Why the Xfce desktop is reminiscent of early Linux desktops, but with a modern sensibility

Jack Wallen gives the latest version of the Xfce desktop a spin and kicks any foregone conclusions to the curb.

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Image: Jack Wallen

I was recently asked by a reader to review the latest Xfce (version 4.16). Although I haven't used this particular desktop environment for quite a while, I thought it'd be a treat to spin up a virtual machine and give it a go--I'm glad I did.

I opted to test the Xfce desktop on Manjaro, so I can be sure to get the latest version of everything needed to get the most out of the environment. Be aware, this isn't a review of Manjaro (which is an outstanding Linux distribution), but rather, Xfce. However, I will say that Manjaro helped to make the process quite pleasant. This also isn't a review wherein I get into the technical nuts and bolts of the desktop. This is about end-users and useability, but that's a story for another day.

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What is Xfce?

For those that have never given Xfce a go, let me try and explain to you what it is, in simple terms. Xfce is a desktop interface for Linux that strives to be fast, simple and highly customizable. It can be configured such that it's a fairly straightforward and typical interface, or it can be customized to be just about anything you want. If you like the ease of the traditional desktop metaphor (panel, start menu, system tray, desktop icons), you can have that. Or, if you'd like to use your imagination and create a completely different desktop, with unique form and function, have at it.

That's where Xfce has always shined--its flexibility. Few desktop environments on the market--regardless of the operating system--can outdo the flexibility of Xfce.

The good old days

I know I go on and on about the good old days of Linux, but don't let that lull you into thinking I'm some "get off my lawn" curmudgeon who believes everything new pales in comparison to the uphill climbs (both ways, mind you) we had to trek to get things done back in the day. To be honest, today's Linux blows away yesterday's. Hands down. I wouldn't want to go back to those days of having to struggle to get things to work every time I added a new piece of hardware or installed a new distribution. The concept of "just works" isn't novel, it's required. 

With that said, as soon as I had Manjaro up and running, I opted to tweak Xfce ever so slightly. In the tweaking, I discovered I'd created a desktop that looked almost identical to what I used in the early days of GNOME 1 (Figure A).

Figure A

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Xfce Panel can be exactly what you want it to be--even like the early iterations of GNOME.

The nice thing about Xfce is that it doesn't take 20 years of Linux experience to customize the desktop. In fact, the developers and designers have done a great job of making this desktop easy to configure. Right-click the panel and select Panel | Panel Preferences to open a simple tool to tweak the panel (Figure B).

Figure B

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The Xfce Panel Preferences tool in action.

There's very little in the Panel Preferences that would trip up even a new user.

Although Xfce does take me back to the early days of GNOME, don't be fooled into thinking it behaves in the same manner. During that GNOME 1 period, it was a real challenge to get everything integrated that you needed. With Xfce, everything works together seamlessly. It is, by definition, a desktop environment--as opposed to being just a Window Manager. You can be sure applications will communicate and interact with the environment. 

Even though it gives me pause to harken back, it keeps me firmly planted in the present with a modern sensibility.

The Whisker Menu

The Whisker Menu is a cute name for the "start" or "desktop" menu. Xfce allows the user to customize this menu--and, wow, is it a breath of fresh air. If there's one thing about most desktop environments that bothers me, it's the inability to make the desktop menu look and feel exactly how I like it. With the latest version of Xfce, that issue is no more. 

Here are some of the things you can do with the Whisker menu:

  • Display applications as icons

  • Display applications as list

  • Display applications in tree view

  • Change the size of icons and the associated application name

  • Change the background opacity

  • Change the Menu icon and title

  • Change the default category of applications

  • Switch categories by hovering

  • Customize the Menu search feature

You can even customize the commands used when clicking various items within the menu. That's just scratching the surface of what you can do with the Xfce menu. One of my favorite features of all is the ability to resize the menu to look exactly how you like. By grabbing the top right corner of the menu, you can stretch the Whisker Menu to fill the screen or to extend to the edge of the panel (how I like it) (Figure C).

Figure C

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Grab the arrow in the top-right corner and drag the menu to exactly where you want it.

That's how a desktop environment should allow users to customize--it really doesn't get any better than this.

Once I finally removed the desktop icons (I like a very minimal desktop), I had Xfce exactly how I wanted it.

Since we're talking about menus, another thing I greatly appreciate about Xfce also happens to be a nod to my past. Back in the day, Enlightenment was my desktop of choice. One of the features that drew me to that desktop was how you could easily access the menu with a mouse click anywhere on the desktop. Guess what, Xfce offers that as well. Right-click on the desktop and select Applications to reveal the entire contents of the Whisker Menu (Figure D).

Figure D

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The Whisker Menu in desktop form.

Xfce's target audience

Before I decided to give Xfce another chance, I assumed the target audience for this desktop environment was the same as it had always been--hardcore Linux users who wanted a desktop environment they could customize at will. Coming out of this review, I realize my original opinion needed a refresher. Xfce is for anyone. Literally. This isn't a just desktop for those who are old hat with Linux. Xfce can be exactly the desktop you need or the desktop you want, or anything in beneath, between, or behind. In fact, with Xfce, if your imagination can think of it, chances are good this desktop can make it a reality. 

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By Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic, The New Stack, and Linux New Media. He's covered a variety of topics for over twenty years and is an avid promoter of open source. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen....