Xfce: the Third Man

If you thought the only desktop options were KDE and GNOME, think again. Xfce provides a full-featured desktop that's lightweight enough to run on old hardware.

In the famous 1949 movie The Third Man, much hinges on a traffic accident and two men—and, it seems, a third man also was involved. Investigation leads to all kinds of events, until eventually the truth surfaces, and the key third man is found. But, go watch the movie for the details—no spoilers here. In the Linux world, whenever you talk about desktop environments, everyone typically remembers only two (KDE and GNOME), but there's also an often-forgotten third one, Xfce. (There actually are multiple “third” desktops, but let's pretend there's only one for the sake of my catchy intro.)

In this article, I cover Xfce's main features and functions, and why you shouldn't merely dismiss it, because it's a worthy contender to the other more-famous counterparts. Oh, and while you're reading, you might want to listen to the “Third Man Theme”, with its distinctive zither sound (not that it has anything to do with Linux, but it's great music).

Xfce started out in 1996, as a Linux version of CDE (Common Desktop Environment), a commercial desktop still in use today. However, after a dozen years of development and several major versions (Xfce currently is at version 4.4, with version 4.6 in the works), Xfce has diverged from CDE and stands on its own. The first versions were based on the proprietary XForms library (see the What's in a Name? sidebar) and were not open source, but version 3.0 was rewritten from scratch, substituting GTK+ for XForms, and was licensed under the GPL. Version 4.0 saw yet another major upgrade, changing to the GTK+ 2 libraries, also used for GNOME.

As its creator Olivier Fourdan said, Xfce is “designed for productivity”, so “it loads and executes applications fast, while conserving system resources”. With modern hardware, that point may be moot, but Xfce can give new life to older, slower processors or RAM-challenged machines. However, even with the latest CPUs, you might appreciate the extra speed.

All the standard packages included with Xfce (more on this below) were designed with speed and responsiveness in mind, and the rest of the selections also follow suit. For example, instead of other more resource-intensive suites, you get Abiword and Gnumeric—less capable perhaps, but more appropriate given Xfce's goals, and for many users, they're more than sufficient.

Xfce sports no fixed release plan, employing instead the oft-used OSS method of “when it feels like it's ready to be released”. The focus is on quality rather than on fixed timelines. Xfce's maintainers also suggest, tongue in cheek, that they can be hired to produce new versions on demand, but it's going to cost you. At the time of this writing, Xfce stands at version 4.4.3, but version 4.6 is in beta and expected to be ready in early 2009.

Getting Started

You can use Xfce with practically all modern distributions. Some, such as Xubuntu or the Fedora Xfce Spin, come with Xfce as the standard desktop environment. Many others, including OpenSUSE or Slackware, allow you to install Xfce instead of, or in addition to, KDE and GNOME. Generally, you can use a standard package manager to install Xfce. For example, in Ubuntu, you would do sudo apt-get install xubuntu-desktop, and in OpenSUSE, you would do sudo zypper in -t pattern xfce. As always with open source, you can download, compile and configure Xfce yourself; see Resources for more information.

Additionally, the os-cillation Software Center provides a graphic installation wizard to help with compilation and installation, but it can be a long process. You're better off getting a binary package if you can.

Requirements for Xfce are meager—and well below those of KDE and GNOME—meaning you could run it comfortably on a Pentium III at 133MHz, with 64MB of RAM. Of course, a more powerful processor and a larger amount of RAM will enhance the performance. Some users report running Xfce with even lower-end systems, including a Pentium I or just 32MB of memory, but that's probably the absolute bottom.

If you're running Xfce with Xorg 6.8 or above and an appropriate video card, you can enable several graphic effects. First, make sure you enable the Composite extension, by including the Composite option in the /etc/X11/xorg.conf file, as follows:

Section "Extensions"
        Option "Composite" "Enable"