XFCE was probably the biggest catalyst in getting to break past my shell in Linux and learn more about tons of deep ends of it. Before then I just wanted Ubuntu vanilla with no effort put in, but XFCE showed me that curiosity is a virture in Linux, not a waste of time. And what better DE to start than one known for its customization and otherwise simplicity?
XFCE is a desktop environment conceived by Olivier Fourdan in 1996 as a port of the Common Desktop Environment to Linux. XFCE quickly became its own thing and now is one of the most well-known DEs across Unix as a whole. It is designed around the Unix philosophies of modularity and re-usability - it makes an effort to just be made of modular components that, combined, make the full DE (I will dispute this later). It does this while being fast and lightweight but still maintaining user friendliness and visual appeal.
Standard warning that I'm my own person whine whine whine I need to make a standardized message for these disclaimers. Don't DM me whining that I dared to use something that isn't your favourite tool (those who im talking to, you know who you are, actually you probably don't seeing you tend to lack self awareness). That being said I am grateful for every bit of criticism and feedback I get.
Also worth noting that I have tested and am testing on a 2015 Asus Vivobook E403SA with a quad-core Intel Pentium N3700 @ 2.4000 GHz that used Xubuntu, and a 2006 Dell Vostro 1520 with a Core 2 Duo T6670 @ 2.201 GHz running Artix XFCE Runit. In this case I chose not to use an Ubuntu-based system alone so I could test something regarding resource usage, as well as Xubuntu making its own edits that change it from vanilla XFCE.
This isn't gonna be a good start. XFCE can actualy be lightweight, we get:
470 on bootup from Xubuntu, 290 from Artix Xfce
However, it balloons heavily in resource usage once themed. I initially thought that it was something on Xubuntu's end but it turns out that it really just is XFCE not handling this well. This ends up with XFCE taking more resources than it otherwise would and bumps it up to a mid-light DE instead of being ultra light as it is before themeing (and believe me, you want to theme XFCE). @ XFCE devs: Is this by design or is this a memory leak?
700 on bootup from Xubuntu, 421 from Artix Xfce
This leaves XFCE at midweight imo. Depending on the distribution, this can balloon up to mid-heavy or even heavy. For what it provides, XFCE really should be lighter than it is. This resource usage imo is probably its biggest drawback.
XFCE is not great in this regard and is one of the weakest DEs I've used in terms of it. It fails to go above and beyond in giving a simple yet powerful user experience.
The panel being on the top is something I'm honestly a very big fan of. It has just about everything someone could need in terms of widgets and applets and you can add what you need. The Whisker Menu is the perfect menu imo - it is the most intuitive and attractive of any out there. The options you get with it are insane and make it quite good overall.
The default apps, however, aren't very good. Almost all of them lack features and aren't as functional as alternatives. A good example is Mousepad, which is outdone by Leafpad for GTK and Featherpad for Qt. Parole isn't as good as VLC or MPV, Midori's adblocking is broken else it'd be one of the best browsers out there, etc.. There's one exception to this in Thunar, which is one of the best file managers out there. Even then it lacks proper search functions. Fortunately there's a ton of other GTK based apps for these types of things so it doesn't end up being a huge issue, but these bring in larger dependencies and bloat up the desktop. I was previously forgiving for this, but on further look it significantly hinders functionality.
Poor defaults are an issue too. Not having hte Whisker Menu be hotkey'd to the Windows button is absolutely atrocious. Same deal with line wrapping not being on by default in Mousepad. In general, Xfce requires configuration that MATE, KDE, etc. just don't.
Overall XFCE is a mixed bag in funtionality. It keeps it simple but it has much behind it and most importantly, it works really well for the most part. The poor default apps, however, heavily hold it back
XFCE is quite popular amongst ricers and it's not hard to see why. It is one of hte most flexible and extensible DEs out there and has unparalleled power to become whatever you want it to be. Let's take a dive in:
However, customization isn't quite as easy as you'd hope. Themes, for instance, require some CLI work as most file managers make going to hidden directories hellish. Why should I need to just to get some themes? The WM menu has a ton of options and it's intimidating to newcomers. Compare this to MATE, which has a GUI for just about every customization need out there. It's just not as seamless as you'd want it to be.
That being said, don't get me wrong - it's still great for customization. It has a ton of optionsout of the box that almost give the power of setting everything up from scratch on your own. If you want to really change your workflow radically but still wish for the ease of a DE, XFCE is the best choice.
Let's face it - XFCE by default is ugly. Graybird is not a good looking theme and Adwaita isn't really much better. However, don't give up - XFCE's minimalistic approach is fundamentally sound and it has tons in the way of themeing that is super easy to do.
To theme it, just download the theme zip from wherever you wish (xfce-look.org has the most themes), however you wish (you can use the Pling Store AppImage but its pretty bloated, just go to their site and download the zip) and extract it into the matching directory, then change the appropriate setting:
This leads to XFCE imo being one of theb est looking DEs out there. You can get absolutely amazing results. For instance, I use Arc Darkest Solarized.
Other cool themes would be Adapta, the Arc series (past just Darkest Solarized), Nord, Adapta and Breeze. While the default looks might take a bit off of XFCE, it really is one of the most beautiful DEs out there.
But will it say that way? Xfce is switching to client-side decorations in a month or two with Xfce 4.16. To give you an idea, this is what that looks like:
This shit looks like a discount GNOME at this point. Why would I want that? MATE and Cinammon will now far outclass Xfce in looks, and there's nothing that can be done really. So yeah, Xfce's beauty is a thing of the past.
In all honesty, I was way too positive with Xfce initially. It's definitely not a bad experience in the least, but compared to alternatives in MATE and Cinammon, it really begins to not hold up. It still does look very beautiful as of now, it functions quite well with nothing excessive and it's still extremely customizable. It does follow the Unix philosophy of doing one thing and doing it well across its components for the most part.
However, I can't help but feel that it's fallen behind. Probably the most notable thing is resource usage. Xfce uses far too many resources for what it provides - it's really sad when Xubuntu used more RAM for me than vanilla Ubuntu with GNOME. It also didn't do well in battery at all. This is exacerbated by the themeing cost - I don't know why themeing it causes it to use so much more but it does and it sucks. It doesn't help that Xfce, even if that weight was theoretically less, still has major issues. The default apps are awful and just are not acceptable for daily use. They all fall well behind MATE and Cinammon's apps. In addition, a lot of its customization is really out of the awy - you will have to get in with the CLI, and at that point you're wondering why you didn't just use another competitor.
Compare this to MATE. MATE I've found to be lighter, as you can read in the article I'll link at the bottom of it. Talking online, most people at the least find MATE to be about as light these days as Xfce, with very few people saying that MATE is notably heavier nowadays. MATE is much easier to customize - there's a GUI for just about everything you need and even pre-loaded layouts in MATE Tweak in the case the default one doesn't fit your taste and you want to resolve it the easy way. MATE also has default apps that are far better htan what Xfce has to offer - Pluma is a great editor, Caja actually is a functional FM, etc.. MATE isn't also about to be screwed over by awful client-side decorations that make it look like GNOME. At this point, why would someone not go for MATE over Xfce?
Overall, I can't rate Xfce well. Its issues just put it beihnd what its reputation is. It gets a lot of shilling ut doesn't live up to it when you look into it. I really can't recommend Xfce in 2020 anymore and it's about to get a lot worse, so I'd do yourself a favour and stick to MATE instead.
On a final note, check out MATE. It's quite similar to XFCE but has many different details that make overall its own DE. ATM I believe MATE to be the better DE, as you can read about here. tl;dr XFCE has worse default apps, less obvious customization and it should be using less resources than MATE for it, not more, whic I found it to do.