Xfce has a long history of being the third most popular Linux desktop. For over a decade, it trailed behind GNOME and KDE. Then, a few years ago, during the revolts against GNOME and Unity, it became a major contender, and ever since has consistently polled a strong second to KDE. Nothing had changed in Xfce, but users' search for alternatives made them appreciate Xfce in a way they never had before.
The secret of Xfce's appeal? Asking around, I conclude that there are at least seven reasons:
Xfce has a layout that users on all operating systems have been using for over two decades: a menu, a panel, and a workspace for icons and open windows. In the past, it had a few peculiarities, such as its method for adding icons, but in general, it looks immediately familiar, especially to the many who preferred the discontinued GNOME 2. This familiarity vividly contrasted with the innovations being introduced on other major desktops between 2008 and 201over1, and came as an obvious relief.
Xfce sometimes benefits from its reputation for being a lightweight desktop. However, today, it is more often -- and accurately -- regarded as striking a balance between lightweight graphical interfaces like LXDE and feature-rich desktops like MATE and Cinnamon. The project web page, for example, describes Xfce's goal as being "fast and low on system resources, while still being visually appealing and user friendly."
In order to be lightweight, desktops often sacrifice customization. LXDE, for example, has options for customizing the panel and general appearance, and little else.
The current edition of Xfce, however, has eighteen categories in its Setting Manager -- only two less than the far more full-featured GNOME. Customization is a consistent priority for Linux desktop users, and Xfce meets that priority reasonably well by any standard, and far more so than most desktops categorized as lightweight.One or two of Xfce's customizations, such as the notification positioning, are not even available in KDE, the most customizable desktop choice.
GNOME and KDE are not just graphical interfaces -- they are entire ecosystems of applications and utilities. This philosophy was popular in the mid-1990s when they both began, and has the advantage of allowing applications to piggyback on top of the desktop environment. However, the ecosystem approach encourages eye-candy, and can mean a long list of dependencies.
By contrast, Xfce includes only a handful of utilities, not straying far from the basic purpose of providing a place to launch applications and display windows. The result is less to learn, and, often, less to install. As a popular explanation says, Xfce "gets out of the way."
Although Xfce has few utilities, Thunar is by far the standout. Like Xfce in general, Thunar is praised for being lightweight. Many also praise its carefully selected features, which include menu items for opening a terminal, creating a document, and opening the current directory's parent, as well as a high degree of customization.
Nor is Thunar's reputation harmed by its continued use of a full menu at a time when other file managers have reduced the top-level menu to a single entry.
After Thunar, the most popular feature in Xfce is the default bottom panel, which is used as a launcher for favorites. The bottom panel is nothing that cannot be duplicated in many Linux desktops, but it evokes the sophistication of OS X, and similar panels are common in attempts to innovate with other desktops. It probably doesn't hurt, either, that the bottom panel is where many users continue to believe that Unity's launcher should be.
Despite the occasional outburst of cooperation, neither GNOME nor KDE runs each others applications particularly well. Both take longer to open each others applications, for example. As a result, users tend to stay with the applications designed for their chosen desktop environment, to the extent that the other could almost be another operating system.
In comparison, Xfce runs both GNOME and KDE apps only slightly slower than they run natively. This ability makes Xfce the choice for those who prefer to choose their preferred applications by merit rather than by the desktop for which they are designed.
The ironic part of Xfce's current popularity is that the project appears to be doing nothing that it has not done for years. Its goals have not changed, and the project rarely communicates with the public unless it has a new release.
However, you might say that circumstances have caught up with Xfce. Because other desktops alienated users, users in recent years finally gave it the consideration that it deserved -- and, not unexpectedly, liked what they saw.
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