As one of the lightweight Linux desktop environments, Xfce is a popular choice for those looking to keep their Linux systems as minimal as possible. But given that there are so many different choices available for Linux, why would you choose something as simple as Xfce? Let’s dive right into this Xfce review and examine the user experience, performance, some notable features, and figure out if Xfce is the right DE for you.
I personally think that stock Xfce without any customization is hard to look at and use. There are plenty of distros that customize Xfce heavily and make things just a little nicer to look at, but plain, vanilla Xfce is not something I’m interested in. There are some really great things about it, however – on older, more lethargic systems, Xfce is quite snappy and brings old machines back to life. That’s generally the idea behind Xfce – fast and lightweight. It trims the fat that some desktop environments bring and aims to keep things lean and mean.
The user experience varies widely with different customization of Xfce. With vanilla Xfce, there is a dock with some launchers at the bottom of the screen, a system tray with clock, calendar, notifications, and network applets, and in the upper-left corner, there’s an Applications menu with access to all of your applications.
The experience of using Xfce makes you feel a little like you’re missing something because it seems so simple and easy to take at face value. Some distros customize Xfce in such a way that makes things much easier to use.
A great example of this is Xubuntu 20.04, which includes a search function in the application menu to make finding applications much easier. Additionally, there are some applications built into Xfce that give it an interesting edge over other DEs.
Catfish is a file-searching tool that allows you to search not only just for files but also for file contents. You can look for all your Bash scripts by typing in
#!/bin/bash, or you can look for keywords in your files that you know are there. I created a sample file with the word “Catfish” used in it a couple of times, and you can see that after checking the box to search file contents, I am able to search for that file. Catfish is almost instantaneous, and it makes looking for your files much easier.
Thunar File Manager
Thunar is the default file manager for Xfce. It’s generally pretty simple, but there’s a lot you can do to configure Thunar. You can change things like single vs. double click to open things, configure which folders are in the sidebar, and custom actions for opening a terminal or running commands. However, one of the greatest parts of Thunar is all the plugins you can use.
Thunar plugins are designed to extend the functionality of Thunar with convenient functions like computing hashes, volume management, and Dropbox context menus. Given that Thunar and Xfce are so light on resources, the plugin functionality is pretty remarkable, and it’s a great way to bring some more “full fat” features to something so lean.
Xfce is so light that it isn’t always immediately apparent just how easy it is to customize. You can control workspaces, window decorations, global themes, icon themes, screensavers, and so many more things right out of the box. Plus, there are tons of configuration options for different applications, allowing you to configure things like your terminal and Thunar without having to hunt to find it.
Apps like Appearances and Window Manager give you the flexibility to do some customization on the basic appearance, but you can also change things about the panels on your system and add, remove, or change the panels and applets in the panels.
If you’re looking for more appearance options than come with Xfce, there’s a great website dedicated to making things look pretty called Xfce Look. You can download new icon themes and window themes, and there are tons of options available. If you can’t find what you’re looking for on Xfce Look, I’d be surprised.
As I’ve said previously, Xfce is incredibly lean. A Xubuntu 20.04 virtual machine with 2GB RAM and access to 2 vCPUs runs at 421MB RAM and 1% CPU usage. Xfce is one of the leanest DEs, making it an excellent choice for older or less powerful hardware. Even in this virtual machine environment, things feel snappy and responsive, and configuring keyboard shortcuts to snap windows to a tiling position is a great way to keep things close to the keyboard.
Quarter tiling is also an option, but it doesn’t work quite the same as quarter tiling in a DE like Cinnamon. You have to set specific keyboard shortcuts to tile into the corners, which isn’t too difficult.
All in all, the performance on Xfce is something that I highly recommend to anybody looking for nothing but performance.
The Cons of Xfce
That lean, performant nature of Xfce comes at a price. Xfce has a tendency to be a little overly simple. There is no workspace overview or expo, which is something that comes in handy when multitasking hard. The
xfdashboard command and application technically provide a way to do it, but it doesn’t mesh well with the rest of the desktop and feels clunky.
Additionally, for those who don’t feel the need to customize the experience, Xfce can be a mixed bag. Some distros really take the time and effort to customize their implementations of Xfce, but other distros ship a stock implementation that leaves a lot to be desired. If you’re looking for something that’s pretty out of the box, Xfce can be hit or miss.
Where to Experience Xfce
As stated above, Xfce can be a mixed bag. There are three main distros where I’d recommend experiencing Xfce to see what options are available and what styling you like. The first of those is Xubuntu 20.04.
Xubuntu gives an excellent implementation of Xfce without too many bells and whistles. There’s an excellent elementaryOS style about it, but it retains a distinct Xfce workflow. It’s elegant, simple, and beautiful, while also being easily replicated if you like things. There are sane defaults, plenty of options available to tweak things, and it just stays out of your way.
MX Linux is a less common distro with a solid cult following. It’s based on Debian, but it implements a beautiful Xfce desktop that’s customized a little more than on Xubuntu. MX Linux keeps that light, minimalist air about its Xfce implementation while adding more user-friendly features to it.
EndeavourOS is a distro that’s meant for a more experienced user, but it’s not unreasonable to use as a beginner. It’s based on Arch, which is a “trial by fire” kind of distro, but EndeavourOS adds some useful features on top of Arch and makes a great-looking Xfce implementation that’s still minimal while putting you in the driver’s seat.
Who Should Use Xfce
One of the best parts about Xfce is that it’s flexible enough for anybody. Whether you’re a GNOME user looking for something lighter, someone with an old machine that struggles under heavier Desktop Environments, or just looking to keep things simple, I cannot recommend Xfce enough. It will serve you well, and with just a little customization and tweaking, it can look and work however you want it to.
Now that you know about Xfce, make sure to check out our other Linux Desktop Environment reviews on GNOME Shell, KDE Plasma, and Cinnamon, and explore some of the rich customization options of Xfce with these five great terminal themes and learn how to set up Xfce on Arch Linux.