Also see: Best Linux Desktop: Top 10 Candidates
Not too long ago, I talked about how I believe XFCE might very well be the perfect Linux desktop. And while my opinion of XFCE remains overall positive, recently I've been hearing quite a bit of concern over the future of the XFCE desktop.
As a response, I've decided to dig deeper into the idea of XFCE disappearing as a Linux desktop environment. I'll also take time to explore the alternatives and will provide alternative Linux desktop environments that might help make a transition from XFCE, easier.
XFCE development has stagnated?
According to my sources, the last stable release of XFCE was about two years ago. By anyone's time line, that is a long time between stable releases. Bundle this issue with its apparent inability to play nicely with GTK3 friendly items and instead sticking to its older GTK roots. And others users have pointed out that the perceived GTK3 issues are largely with various desktop themes and the "fault" is to be directed at the GNOME project. Long story short, it's a debate showing few signs of being resolved anytime soon.
On the other hand, 2014 has seen updates to features such as the XFCE power manager, a bug fix to be exact. So it's clear the project isn't completely stalled. Instead, it just feels like XFCE is set in their legacy mindset and has little interest in evolving.
Realizing all of this, why would one bother with XFCE then? What are its advantages over other desktops? The selling points from my experience are both powerful and surprisingly simple.
XFCE is easy to customize, lightweight and stable
Without question, XFCE is one of the most customizable desktop environments for the Linux desktop. From icons down to the panels, all are completely "tweakable" to meet the needs of most users. To be fair, though, other desktop environments also meet this set of standards. LXDE and MATE both come to mind. Regardless, I've found my heart has always ended up with XFCE in years past.
This isn't to say that one can't come close to the perfect desktop with one of the other alternatives available. If a customizable desktop is the end goal, LXDE would likely be my next choice, as it shares many of the same features in this area as XFCE. LXDE is designed to be lightweight, offering a minimal desktop experience without forgoing the GUI completely.
The other two big factors I have found are constant with XFCE is that it's both a lightweight desktop, in addition to also being very stable. I've run XFCE on a multitude of distributions and, to date, it has proven to be more stable than any other desktop environment I've used since GNOME 2.
Perhaps the reason for this is due to its lack of rapid development and advancement, which means less breakage or other related surprises. The only way I've found you can really tax your resources with this desktop is to utilize a lot of panel widgets that provide real-time information...or to use a bloated application. However you look at it, XFCE has been a great desktop.
Going forward, you might do well to begin exploring alternative customizable Linux desktops now, rather than waiting to see what XFCE's future holds.
Seeking refuge with new options
If I discovered that XFCE disappeared tomorrow or simply wasn't being updated at all, my first stop is MATE. What I love most about the MATE desktop is that it's a no-frills desktop that provides all the panel features found with GNOME 2, but is still up-to-date and compatible with most Linux distributions.
- Caja – MATE offers its own file manager called Caja. Based on GNOME's Nautilus, I would say the closest comparison would have to be Cinnamon's Nemo file manager.
- Pluma – Speaking as a user who enjoys using Leafpad under my XFCE desktop, I've found that MATE's Pluma text editor meets my needs beyond my expectations. I was also pleased to see that tabbed text editing was made available with this editor.
- Eom – Known affectionately as the "Eye of MATE," this simple image viewer is certainly lightweight enough to meet the needs of a casual MATE user. However it's not really any more compelling than any other simple image viewer. The main advantage here is that this is what MATE provides out of the box.
The above applications, along with a few others, provide the core suite of tools MATE users need to enjoy a fully functional desktop experience. From my perspective, I've found MATE to be heads and shoulders above other desktop environments in terms of stability and ease of use, in addition to being updated on a regular basis.
MATE would be my go-to alternative today, but in the future this may change. Looking at a few years down the road, I'm excited about the prospect of the LXQt desktop environment. In its current state, LXQt brings us the lightweight/modular goodness of LXDE, bundled with Qt-centric controls to make manipulating the desktop experience as simple as possible. Right now, this is an area LXDE is lacking and I believe the Qt component of LXQt could be a nice fix for this problem.
With regard to recommended applications, it's important to remember this desktop environment is still very much a beta project. So when it comes to desktop applications, you could always look to this Razor-qt specific wiki for application suggestions. As a general rule, you might be inclined to use the Qt based software where applicable.
Also, I need to touch on something important. GNOME, KDE and Cinnamon remain solid options for anyone looking for a good desktop Linux experience. All three desktop environments provide tremendous flow and an amazing smoothness when navigating through the desktop space.
The reason I don't recommend any of them as an XFCE alternative is that they simply don't match up to the end user experience. XFCE is lightweight and provides a minimal GUI that provides an easy-to-use desktop without a ton of configuration. For now, sticking with XFCE is still very doable for most folks. However, as things with GTK3 continue to roll out, it's entirely possible we'll see XFCE becoming incompatible to a point where a switch to a new desktop becomes a must.