Anyone who has been using Linux/UNIX for a long time will have to admit that offerings in terms of desktop environments have improved immensely. For those unfamiliar with Linux or UNIX, a desktop environment is a graphical interface (mouse pointer, background, window rendering, etc.) that is completely self-reliant in terms of support programs (file manager, text editor, etc.). If unfamiliar with Linux or UNIX, you might say “What’s the big deal?” The big deal is that most window managers (another form of graphical interface and part of a desktop environment, but that lacks self-reliant applications like its own file manager) do not. There are a variety of desktop environments out there, such as KDE, GNOME, MATE, LXDE and FVWM Crystal, for example. However, I want to focus on the Xfce Desktop Environment and why I believe that it rocks.
Xfce has evolved since its initial incarnation as an open source alternative to the (then) proprietary CDE (Common Desktop Environment) to take on a life of its own. Xfce was originally XFCE (XForms Common Environment, the “X” coming from the “X” in X Window System, the official name of the Linux/UNIX graphical interface system), but now Xfce is no longer an acronym for anything. So, why do I think Xfce is so special?
First of all, unlike desktop environments like KDE or GNOME, Xfce is fairly light on system resources. This means that it will run well on older hardware. This makes it ideal for anyone or any organization that cannot afford the latest cutting-edge hardware. Public schools come to mind here. Another reason why I love Xfce is that it supports a high level of customization. Its appearance and function can be easily modified through context-sensitive menus. This includes such things as appearance, system performance and accessibility to name a few. Xfce can easily look like any graphical interface that you can imagine.
Another feature of Xfce that relates to appearance and that I have come to truly value is panels. Panels, often referred to as docks, are bars that can appear horizontally or vertically on your desktop, providing a place to put things like a main menu launcher, a clock or a quick way to launch frequently used programs. Xfce requires that you have at least one panel. It does not, however, have any requirements as to what you do with that panel. That panel can serve in any capacity that you desire. You can even auto-hide the panel so that it only appears when your mouse pointer hovers over it. The screenshot at right shows what the author has done with his panels. There are three types of panels offered: horizontal, vertical and deskbar (this latter panel is vertically aligned, but the contents are aligned horizontally. This is ideal for wide-screen computing).
This leads to another one of Xfce’s useful features, Panel Plugins. These plugins enhance functionality and provide information about your system and the world around you. Available plugins include ways to track open applications, ways to monitor system resources and a means for keeping informed about time and the weather, Launcher plugins provide a means to quickly launch your favorite programs. There are plugins for switching workspaces, creating desktop sticky notes, monitoring network traffic, monitoring project time, getting screenshots and even quick access to an integrated online dictionary. This list is by no means all-inclusive. If you have a job to do, there’s probably a plugin to help you do it.
Finally, I love Xfce’s ease of use. This is due to a number of things, but simplicity is key. The interface in general is approachable by default. Widgets and menus are where you would expect them to be. The Main Menu is straightforward, reminiscent of what Microsoft Windows looked like before XP. The menu opens providing users with direct access to what they’re looking for, organized by purpose (Communications, Office, etc.). Context menus (opened with a right-click) allow for ready modification of any component. If this isa’t appealing, users can easily change the way Xfce looks and works using these menus.
In closing, if you haven’t tried Xfce, maybe you should. It’s light, simple and effectual. What’s not to like?
Xfce Development Team (2016). Xfce Desktop Environment [computer software]. GNU General Public License.