I really begin to see the differences between these two systems. In a fresh boot, CPU usage is the same at around 1 percent, but LXDE uses a paltry 219 MB RAM, whereas XFCE uses 465 MB RAM. This is a huge deal for those users with very limited RAM. Older laptops with 2 or 4 GB RAM need to make every MB of RAM count, even on the order of a few hundred MB. If you have a particularly limited system, you may want to choose LXDE.
Both Desktop Environments are fine once you’ve gotten used to them, but for me, XFCE starts out way ahead of LXDE. This obviously depends on the implementation, but for the two in question here, XFCE walks away the victor in User Friendliness. It feels like a more well thought-out system where everything integrates tightly. Applications were specifically developed for XFCE, whereas LXDE relies on many applications from other DEs. This makes all the difference in the world for me.
Moreover, I feel more at home with XFCE. LXDE feels disjointed, given all the separate components, and that makes me feel like there’s something else I should be doing or changing to get the most out of the experience. Additionally, every time I go to look a little deeper at LXDE, I’m disappointed by how shallow it is. XFCE has depth and substance. It’s more welcoming, and it shows you how light a complete, fully-featured Desktop Environment can be.
This is an area where both Desktop Environments are about equal, but for different reasons. For LXDE, every piece is interchangeable. If you want a different panel, window manager, or terminal manager, you have your choice of anything that will run. There are no dependencies to worry about at all. This can be great for more advanced users who have enough experience and knowledge to have a preference of window manager or just those looking for intense customization.
As XFCE is quite popular, there are so many different ways you can customize it. Xubuntu is particularly good-looking, and there are ways to make any XFCE system look the way you want.
LXDE vs. XFCE: Which Is Better?
There isn’t one correct answer for this. Let’s look at the use cases where each DE shines.
If you have a system that can’t seem to run smoothly no matter what you do, or if you feel like you’re leaving performance on the table when you load up a heavier Desktop Environment, LXDE is for you. There’s a reason that Raspberry Pi OS uses LXDE for its desktop, and why it runs so well.
In addition to lightweight, XFCE brings more customization to the table. There are applications developed for XFCE, and things are tightly integrated. If you’re looking for excellent performance from a lightweight Desktop Environment but not ready to make the jump all the way to something like LXDE, then XFCE is perfect. It has a very loyal fan base of users for a reason.