In 1996, Olivier Fourdan started work on XFCE (XForms Common Environment) using the XForms toolkit. In 1998, he released XFCE 2, with its own window manager called Xfwm. A request to include XFCE in Red Hat Linux was denied, because XForms was licensed as "for personal use only." In 1999, Olivier Fourdan started work on version 3, using the GTK+ toolkit, and released Xfce under GPL. Since XForms was no longer used, he changed the name to Xfce, which means nothing in particular. The nickname for Xfce is "Cholestrol Free Desktop Enviroment," which sometimes appears in the documentation.
The design goals of Xfce are to produce a lightweight, modern, easy-to-use desktop environment. Consequently, Xfce is one of the alternatives for machines with modest resources. Xfce will run on systems with as little as 256 megabytes of memory, although 512 megabytes gives more room for running applications.
The default window manager for Xfce is still Xfwm, although Xubuntu now ships with LightDM as a window manager. The screenshots on this page are from Xubuntu, but with a standard Xfce desktop, and not the Xubuntu desktop. The following screenshot is of the Xfce desktop, without any open windows:
The mouse icon in the left corner to the task bar opens the application launcher menu as shown below:
By sliding the mouse to the bottom of the screen, a application launcher panel appears, as shown below:
The applications launched from the lower application launcher panel are a matter of configuration. When there is no link, Xfce prompts you with a configuration menu for that link. Xfce allows you to configure almost everything from the layout of the task bar, the location of the task bar, applications launched from the lower launcher panel, and more. To configure the desktop, you can either click on the Systems Manager icon in the lower launcher, or open the application launcher and click on Settings -> Setting Manager. Following is a snapshot of the Settings Manager window:
Besides the setting applications in this window, the Settings menu option contains links to many other application settings. The best way to see what configurations options are available is to explore each configuration application. The Panel applications allow you to modify the task bar (Panel 1), and the application launcher panel (Panel 2).
Xfce has another interesting feature. Each window contains an additional window management icon - the arrow. Clicking the arrow shrinks the window to just the title bar. Clicking the arrow again, exposes the window.
By default, Xfce displays icons for two virtual workspaces in the title bar. The Workspaces application allows you can configure up to 99 virtual workspaces. The problem is that you quickly run out of space in the task bar. When you right-click on a window's title bar, a pop-up menu provides the option to another workspace.
Netbook users should be aware that windows opened by applications, such as Preferences, may extend below the bottom of the screen. There is way to expose the hidden portion of the window. Also Xfce does not provide a means to optimize the space available to a window as does the Plasma Netbook Workspace for the KDE Project, or the Unity desktop.
The Getting Started with Xfce page at xfce.org provides more information about using the Xfce desktop.