Why GNOME refugees love Xfce
Thunar rather than later...
GNOME 3 has become something of a polarising moment for the popular Linux desktop. In chasing visions of tablets, touchscreens and the mythical "everyday user", the GNOME 3 Shell has left many Linux power users scratching their heads, wondering why the GNOME developers decided to fix a desktop that wasn't broken.
The problem for those that dislike the new GNOME is not so much the underlying GNOME 3, which is in many ways a step up from its predecessor, but the GNOME Shell specifically, which looks and behaves like something much more suited for a tablet than a 30 inch desktop monitor.
Ubuntu, which is at least partly responsible for making GNOME as popular is it is, decided to cast off the new GNOME Shell in favor of its own Unity desktop. But sadly, if you're trying to get away from the look and feel of GNOME 3, Unity is no solution since it's more or less the same thing with a few distinct quirks.
If KDE isn't your bag and GNOME 3 leaves you feeling cold there is another Linux desktop worth considering: Xfce. Linus Torvalds, the founder of Linux, recently went on record to call GNOME 3 "an unholy mess" and announce that he was switching to the Xfce desktop. Several other developers in the same thread chimed in to echo their support of Xfce.
Just what is it about Xfce that's drawing in the GNOME refugees? Well for one thing Xfce can easily be customised into something that's visually no different than good old GNOME 2.x. It takes a bit more work to make Xfce behave just like GNOME 2, and in the end you might end up installing quite a few GNOME dependencies, but in fact Xfce can be a capable GNOME replacement.
Perhaps more important to GNOME 3 refugees, Xfce isn't planning to try "revolutionising" the desktop experience. Development is historically very slow – the recently released Xfce 4.8 was two years in the making – and the Xfce project tends to pride itself on the lack of new features in each release. The focus is generally improving existing features, polishing rough edges and fixing bugs rather than trying to out whiz-bang the competitors.
The resistance to new features has earned Xfce a reputation as a lightweight desktop, but it's not significantly smaller than GNOME or KDE (if you're looking for lightweight, check out LXDE). Xfce did, in my testing, start up much faster than either GNOME or KDE and using the desktop environment feels much snappier. However much of that is due to Xfce's very minimalist default apps rather than a significantly smaller code base.
Pimp your ride
The first thing you'll notice when you start up Xfce for the first time is a top panel that resembles what you'd see in GNOME 2 and a bottom panel that's typically stocked with application launchers, shortcuts and workspace switchers. The exact layout on panels and what's in them will vary from distro to distro. For the purposes of this article I tested Xubuntu, the Xfce variant of Ubuntu, and Zenwalk, an Xfce-oriented distro. For the most part the functionality of Xfce was the same in both, though the Ubuntu distro will be a better choice for those already familiar with the Ubuntu Software Center and other Ubuntu-specific elements.
As with GNOME 2, Xfce's panels can be customised to your heart's delight, just right-click an item and choose "Properties". To customise the panel as a whole, just right-click the base of the panel and select "Panel Preferences". For the most part the panels in Xfce are much like what you'll find in GNOME, but there are a few differences and some things are even better. For example Xfce has a nice spacer feature that makes it simple to spread items out within the panel. There are also, just like GNOME's panels, a healthy selection of plugins to trick out your panel.
The rest of the desktop is similarly easy to customise. Just head to the System Settings app which handles everything you'd like customise on the desktop and the rest of the system. Really, everything is all in one spot.
The file manager in Xfce is Thunar, which resembles GNOME 2's Nautilus and can do most of what Nautilus is capable of. The notable exception to that is split windows, which can be very handy for moving files around. In Thunar you'll just have to open a second window for your drag-and-drop moves. Another mild annoyance in Thunar is the lack of "spring loaded" folders. That is, when you drag something onto a folder in Thunar, the folder does not automatically open the way it would in, well, pretty much every other file manager on the planet. Still, despite those two issues, Thunar makes a capable Nautilus replacement.
Part of the reason for Xfce's reputation as a lightweight desktop environment is the very minimalist applications that it bundles. Unlike GNOME and KDE which ship with some very sophisticated apps for word processing, photo organizing and music playback, Xfce tends to offer very basic apps with limited features.
For example the stock text editor in Xfce – known as Leafpad – is much closer to a very barebones editor like Windows' Notepad than the more feature-rich and customisable gEdit package that ships with GNOME. Similarly the customisations options for the terminal emulator in Xfce pale next to what GNOME offers.
There should be no conflicts with Thunar
Fortunately most GNOME apps don't require the full guts of Nautilus to run and Xfce already has many of the GTK dependencies you'll need (though quite a few GNOME apps will require libnautilus). Installing GNOME dependencies won't slow down Xfce and most of the time there won't be any conflicts with Thunar. That said, there is definitely something of an simple-is-better ethos in the Xfce community and users tend to encourage newbies to try simpler apps to see if they meet their needs before running off to install half of the GNOME suite. The Xfce wiki maintains a nice list of alternatives to the default Xfce apps that are still relatively lightweight.
One place Xfce's lightweight apps approach falls on its face is photo management. Out of the box there's the uber-lightweight Ristretto, a very basic image viewer, and then the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Gimp. Editing RAW images in Linux isn't a lot of fun in any desktop environment but I generally use Darktable in conjunction with Gimp. Since the latter was already installed, it took just a few minutes to install Darktable. Other options to fill the gap between Ristretto and Gimp include GNOME's Shotwell or KDE's digikam, though again, both will require installing some dependencies.
For music Xfce offers gmusicbrowser, a lightweight music player that can handle the basics like playing music, creating playlists and searching your library. Gmusicbrowser is a new addition in Xfce 4.8 and fills the 80 percent use case quite nicely. It gets a bit slow with very large libraries and lacks more advanced features like lyrics or album artwork. For those that want something with more power there's always Banshee or Rhythmbox.
For word processors Xfce ships with Abiword which works just fine for those with basic word processing needs. If you need something more powerful you can always ditch Abiword for the LibreOffice suite.
That is in fact the mantra of Xfce: there are always more powerful apps available, but give the basics a try and see if they don't work for you. It's a philosophy that makes for a lightweight, but very capable Linux system.
Xfce isn't GNOME 2.x, nor is it supposed to be, but it does make a capable replacement for Linux users that are less interested in the wow factor of GNOME 3 and just want to get some work done. If you've felt left behind by GNOME's attempt to redefine the desktop experience and just want a desktop that works the way it always has, Xfce fits the bill. ®