Xfce 4.2 - A light weight window manager heavy in features.

January 10, 2006
The first time I used Xfce was when I tried out the Belenix Live CD. Xfce was the only window manager bundled with it so I had no choice but to use it though my personal preference was Fluxbox. But after playing around in it for some time, I just couldn't stop admiring the usability and design of Xfce as well as the responsiveness of the applications when run in it.

So the first thing I did was to install it in Linux and take it for a test drive. And the things I found out were really interesting. For one, Xfce is not just any window manager out there but it is a desktop in its own might. It comes bundled with applications like its own light weight xterminal, a file manager, desktop configuration utilities, a light weight mail client, a media player and optional utilities like a calender similar to those that pop up in KDE and Gnome when you click on the clock in the panel and a very cool lightweight text editor.

Fig: Xfce Desktop - Note the highlighted menu and the calender

But what sets Xfce apart from the more popular heavy weights like Gnome and KDE is its very low memory foot print. In fact, in the developer's own words, the aim of Xfce is to be a simple, light and efficient environment which is easy to use and configure, stable, fast and at the same time visually appealing. And not to speak of a clean desktop. In fact, I found out that the desktop is a separate utility which goes by the name xfdesktop and the user has the option of not running it in Xfce if he chose to.

Fig: You can configure most of the features from the Xfce settings manager

Another aspect which endeared me to this light weight window manager cum desktop is that when you install or uninstall any software in Linux, the menus in Xfce are automatically updated to mirror the change which is a comfortable feature which is lacked by other light weight window managers including popular ones like Fluxbox.

In my opinion, it would be a good idea to install another light weight file manager called 'Rox' along side Xfce which I believe integrates quite well with the Xfce desktop.

Fig: Rox file manager in action

If you are using a Debian based Linux distribution, installing rox is as simple as executing the command:
# apt-get install rox
I recommend using Rox file manager with Xfce because it is quite easy to associate file types with the applications of our choice in rox and it is blazing fast.

Software bundled with Xfce
  • xffm - The light weight file manager
  • xfdesktop - Enables menus to pop up when right clicked on the desktop.
  • xfce-settings-show - Xfce settings manager, where you configure the desktop settings, keyboard, mouse, xfpanel.
  • xfce4-panel - The Xfce4 panel.
  • xfce4-menueditor - A useful widget to edit the menu entries in Xfce4.
  • xfmail - A light weight mail client.
  • xfmedia - A utility to play audio files.
  • xfcalendar - This is an optional widget which gives a compact monthly calendar similar to those found in KDE and Gnome.
  • xflock4 - Activates the screensaver and locks the display.
  • xfrun4 - Run application command dialog box. Can be activated by using key sequence [Alt+F2] .
  • xfhelp4 - Opens the Xfce4 documentation in the default web browser.
  • xfce4-terminal - This is actually a script which runs the ubiquitous xterm but with better configuration. See this link for more details.
  • mousepad - A light weight text editor. (Has to be installed separately).

Fig: xfmail - a light weight email client

Fig: A beautiful Xterminal

And if you are usually booting into run level 2 or 3 and then starting a window manager using the startx command, then you may make Xfce the default window manager by creating a hidden file by name .xinitrc in your home directory and entering the command startxfce4 in it as follows:
$ touch .xinitrc
$ echo "startxfce4" > .xinitrc

$ startx
One thing that I found really annoying though is that when I start nautilus (the Gnome file manager), it overlaps my xfce desktop and I stop getting the xfce menus when I right click on the desktop. I figured a work around here in that by using the --no-desktop flag, I was able to circumvent this problem.
$ nautilus --no-desktop
After using this light weight window manager (version 4.2.2) for a week now, I am so impressed by it that I have made it my default window manager in Linux.


  • I am also using Xfce as my primary desktop and I am very much satisfied with it. I really wonder why people fight over Gnome and KDE. It looks really foolish when there are scores of window managers and desktops around.

    Interesting review. :)

  • Iain

    I tried Xfce when I used Vector Linux and I was impressed as well. It's not quite as slick as KDE or Gnome, but the low system requirements more than make up for that.

  • The last time I tried XFCE on a Ubuntu machine, I had a huge memory leak problem that would just keep growing if I left my desktop overnight without logging out. That turned me off of XFCE some.

    The biggest problem with leaving gnome is that you will then miss out on some integration, and some panel applets which I possibly can't do without like the networkmanager applet.

  • You can even get desktop icons w/ XFCE4 by letting ROX to manage the desktop.
    echo rox -p desktop& > ~/Desktop/Autostart/autorun
    chmod +x ~/Desktop/Autostart/autorun

    Looks like this: http://tinyurl.com/anxzw

  • Actually, XFMail is not part of the XFCE Desktop - The name is just a coincidence. You can tell by the look: XFMail is kinda ugly, unlike the rest of the desktop :o)

    It might be interesting to note that XFCE will sport a brand-new File Manager called 'Thunar' on the upcoming 4.4 release, for people like me who don't like xffm nor the rox-filer.


  • Carthik - You can use NetworkManager just fine under Xfce.
    Make sure you select under the Startup prefs/Advanced options to start Gnome services (you need this for the gnome-keyring-manager that NetworkManager uses to store WEP keys),
    then just run 'nm-applet' and it should appear in the systray in your panel (If you addded one) or the taskbar.

    Works fine here.

    - [email protected] (fedora-extras Xfce package maintainer)

  • I just recently switched from Gnome to KDE, and I gotta say I think I prefer KDE. XFCE is not bad, but I don't feel it has enough features. One really (relatively) easy config in KDE is the bluetooth setup. I needed a bluetooth headset to work with Skype and KDE was the only one I could get it working under.

  • Just some corrections:

    "[XFCE] comes bundled with applications like its own light weight xterminal"

    Well in fact it does not. I assume you are reffering to Terminal - this is the XFCE terminal app, but older versions of XFCE just launched xterm (which is hardly XFCE own). So Terminal is XFCE application but it is hardly lightweight. :) In fact it is very heavy due to use of vte widget which sucks in my opinion (it is like 12x slower than f.e. xterm).

    "[XFCE] comes bundled with applications like (...) a light weight mail client"

    No it does not come with an email client. Unless of course you call mailbox checking panel applet an email client.

    "But what sets Xfce apart from the more popular heavy weights like Gnome and KDE is its very low memory foot print."
    "Another aspect which endeared me to this light weight window manager"

    If you think it is lightweight - try WindowMaker. I don't mean to be flaming but compared to wmaker (which is not the lightest BTW) it is not light on memory and on X11 usage by any means. This is due to few facts - XFCE4 uses GTK which is known to be slow. By saying X11 usage I mean that given window manager is well optimized/designed to work with X11 protocol (over network FE). In fact this is IMHO more important factor than CPU usage.

  • Minor nit:

    You don't need to use the "touch" command before echoing something into the file. The redirection will create the file for you.

    (See? I said it was minor.)

  • I used XCFE for some time, too, but I got annoyed by my inability to change the shape or color of the mouse cursor. It was white with a light grey outline, that could hardly be seen on a white background, like in a word processor. Apart from that I liked XFCE very much...

  • FVWM2 - very light, extremely configurable, and can be made to emulate just about any other window manager. Older versions looked like crap, but the newer versions have the ability to be configured to look like anything you want.

  • @ anonymous 12:44 AM
    But does fvwm2 update its menu the same way as xfce does ? I doubt it. Editing a menu by hand each time you install or uninstall a software is in my opinion one of the biggest issues faced by any wm claiming to be light weight.

    Yes fluxbox has a script that updates its menu. But the user has to run it by himself each time he installs or uninstalls an application.

    Now I am no programmer but Xfce has in my opinion overcome this issue.

  • Ravi

    anonymous @ 7:39AM said...
    So Terminal is XFCE application but it is hardly lightweight. :) ...

    No it does not come with an email client. Unless of course you call mailbox checking panel applet an email client. ...

    If you think it is lightweight - try WindowMaker. ...

    My observations in the article were based on a few things...

    Well the terminal which comes bundled with xfce is very fast on my machine when compared to gnome-terminal or konsole.

    xfmail is a utility which is installed by default when you install xfce window manager. I do not know if it is maintained by another project team. And in my opinion, it works as a mail client. The picture included in the article should be sufficient proof for that.

    As far as light weight is concerned, no doubt window maker is definitely light weight - much more than xfce. And I like window maker and have used it. But what sets xfce apart is that it walks a fine line between keeping all the features that makes it a desktop and at the same time be sufficiently light weight.

  • Maximiliano

    Xfce is fine but i love ICEWM, for me, it's the best. I use ICEWM like primary, it's very configurable and lightweigth.

  • Hi there,
    Nice article. Just one question.
    At the end of the review you comment about nautilus --no-desktop so you can right click on the desktop. I tried xfce on gentoo a few months ago and i can neither click on desktop or change my wallpaper. I think that they are connected.

    Where do you put the nautilus --no-desktop, because i can't click on desktop at start-up??

    Thanks in advance

  • Ravi

    I also faced the same problem. I found that xfce has a seperate component for the desktop by name xfdesktop. It has to be running to get menus when you right-click on the desktop.

    I just started it
    $ xfdesktop &

    And while logging out, I checked the "Save session for future login".

  • Hey Ravi,
    I just checked that and it works!!!!
    Thank you so much, ive been pulling my hair out for weeks


  • XFCE is a very charming interface. It really is the tightest-looking ship in the water.

    I admit that I sometimes had problems integrating it with all my favorite apps. But that was some time ago. I'm back on Gnome, which, for me, is a workable compromise between the sharp, uncluttered look of XFCE and the giant KDE environment.

    I never liked the K environment, but Gnome has it's problems too. I'll stay in Gnome for now, out of sheer laziness. But it is time for me to get back over to XFCE and see if things are working better on the multimedia end of things.

    In the end, I'm really rooting for XFCE, just not yet sure what their fate is. I love their work, but they have a tough tightrope to walk between Fluxbox and Gnome, and I'm not sure the market will bear that middle road between them. But I really hope they come out on top.

    When XFCE was working right for me, it was just awesome, fast and sleek.

    Mel C. Thompson, Eternal Newbie