KDE versus XFCE

Perhaps no surprise, but KDE, billed as a fully-featured desktop environment, comes out on top in my comparison with XFCE. My test was not intentional, but just happened.

Experimenting with the seriously “not-for-noobs” Arch Linux distro, when I first installed it, I chose XFCE, since I am using Gnome (Ubuntu & Mint) on other PCs, and wanted to try something different. The notion that XFCE was “lightweight” also seemed to be interesting.

I installed Arch without tremendous difficulty; the wiki and Beginners’ Guide are very good and I was able to get help in the forum when needed. If you “RTFM” and are not afraid of the command line, Arch is quite manageable.

Using XFCE as a desktop, I found a few challenges:

1) I could not shutdown the PC from the desktop environment. That is a root privilege, and I had already learned the CL syntax “sudo shutdown (-r) now” quite well. With XFCE, I had to change my sudoers file to permit myself, as a mere desktop user, to perform this important administrative chore. I did my “visudo sudoers,” added the necessary line, and chalked it up to The Arch Way – by which I mean that every goddam thing can only happen with all sorts of under-the-hood tinkering.

2) Logging into XFCE at bootup required an extra tool, a so-called “Desktop Manager” or more accurately, a login manager. In keeping with a minimalist approach, I chose SLIM. Once again, with some tweaking of rc.conf and .xinitrc, SLIM was enabled, handled my login smoothly and transparently handed off the session to XFCE.

3) Fonts in XFCE are not as smooth and pretty as I was used to in Gnome/Ubuntu. Per the XFCE wiki:

Fonts play a huge part in GUI performance. With all of the font smoothing, hinting and rendering turned on, you may notice significant latency when menus or dialog boxes appear. When you turn all of these off, menus and dialog boxes will appear much faster (snappy in fact). Scrolling will also improve in web browsers, text editors, and terminal emulators.

In other words, one should not expect pretty fonts in XFCE. I think that’s what that means. Fair enough.

A digression here on “lightweight desktop.” Just what does that mean? It certainly means a smaller size to the package. XFCE is about 15MB, while KDE is 210MB. That is a factual Wikipedia comparison. And if room on one’s hard drive (or relevant partition) is an issue, okay. But, XFCE claims that “lightweight” also means “faster.” Sorry, I don’t see it, in comparison with KDE on the same machine.

4) Menu Favorites. Mint spoiled me with a one-click way to put favorite applications up front in a Favorite section of the menu. I followed the XFCE wiki on this, asked in the forum, and just could not make it happen. Not a deal-breaker, but I just couldn’t do something I liked.

5) Mouse-ability. Im XFCE, I was forever clicking and snapping and trying vainly to grab the corner of a window to re-size. It would take me 4 or 5 tries.

6) Conky. I discovered a neat desktop add-on called Conky. It runs in the background and displays all sorts of neat stuff (customizable, of course): Time, Weather, and lots of geeky system-status items. It’s very cool. But was always flaky in XFCE, and would not auto-start when the desktop launched. I ultimately resorted to a clunky workaround script that started it after a 5 second delay.


After the Menu Favorites fiasco, I decided to continue my learning and experimentation with Arch, and I tore down the XFCE desktop. I went back to every file: sudoers, .xinitrc, rc.conf, that I had changed to run XFCE, and deleted all references to it, essentially bringing the PC back to a plain-vanilla command-line state. (Not quite, the X environment was still functioning and needed no changes. In fact, my applications like Conky and Firefox were still installed too.)

I used pacman to install KDE, which took some time, as it’s a bulky package. (Actually I installed a “full” package which had over 700MB worth of files, so I am not sure what the earlier size comparison, per Wikipedia, is based on.)

What happened?

1) I could shut down from KDE without any under-the-hood, CL tinkering.

2) Login was automatically handled by KDM without any fuss.

3) The KDE fonts, menus, and desktop look smooth, pretty, and modern.

4) Menu Favorites are a one-click option.

5) Mouse-ability. Whatever quirkiness that was afflicting my mouse has disappeared, and it now operates as I intuitively expect it to.

6) Conky runs on startup.

All of this should be taken in perspective. That is, I am not a highly-skilled user. I was able to install Arch Linux in one day (several hours), but I am surely in the least-skilled quartile of the Arch Linux community. That means that some things on XFCE that I could not figure out (Menu Favorites) and other things that I found tricky (setting up SLIM as a daemon), many other, skilled Linux users might not have a problem with. Also, since XFCE bills itself as lightweight, and explicitly tells the user that there’s a trade-off with fonts and prettiness, that’s fair too.

I am not sure what to make of the performance issue. All the apps, and Firefox in particular, seemed to drag. I just opened up FF here on KDE, and it ran fine. An obvious possibility for the sluggish performance I perceived on XFCE is “user error.” I don’t know, but the same user got KDE running along quite snappily.

So there it is, for this user, and other users of comparable skill level, embark on XFCE as a learning exercise if you like, on a spare PC or whatever. But as a primary work environment, if the PC is to used daily, then I would recommend KDE or Gnome. (Much more has been written about Gnome vs. KDE, but all would agree that both are fully-featured desktops. Right now, at this moment, I am a little more excited about KDE, but that comparison would be a different post.)