How to: Install XFCE (Xubuntu) on Ubuntu Linux

I’ve tried for months to get along with the standard desktop choices for Ubuntu 11.04, but none of the “big 3” are doing anything close to what I want:

  1. Unity crashes. A lot. And I don’t like having to click on an application icon multiple times to get a display of all open windows and then have to click on the window I want. For example, if you have multiple browser windows open, it just seems to pick the first one or a random one (as opposed to the last window of that application which was open) when you click on on the Unity icon for the app. And that sucks. I do like the menu integration into a single panel to save vertical space – but asides from that it’s just subpar.
  2. Gnome 2 doesn’t frickn work properly anymore and also crashes a lot (far worse than ‘back in the day’, and Deskbar doesn’t work anymore either), and finally
  3. KDE3 renders fonts really badly (yes, I did turn on and experiment with the sub-pixel hinting options) and although it can look quite nice, it just feels like a bodge. I spent hours trying to configure it properly and it was never as good as stock Gnome even after all the extra effort.

So, what options are left? Well, there’s LXDE (the Lightweight X Desktop Environment), and there’s XFCE (which Linus Torvalds recently switched to because he’s hating the desktop brokenness as well). I installed LXDE on my work laptop earlier, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with it which couldn’t be fixed up , but I installed XFCE earlier on the assumption that Mr. Torvalds knows what he’s talking about – and you know what? He does…

Some notes for if you decide to try out LXDE

In LXDE wireless networking doesn’t work right off the bat, so you might want to grab a copy of wicd before you plunge headfirst. Also, compositing isn’t natively supported with just LXDE, so you’ll also want a copy of xcompmgr, which you should kick off like this:

xcompmgr -c -f -F &

You can man xcompmgr once it’s installed to get all the switches, but for this example it just fades windows in and out nicely – and actually looks rather nice (not to mention blazingly fast).

I like LXDE, and if XFCE didn’t exist I’d use it without hesitation and be perfectly happy with it. Only XFCE does exist – and I choo-choo-choose that – at least for now. I also like the huge range of packages available for any *buntu, so that keeps me from jumping ship entirely. At the end of the day, it’s all up to personal choice about what features you absolutely must have, what features you would like, and your own personal preferences.

Step 1 of 1 – Install xubuntu-desktop

If you like dockbars you can use docky with XFCE without any arguments, but I kinda prefer a bottom ‘window-icon’ panel (ala Gnome 2) so I’ve just set things up that way on mine. And the entire thing goes on fine with the following simple command:

sudo apt-get install xubuntu-desktop

It’ll drag in a whole heap of other dependencies, but it’ll all install nicely, at which point you just need to log out and log back in selecting Xubuntu Session as the desktop environment to use. Wireless networking worked straight away with no hassle for me, but in all fairness to LXDE, I only installed the LXDE package (and its immediate dependencies), and not the lubuntu-desktop package which (may) have straightened all that out.

The end result

After looking through the themes, adding a few bits and pieces to the top panel, and creating a separate bottom panel for the window-icons, this is what I’ve ended up with:

r3dux XFCE Desktop
First draft XFCE desktop - click for larger image.

Honestly though, I just couldn’t go on using a desktop environment that would crash if not once per day, then many times per day. I mean, really – WTF is with that? Why would you even ship a desktop windowing environment in that state? Since I actually like to get some work done and not have to be killing and relaunching processes all the time, XFCE is officially doing it for me at the moment. So no more unity –replace, s’long killall nautilus and sayonara panel has stopped responding – it’s time to be able to actually concentrate on getting some work done.

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