Xfce 4 vs. GNOME 3

Posted by jun auza On 8/12/2011
Boy, Linus really does know how to kick up a storm. The founder of the world's most secure operating system recently demonstrated his expertise in starting flame wars by calling GNOME 3 an 'unholy mess'. Furthermore, he announced that he has switched to Xfce now and wants someone to fork GNOME 2 just to bring sanity back to the penguinian masses.

Today, we'll take a look at how the less popular lightweight desktop environment stacks up against the somewhat contentious GNOME 3 desktop.

It was on our favorite social network Google Plus that the whole shebang began. On a post by Dave Jones, Linus Torvalds chimed in, complaining how much he missed GNOME 2 and that GNOME 3 was an unholy mess. Here’s what he said:

“While you are at it, could you also fork gnome, and support a gnome-2 environment? I want my sane interfaces back. I have yet to meet anybody who likes the unholy mess that is gnome-3.”

Then, he went on to explain what was it about GNOME 3 that really ticked him off:

“Here's an example of "the crazy": you want a new terminal window. So you go to "activities" and press the "terminal" thing that you've made part of your normal desktop thing (but why can't I just have it on the desktop, instead of in that insane "activities" mode?). What happens? Nothing. It brings your existing terminal to the forefront.“

“I'm using Xfce. I think it's a step down from gnome2, but it's a huge step up from gnome3. Really.”

Wow, that’s quite a bold statement to make, but if you’re not a GNOME developer or a fanboy, these statements merely echo the frustration normal users face while adapting themselves to these ‘modern’ interfaces. So, how is Xfce better than GNOME 3? Well, the most appealing thing about Xfce is that it just works.

As ludicrously obvious that assertion might seem, the truth is that GNOME 3, as of now, is far from being a usable desktop on a mass scale. Though it has all the modern features, it doesn’t work with all graphic cards, despite some of them being quite powerful. The relative complexity of the revamped user interface makes it difficult for new users to get used to. For example, the absence of minimize behavior makes things harder for migrating users who’ve used nothing but Windows XP or Mac OSX in the past.

GNOME 3

Xfce on the other hand is quite easy to get used to, even for new users. Nautilus 3 looks good and streamlined but nothing works as fast as Thunar, which is Xfce’s default file manager. Even GNOME 2 and KDE users will find Thunar to be easy to use.

Xfce 4.8

GNOME 3 and Xfce both use the GTK+ toolkit but differ quite a lot in basic features. When installed, Xfce will take up less than 100MB of your hard disk space, which makes it incredibly lightweight. X Window manager for GNOME 3 is the contentious and buggy Mutter, while Xfce relies on the mature Xfwm4.

While GNOME 3 does boast of popular set of default applications, Xfce sticks with their simple-yet-functional alternatives. Here’s a comparison of the default applications in GNOME 3 and Xfce 4:


As you can see, Xfce’s default set of applications is not as popular as its GNOME counterpart. However, that doesn’t in any way mean that those applications are of lower quality. In fact, Midori is gaining quite a lot of popularity among many Linux users. The important thing is that all of Xfce’s applications are quite stable and mature that makes the desktop ready to use once installed. On the downside, the lack of modern features like shiny desktop effects and application search might turn off a few users. Also, Xfce’s applications are not as feature-loaded as GNOME 3‘s applications are.

So, is Xfce better than GNOME 3? Yes, at the moment it is much better than GNOME 3. But again, it’s not something that new users would love to try. If you’re a new user, there’s nothing better than sticking to GNOME 2. If you are bored with it and are looking for something that is more modern and funky, then KDE 4 is all you want. In my opinion, the recent version of KDE – that is KDE 4.7 – is more stable than both Unity and GNOME 3 combined.

If you’re a longtime Linux user, then Xfce will give you the snappiest desktop experience you can dream of. For users stuck with low-spec computers, we’ve already written articles about lightweight Linux distributions and some of the fastest X window managers for Linux that you should check out.

Do let us know what you think of Xfce 4 via comment. Is it better than GNOME 3 or worse?


Written by: Abhishek, a regular TechSource contributor and a long-time FOSS advocate.

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