If there is a desktop environment that I always somehow evaded, it’s XFCE. I’ve always thought that I had my DEs well categorized – Unity was awesome, but misunderstood and limited to Ubuntu, Gnome 2 / MATE was/is featureful, but it’s widgets and applets crash constantly, LXDE brought new life for computers with less than 512MB RAM, KDE was bloated and Gnome 3 was meant for the weird unfulfilled future, where all laptops sport a touchscreen and GNU/Linux has great drivers. In the last couple of years, these categories got mixed up and often switched entirely and we’ve got a bunch of new and exciting DEs waiting just a few keystrokes away from our computers.
XFCE is not exciting. It’s not full of modern features, sensibilities and most importantly compromises. It’s a Windows 2000 of a GNU/Linux world. Stable, reliable, It may not look like much (although /r/unixporn might disagree), but if you spend some time and configure it to your liking, it’s worth it.
I haven’t spent much time tweaking and enjoying XFCE in Xubuntu 19.04, as I’ve encountered a strange problem with it on my Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon (3rd Gen). I get random freezes of the whole system, forcing me to shut down the laptop by long-pressing the on/off button. I’ve looked into the logs and found nothing obvious, tried the magic sysrq button combinations to no avail, even wrote down all the activities, during which I experienced the freezing. Nothing. My question in askubuntu forum remained unanswered and I gave up. I don’t blame Xubuntu, nor XFCE though. It seems like I’m the only person in the world with this issue, and most other users seem very please with the experience. I will try not to have my review clouded by this strange curse and focus on other aspects of this distro flavor.
The out-of-the-box experience
The default look of the distro is quite spartan. You get a thin bar at the top, couple of icons on the desktop and inoffensive background image. The whole desktop is quite lightweight.
What’s not so spartan is the apps selection – you’ve got the full LibreOffice suite, Gimp, bunch of GTK apps shared with Ubuntu Mate, such as Engrampa archive manager, MATE Calculator and Atril Document viewer. I can safely recommend most of them as a good variants of common tasks, except for Atril, as it doesn’t have proper annotation support. Annotations, that show up perfectly in viewers such as Evince show only the color highlighting, without the note itself.
The only other annoyance that the default behavior brings is the lack of super-key launcher shortcut. Most people I know, including myself are used to just pressing the super (“Windows”) key and tapping away in the search bar to launch applications. In Xubuntu, the default shortcut for Whisker launcher is Ctrl + Esc. Fortunately, the change to the Super key is pretty trivial.
Apart from that, there is the usual – an image viewer, which lacks the ability to save edits of the images, but can play animated gifs; a terminal emulator, Simple scan, Parole media player (with GStreamer backend) and an optical media burning app.
Customization and features
XFCE is eerily similar to the good old Gnome 2 both in it’s 2000s look and feel, and it’s panel management. You can create panels and add various widgets to them. What is different, though, is that I haven’t experienced any crashes or moving applets in XFCE, while they plagued me in both Gnome 2 and it’s contemporary MATE offspring. Even though the whole XFCE is built up from various pieces, they all seem to fit together pretty well.
Of course, you can also use GTK themes to further customize the appearance, but what I’ve tried didn’t look quite right and due to frequent freezes, I gave up on tuning up the looks.
One thing, that really captured my attention in Thunar (XFCE’s file manager) was the ability to set up custom actions, depending on the selected file types. As I often use gimp with many layers created from various pictures, using the example action, I’ve promptly put together a simple, but useful new custom action – Open in Gimp as layers.
Xubuntu 19.04 is a good distro that might not appeal to many new users, but it’s got a stable userbase, which finds in it precisely what they look for. It’s stable to the point of dullness, reliable and once you get accustomed to it’s retro look and feel, it’s crazy fast. The lack of animation and advanced compositing makes all the controls and buttons feel much more immediate. Often, I caught myself believing, that the window I just killed closed a couple ms before I even hit the button. It feels faster and lighter than MATE, while being more consistent than LXDE. It succeeded in convincing me, that there is a place for it in the GNU/Linux ecosystem and I wish it will keep on slowly chugging along like the steam locomotive it is.