Why XFCE is the Best Linux Desktop

Monday Jun 30th 2014 by Matt Hartley
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XFCE earn one pundit's Best Linux Desktop for its ease of use and repair, and its facility with older systems. 

I have used various Linux desktop environments over the years: GNOME, KDE, LXDE and XFCE. As for the best Linux desktop? Each experience has its advantages. Some Linux desktops offer lots of glamour and neat effects, while others provide a solid (be it simpler) user experience without making the end user feel like they’re using a desktop from the late 20th century.

In this article, I’ll explain why I still feel that XFCE remains the best Linux desktop available, even after trying other desktop environments.

XFCE vs GNOME

For anyone who has seen previous articles on my desktop preferences, you might be wondering what happened to my love of GNOME. Well my love for GNOME hasn’t gone anywhere. As a matter of fact, my main desktop machine still runs GNOME 3 to this day. Where I find myself leaning heavily with XFCE is for any PC I share with others.

Case in point, I have one PC that I share with other members of my family for media and games. As much as I might like for them to use the GNOME desktop, previous experience has taught me that they prefer something a bit more menu driven. Since all of us have had success with XFCE driven distributions in the past, sticking with XFCE makes the most sense overall. So while I maintain a fondness for GNOME, others in my family prefer to keep it simple.

And let us not forget, XFCE is friendly in the "system performance" department. Fact is, I can run XFCE on lower end systems that might otherwise be bogged down with more feature rich desktop environments. This performance is then passed onto the end user, who can apply this speed to the applications being used.

XFCE vs other lightweight desktops

Holy wars could be waged over XFCE vs LXDE vs MATE vs Openbox. It should be noted that Openbox is actually a window manager and must be used in conjunction with one of the desktop environments listed above.

Some individuals in various forums have made the claim that LXDE is more "modular", and therefore easier to develop for than XFCE. Others still have pointed out that MATE brings with it all that was great about the GNOME 2 desktop, completely discounting the fact that MATE isn't about being lightweight, rather, it simply provides a menu drive desktop for GNOME 2 fans.

At the end of the day, there is no one desktop that is "better" than the other, only those which folks prefer over others. For myself, I'd be inclined to go with MATE as my second desktop choice for a shared computer. MATE's menu driven, yet doesn't feel quite so basic as LXDE.

With regard to speed, Openbox (within a predetermined desktop environment) is the speediest GUI-centric desktop experience in my opinion. Lightning fast, easy enough to use and it'll work on practically anything resource wise.

Tweaking XFCE

If there is one constant in the universe, it's that tweaking XFCE is a blast. The best part is, tweaking XFCE is just difficult enough that outside of wallpaper changes, others in your household aren't too likely to make any drastic changes without your helping hand. Because there are no tweak tools, fully installing new themes isn't as simple as it might be with say, KDE.

Personally, I feel this is a good thing because it means I get to pick a them and it sticks.

Expanding on setting the tone of which theme we use, I've found the best approach to theming with XFCE when multiple users are concerned is to have one main family account. Then have another account that is for my own use personally.

This means using the ~/.themes approach for each user specifically. The advantage of using the ~/.themes approach is that new users will be able to use a default layout, while myself and the rest of the family can keep with the themes I've made available.

Obviously on other PCs that are being used by my family, this is a moot issue. They can theme their own machines any way they wish. But for a shared computer used for gaming, media and so on, I'd rather keep the themes simple.

XFCE is easy to repair

I don't care who you are, sometimes things on the Linux desktop just break. Sometimes it's a bug, other times it's another user who hopped onto the machine and goofed things up. The nice thing about using XFCE is that most visual items are dead simple to fix.

Accidentally lost the launch menu? Simply re-add it with a few simple mouse clicks. Perhaps an entire panel is missing for some reason? After verifying it's not hidden, you can just create a new one.

Also after spending time with GNOME, I've found that I don't see the applet breakage with XFCE like I've seen with GNOME extensions. Granted, most of the time any perceived breakage is fixed soon enough, but with XFCE panel applets, everything just works – period. No surprises!

After discovering an interesting memory leak with GNOME's system monitor extension, I'm just glad I don't seem to have these issues with my XFCE applets. I suppose it's due to their simpler nature.

Sticking to the KISS principle

As I bring this article to a close, the main thing I'd like to get across here is this: XFCE keeps it simple. XFCE remains rock solid, dependable and maintains the logic that most people still look for in a menu driven experience. I also happen to think that XFCE provides a solid balance between desktop environment speed and general usability.

The point is this – park any basic Windows users in front of XFCE and in minutes, they'll find their way around. I don't have the same confidence with GNOME and KDE in this area. GNOME 3 is completely foreign to most people whereas KDE starts off familiar, only to offer menus on top of menus which may overwhelm some newer users (my opinion).

Do you think I'm wrong? Perhaps instead, you have a compelling argument for why (insert desktop environment here) is more compelling for users of all types? Hit the Comments section and sound off.

Personally, I think most folks will be hard pressed to get me believing that XFCE isn't the best out there. With a little work, XFCE can be made to look amazing. Plus it runs great on lower spec PCs, because let's face it, being able to run Linux on an older PC is always awesome.

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