Before I began my desktop Linux journey, I feared the command line. Now I’m learning to embrace it as a fast, flexible tool that grants you the power to accomplish exactly what you want to do with your computer. And since beginning my desktop Linux journey, I’ve had an aversion to Xfce. You know, that desktop environment with the cute mouse that’s self-described as “visually appealing” and light on system resources. Every time I’ve brushed up against it, I’ve bristled and immediately installed or downloaded an alternative. But opinions can change if you don’t judge a book (or in this case a desktop environment) by its cover.
My Choose Linux co-host Joe Ressington swears by Xfce. He has no interest in eye candy. He simply wants to get his production work done. I also appreciate a distraction-free environment (like elementary OS), but I crave a bit of elegance and visuals that don’t bore me.
Every time I looked at screenshots of Xfce, though — even from the official website — I was reminded of something from the days of Windows 2000. Grey. Archaic. Uninteresting. It struck me as as one of the few alternatives people with anemic PCs are forced to use. MATE is one of those alternatives, but it comes off as sharper and more modern despite also thriving on low-end hardware. Even if it is obsessed with the color green.
This week I finally got worn down, and Joe suggested I install this Manjaro’s flagship edition with Xfce. He promised it boasts the best implementation of Xfce he’s ever seen. I’m not remotely opposed to using Manjaro after having an overwhelmingly positive experience during my Linux Gaming Report, so I took the plunge.
As readers of this column already know, I tend to dive in to a new experience blindfolded — and I definitely don’t read the manual. So once I installed Manjaro with Xfce, I tried to keep my mind open and just start playing.
What I discovered surprised and impressed me, as you probably guessed from the headline!
The Fedora 29 & Vanilla Gnome Comparison
During the Fedora challenge, I threw Fedora 29 Workstation (which ships with vanilla Gnome) on my Dell XPS 13 9365. It’s a 2-in-1 laptop that’s certainly no lightweight, but it’s far from beastly even compared to the XPS 13 9370.Its core specs consist of a 1.3GHz Intel Core i7-7Y75 CPU and 16GB of RAM. More than enough horsepower for Gnome or any other desktop environment. And while my experience was a good one, I couldn’t escape the fact that Gnome felt slightly sluggish on it. Just enough to plant the faintest hint of distraction into my workflow. Maybe after testing dozens of laptops throughout the years, I’m overly sensitive to these things, but that was my honest and personal takeaway.
As such, it made sense to put Manjaro Xfce on the same machine.
Spoiler: Xfce screams on this laptop. App loading times are non-existent. Dragging windows across the screen feels kinda like using an AMD FreeSync monitor. My trackpad is extremely responsive. From a performance perspective? No complaints whatsoever. Also — and this is purely anecdotal until I run benchmarks to back it up — but I swear I’m getting better battery life.
And the low memory footprint is no joke. I launched Firefox and streamed a few trailers on YouTube while simultaneously running a MotionMark benchmark in a second tab. Then I fired up Steam, File Manager, Telegram and LibreOffice Writer and saw only 2.4GB of RAM being used.
Switching over to Pop!_OS with Gnome 3, I see 4GB of RAM in use — running only System Monitor + Firefox with a Messenger tab and my Forbes CMS page open.
Now, I get the “unused RAM is wasted RAM” argument. But it doesn’t change the fact that Xfce feels notably snappier across the board.
Still, this didn’t solve the problem of Xfce looking, well, somewhat dated and boring.
Getting My Hands Dirty
Out of the box, Xfce on Manjaro 18.0.4 is serviceable. The Manjaro team did indeed do a great job fusing some modern elements into it. Notifications are slick, smoothly fading in and out, cascading neatly down the right side of the screen. But the application menu feels cramped, with the categories bumping up against the right edge of the window. The dual panels are nice, but the icons felt too small (even on my 1080p display), and I was sincerely missing my dock.
Here’s one stray observation that may represent Manjaro as a distribution, more than it does Xfce. I’m rarely impressed by anything happening in a Terminal window, but check out how perfectly the colors used in htop blend with the default wallpaper. As I always say, it’s the little things:
There was still work to do, though.
Xfce prides itself on being customizable, and that’s no lie. It asks you to put in the work, but it responds to your every whim. So if you’re willing to experiment and get your hands dirty, you’ll discover a near-limitless well of customization to tailor things exactly to your liking.
Let’s go back to the application menu as a minor example. By pulling up the Menu Editor, I improved its appearance just by flipping which sides the categories and application names appear on. If you wanted to, you could pretty much rearrange every pixel of that thing.
I still found myself missing that Gnome dock and a darker theme. So I figured it was time to start doing what Linux does best: adapting Xfce to my quirky little needs.
Theme & Wallpaper Hunting
Xfce includes a ton of window decorations and desktop themes. More than enough to satisfy different tastes. But I wanted alternatives — and I’m not ashamed to admit I wanted something that invoked that highly readable, silvery macOS vibe without being blatantly Apple-esque. I settled on the excellent PRO-Dark-XFCE-Edition (Version II). Long name, clean and tasteful theme!
As you can see from the screenshot, it manages to blend dark elements with great readability. I loved it. I locked it in by activating it under both desktop “Appearance” and “Window Manager” menus.
After that I stumbled across this sharp Manjaro wallpaper, and removed all traces of green by choosing a white icon for the Applications menu (Whisker menu) by right clicking the icon and changing it under Appearance. Then Xfce’s Terminal emulator got the same treatment.
Things were looking good! Now for a dock. . .
I’ve never gone too deep into customizing a desktop, but I was eager to get started. Manjaro utilizes a top and bottom panel instead of a dock, and that absolutely had to change.
First, as all Arch users suggest, I added AUR (the Arch User Repository) to the Software manager. Then I simply searched for “dock” and started with one I know and love: Plank. Unfortunately, Plank had a tendency to crash when rearranging icons. I wasn’t in the mood to troubleshoot, so I moved on to the next option: Cairo Dock.
I found Cairo Dock to be ridiculously powerful and flexible, but it felt too flashy. Most of the built-in themes reminded me of Windows Vista on steroids, designed by a teenager stuck in the early 2000s.
Third time’s a charm. DockBarX was the winner. It didn’t have an overwhelming amount of options, and the few themes included seemed sensible and not as gimmicky as Cairo Dock. I fired up DockBarX preferences, bumped up its overall size, slapped it into the left center of my display and added the programs I’d use the most. After that, I matched primary and secondary background colors of the dock to match my wallpaper by simply clicking each color and clicking the wallpaper with the color dropper.
Finally, I set my top panel to auto-hide. One less distraction, and in my opinion a resulting desktop that looks as beautiful to my eyes as my daily driver Pop!_OS.
Is Xfce My New Desktop Environment?
All told, this process took a few hours including research and random trial-and-error. Not bad for having never used Xfce and not being overly familiar with Manjaro! At this point, my Xfce desktop looks just as good or better than the Gnome DE I’m accustomed to. And of course it feels dramatically faster and more responsive.
I’m impressed, and I’m glad that pesky co-host of mine kept hounding me to give Xfce a chance. I know it’s was a popular choice for Linux users, but I think the folks behind Xfce may be doing it a disservice by not aggressively highlighting what it’s capable of. I didn’t find a single screenshot on the Xfce homepage that would even tempt me into trying it. And its default implementation on other distros doesn’t exactly get my eyes drooling.
But when you peel away the surface impressions, look beyond that proverbial book cover, Xfce apparently rocks and it shouldn’t be viewed as an archaic-looking desktop suitable only for older hardware. It seems well-suited to just about anyone, provided you’re willing to get your hands dirty and make it your own.
And now I’m faced with a difficult choice: do I throw Xfce on Pop!_OS, or do I just entertain Manjaro Xfce as my new daily driver (after all, it does nail the gaming element)? For now, perhaps both. What a strange, wonderful journey this is.
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