Eleven Tips for New Xfce Users

Tuesday Apr 22nd 2008 by Bruce Byfield

What you’ll notice most is that Xfce is fast -- far faster than either GNOME or KDE on the same machine.

Last year's DesktopLinux.com's survey showed Xfce was the third most popular desktop environment. Granted, it was a distant third to KDE's second place and GNOME's first place, but Xfce does seem to be gaining in popularity in the last few years.

Part of the reason may be the availability of Xubuntu, a version of Ubuntu that uses Xfce for the desktop. However, for the most part, Xfce placed strongly on its own merits, having largely outgrown its somewhat geeky origins in recent versions to provide a more lightweight desktop than GNOME or KDE, and enough customization to satisfy GNU/Linux users without overwhelming them with options.

Some of Xfce's programs, such as the Ristretto graphics viewer or the Orage calendar, are close equivalents of their counterparts in KDE and GNOME; they're functional, but not particularly different from what you've seen before. If you want to investigate Xfce, what you want to watch for are the features that are either unique or else essential or hard to find, like the ones listed below. They may just tip your decision about which desktop to use.

1) Settings

At the cost of a small bit of redundancy, Xfce lets you configure desktop elements either individually, or centrally from Settings ->Settings Manager. For example, if you want to configure the Thunar file manager, you can either select Edit -> Preferences from a Thunar window, or else Settings -> Settings Manager -> File Manager. If you're like me, you'll appreciate the Settings Manager when you are first setting up your desktop and use the preferences for individual applications as you fine-tune your desktop.

One notable feature of Xfce's Settings Manager is that items are tightly organized. For example, instead of having separate listings for Keyboard layouts, Accessibility, and Keyboard shortcuts, the way that default GNOME does, Xfce places all of them under the general category of Keyboard, making all of them easier to find and quicker to customize.

2) Panels

The Xfce desktop limits panels to a utilitarian gray, but does allow you to change the width, height, and position of each panel. You can also autohide it or make it freely movable so that other windows are not obscured by it -- a feature that is most useful when a panel is set to Normal Width, so that it doesn't occupy the entire side of the desktop.

3) Panel utilities

Like GNOME and KDE, Xfce includes a series of small utilities that you can add to a panel from a right-click menu. Many of these utilities are standard desktop elements, such as a notification tray, a window list, and a clock. However, Xfce also has a number of other utilities, such as an Icon box, which displays icons for all running applications, Mount Device, which tracks all filesystems on the computer, including external ones, Screenshot, and Keyboard Layout Switcher. You can also select Launcher to add an icon for another application by selecting Launcher, or SmartBookmark to add a launcher for a Web address. None of these are spectacularly unusual, but they can be useful, depending on your preferences and work habits.

4) Adding icons to the desktop

For a long time, Xfce had no graphical means of adding icons to the desktop. Now, it does, but you'll have to search to find it. Right-click an existing icon, and select Desktop -> Create Launcher (or URL link or Folder, depending on your needs). The Create Launcher window opens for you to enter the icon text (Name), the command to start the application, and an icon from your system's library.

5) Customizing icon text display

Icon text is one of the few elements that you cannot edit from the desktop in Xfce. However, according to a Readme file from the site, you can quickly customize it by editing the .gtkrc-2.0 file in your home directory, so that it reads something like this:

style "xfdesktop-icon-view" {
XfdesktopIconView::label-alpha = 75

base[NORMAL] = "#00ff00"
base[SELECTED] = "#5050ff"
base[ACTIVE] = "#0000ff"

fg[NORMAL] = "#ff0000"
fg[SELECTED] = "#ff0000"
fg[ACTIVE] = "#ff0000"
widget_class "*XfdesktopIconView*" style "xfdesktop-icon-view"

The first stanza sets the transparency of the highlighted background of the text, using a value from 0 (for no transparency) to 255 (total transparency). The next three lines define the background color, and are irrelevant if you set the transparency to 0. The third set of three lines sets the color for the text itself.

You can set the color for both the background and text for when the icon is not selected (Normal), for when the icon is selected but not activated (Selected), and for when you have opened the icon (Active). For each entry, color is defined using standard Web colors.

Once you have set the colors, save the file and log out of Xfce and log back in again to have your changes take effect.

6) Menu editor

Xfce generally comes with a standard, accordion-style menu. If you want to simplify the menu, or if a program doesn't automatically add an item to the menu system, then you can go to Settings -> Menu Editor to make modifications. Adding items is similar to adding an icon to either the desktop or the panel, while deleting one is a matter of selecting Remove entry from the right-click menu.

7) The multiple clipboard

Clipman is Xfce's answer to KDE's Klipper -- a multiple clipboard that allows you to copy multiple items, then select which one to paste. Among other options, you can configure how many items to save at one time, and whether the clipboard is emptied when you exit Xfce. If you like having a multiple clipboard in MS Word, you'll like having one for the entire desktop even better.

8) Multiple login sessions

In addition to supporting multiple workspaces, Xfce also gives you the option of creating different user profiles for your desktop as you log in. For instance, if you choose, you could have desktops with different sets of icons for programming and for office productivity. By setting up different sessions, instead of different workspaces, you can use less memory.

To enable multiple sessions, go to Settings -> Session and Startup -> General, and check the box beside Display chooser on login.

9) The file manager

Thunar, Xfce's file manager, superficially resembles GNOME's Nautilus. However, any prolonged use of Thunar will soon dispel any notion that it is similar to Nautilus. For one thing, although Thunar has fewer customization options and cannot be used to burn DVDs, it is considerably faster than Nautilus. It also has some small but useful innovations such as displaying the Trash in the directory tree, allowing custom actions to be set when particular types of files are opened, and defaulting to the last directory viewed, instead of the home directory.

In addition, Thunar has a separate view called Bulk Rename, which is available from the Systems sub-menu of the main menu. Bulk Rename allows you to change not only the names, but also the other attributes of the files you select, a feature that is handy when you are ripping CDs and want to indicate the album on individual song files or when you want all the files in a project to have related names.

10) KDE and GNOME compatibility

Just as being less popular has caused other GNU/Linux software to add Windows compatibility, so Xfce has added some support for KDE and GNOME. Since Xfce has only a modest selection of programs compared to the most popular desktops, you will almost certainly want to take advantage of this support. Fortunately, Xfce handles KDE and GNOME apps better than either does each other's, despite the recent years of cooperation.

Unless your system is short of memory, you will probably want to go to Settings -> Sessions and Startup settings -> Advanced, and check the appropriate boxes to enable GNOME or KDE support when you log into Xfce. At a cost of making Xfce start more slowly, these settings will allow applications written specifically for GNOME and KDE to start more quickly. In fact, with these settings, you should find that native GNOME or KDE applications start almost as quickly in Xfce as in their intended environment.

You can also use GNOME applets in Xfce by right-clicking on a panel and selecting Add Items -> XfApplet. This selection opens a list of GNOME panel applets so that you can select one to add to the panel.

11) Startup tips

One of the easiest ways to learn more about Xfce is to select Settings -> Autostarted Applications -> xfce-4 tips. With this setting enabled, you will have a short tip about how to get the most out of Xfce each time you log in. After a few days, this feature will probably become a nuisance, but it is still a painless way to learn more about the desktop.

Moving on from here

Xfce hasn't altogether outgrown its geekiness, as the technique for changing icon text shows. You'll find equally geeky tips on the project's Tips and Tricks wiki. But these signs of an earlier evolutionary stage are well-documented, and should not be overly intimidating for anyone adventurous enough to venture beyond the Big Two desktops in the first place.

For the most part, the tips here should be enough to help you solve your most pressing problems and to explore Xfce's unique features. Once you have configured the desktop to your liking, try using it for a week -- or, at least, long enough so that you are not just responding to the fact that you are finding differences and can judge features on their own merits.

Probably, what you will notice most is that Xfce is fast -- far faster than either GNOME or KDE on the same machine. Large programs like Firefox and OpenOffice.org open nearly twice as quickly in Xfce as in the other two major desktops, and even Evolution opens nearly as fast in Xfce as in its native GNOME. Once you get over the novelty of using a new desktop, that speed alone may be enough to convince you to switch to Xfce. But try it and see for yourself.

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