Tuesday, January 8, 2013

A look at XFCE in Debian Wheezy

The computer I'm writing this on came with Windows XP. It probably wouldn't run Windows 7, so is it reasonable to expect it to run the latest Linux desktops? Gnome 3 and KDE may need fairly recent hardware to run (well) but there are Linux desktops designed to run on older, less powerful hardware. I've looked at Crunchbang before which is indeed nippy on my older laptop, ten years old this year. Today I've been trying out XFCE 4.8 on Debian Wheezy from a Live USB. It zips along even from the USB, so I have no doubt it would be fast if installed- just about ideal for this or any other XP era machine.

The only real drawback with XFCE is that it is a 20th century desktop paradigm. Some see limitations in that paradigm, others comfort. The limitations are a potential dog's breakfast in the notification area, redundant icons with duplicated functionality, inefficient use of screen space, and inefficiency in a cluttered window switching mechanism.

It seems XFCE has tried to get away from the Windows 95 paradigm with the main panel now positioned at the top of the screen, and a second panel acting as an application launcher at the bottom of the screen.

The desktop is still very much menu driven.

With a full screen window open, the bottom panel restricts the space available: set it to auto hide.

I got rid of the bottom panel because of the redundancy issue mentioned previously: you can't switch applications using the icons in the bottom panel, so they have to appear again in the top panel as window buttons. If you really want the Apple look, a real dock like Docky might be a good idea- it works with XFCE compositing.

It's very easy to change the look of XFCE. Here's what I did, first with the BSM simple theme.

A bit of a Windows 7 look here with buttons only for windows switching, and programs automatically grouped.

The old fashioned window switching method in XFCE handles the GIMPs modal windows well.

Here's a full screen application, not quite as efficient as Epiphany in Gnome 3: the title bar takes up space unnecessarily. It doesn't seem to be possible to undecorate the window as it is in Openbox.

Here's another theme, my own modification of the Axiom theme, going for a Gnome 3/Adwaita look, but without any extra theme engine dependencies- this is supposed to be a light desktop.

Unlike Gnome 3, menu driven of course.

A full screen application again.

I've kept the notification area in these screenshots very minimal, but it is possible to put just about anything you'd want there: weather, email notification, kitchen sink...

In summary, XFCE is a great desktop for slightly older computers, or computer users who prefer a slightly older paradigm. With a bit of effort, it's possible to give it a more modern look and feel.

The only drawback to mention is a fairly serious bug which prevents removable media like USB drives being mounted, and the computer being shutdown normally. With Wheezy coming up to release soon, this bug will have to be fixed, so if you're thinking of installing, it might be worth waiting for a few months.

UPDATE: I found a solution to the above problem.


  1. Xfce is the only DE that I have seen offer a launcher dock with ability for expandable sub-docks to each main launcher.
    This is a 21st century must for me personally.

  2. This is the way XFCE has their desktop laid out by default, Debian didn't change it at all

  3. "This is the way XFCE has their desktop laid out by default, Debian didn't change it at all."

    "XFCE has tried to get away from the Windows 95 paradigm."

    I think we both said the same thing.

  4. What panel item did you use to get the debian logo in the bottom right corner in the 4th screen shot? I've seen it before but my copy of Debian doesn't have it.

  5. You mean bottom left, right? :-)

    Same panel item- the applications menu- just changed the icon.

    Right click > Preferences then click on the icon to change it. Look in 'All icons' and the debian swirl is there somewhere.

  6. Desktops? Really? Ten years ago people were still comparing desktops on Linux. Tell me you are productive and what with. I hope you always keep your blog going. Funny to see the same stuff keep coming around.
    We are a very lucky bunch to have these options in Linux.

    1. I access and switch between the applications I work with via the desktop. The desktop paradigm determines how efficient this process is, so it remains important.