Xfce 4 vs. GNOME 3

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.


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.


  1. Just like Linus I also dislike GNOME 3 and Unity a lot. But I didn't go with Xfce since I find it to offer too little. I ended up trying KDE 4.7 and in the end liking it a whole lot, so I guess I'll just stay with KDE for a while.

  2. Ooohhh, Gnome3 has bugs, WTF!!

    Like Linus himself would put it: if it has bugs report them and help fix them instead of complaining about them, or complain to your video card manufacturer for making shitty drivers and keeping them closed.

    Gnome devs know there are problems with some video drivers and cards, that's what fallback mode is for. No mention about the fallback mode though.

    I find it very usable, not perfect, but I use it everyday because I like it better than Gnome2. I have yet to read a good and comprehensive complain.

  3. I enjoyed your post.

    I've been running GNOME3 for a couple of months on ArchLinux, and I do agree that it's a little buggy and it doesn't provide enough customization options. However, I think that people are too quick to conclude that XFCE4 is much better than GNOME3.

    I find that the default setup for XFCE4 is usually ugly, and for me, an XFCE4 setup requires a lot of tweaking to get it usuable. One area where GNOME3 is a lot better than XFCE4 is in desktop effects. I am a big Compiz fan because I find its scale and expo plugins to greatly enhance my productivity. Setting up Compiz in XFCE4 can be a real pain sometimes. GNOME3 has a nice, scale-like effect running out of the box with simply pressing the meta (windows) key.

    I personally think that KDE 4.6/7 is a much better alternative for those looking to abandon GNOME3. Personally, I really like Unity (I'm sure I'm in the minority) because I find it offers most of what GNOME3 tries to offer while providing much better customization options. I also heavily prefer how the Unity dock is quickly available by moving the mouse towards it, rather than having to press meta to get to the dock in GNOME3.

  4. "Like Linus himself would put it: if it has bugs report them and help fix them instead of complaining about them..."

    The problem is Gnome3 is inherently bad for some people, me included. It isn't a matter of bugs, but the total vision of the desktop experience. It just doesn't click with me.

    Xfce is like a poor man's Gnome2.x, and it can be made fairly flashy with some creative addons. It works, and it works in the method I prefer. I'd rather Gnome stayed with the 2.x format, but since they didn't, Xfce is a suitable replacement.

  5. Come on guys, why should we listen to what Linus uses? Is it just because, he is the father of the System's core? When KDE4 is released, he switched to Gnome. Now, when Gnome3 is relased, he switches to XFCE. What will happen if XFCE5 is relased? ;-)
    As a developer, he should stick to one desktop of his liking and try to improve it ... just my 2 cents!

  6. thanks for the articleWhich Linux distro you are using? I would like to try as I have the same problem?

  7. I also like Unity, but I guess I'm not a 'typical' Linux user. What I think a big mistake has been is the lack of a kind of step-by-step walkthrough for new users whose graphic cards don't support it. A lot of people end up looking at a white screen and have no idea why or what to do. Unity 2D should be the default install that's followed by a walkthrough testing Unity 3D's compatibility.

  8. Never cared for Gnome. Used to love KDE until it got so busy. I don't need a busy desktop. I prefer nimble and quick. I've been using Xfce and LXDE for quite some time now and for me at least, this is living. I get to my applications fast and my desktop doesn't slow down myself or my systems. I realize that some folks like the oooo and ahhh of desktop eye candy (I too went through that phase) but I'll stick with the principle of KISS.

  9. Unity is not that bad, and I do prefer it to GnomeShell, the glossy front end to Gnome3. But like GnomeShell, Unity inherits some of the design flaws that are in Gnome3, like no reboot option and no way to change/install themes!

    Linus is entitled to his opinion and as the "father of the System's core" he does carry some weight. He moved from KDE4 because his distro fo choice at the time was Fedora and in his words, they forced it upon him. KDE4 has matured a lot since then, and 4.7 is a good release, give Gnome3 some time and I'm sure that the Gnome devs will iron out the bugs and quirks.

  10. As has been said many time Gnome 3 and Unity are leaps, not steps, backwards in usability.

    It's good that someone of Linus' stature is pointing this out.

  11. Problems with GNOME 3 are not just that it has bugs, but that its interface design gets in users' way. Its fallback mode is an all or nothing solution. I would like it better if I could choose which of its features I want to use and integrate them with the pre-existing design.

    Not liking Xfce because its default setup is ugly is as bogus as reviews of distributions that rate them poorly because of the look of the wallpaper and icons. On the other hand, when you excuse GNOME's lack of customization features while discounting Xfce's is hardly fair. At least Xfce CAN be customized. Xfce clearly has an advantage here, even if it is not as customizable as GNOME 2.

    KDE 3 was more customizable than GNOME 2, far more customizable. You could have it configured like a Mac, like Windows, or like a minimalist's window manager. You could turn off icons, remove all panels, even remove borders and title bars from windows and operate it entirely from the keyboard with custom window placement options and focus behavior... if you wanted to.

    KDE had a particular interface design that was abandoned with version 4. GNOME 2 followed roughly the same interface design. Linus switched from KDE to GNOME to keep his desktop experience roughly the same. His switching to Xfce was for the same reason. How many projects does he need to involve himself in to have the desktop of his choice? And what makes anyone think that by getting involved in a project's development that they will be able to steer it in any given direction? How much influence is an unhappy newcomer to a development project going to have on its design? Maybe Linus could walk in and immediately have a lot of influence, but how many of the rest of us are the lead developers of the core of the OS?

    Xfce is modular. You can use as much or as little of it as you like. You're not stuck with its default applications. GNOME applications blend into it very well due to both being GTK-based and Xfce support for GNOME services, but QT and KDE applications can blend nearly as seamlessly due to Xfce support for KDE services and with some careful QT tweaking.

    I was not happy switching to Xfce at first, because of a lack of good support for Compiz and a derth of Xfce-specific applets. I quickly learned that GNOME applets work just fine in Xfce and that Compiz wasn't really buying me much real function. Then I started to appreciate Xfce's lean, modular approach and its snappy behavior. I can hardly imagine not using it now, unless its development team gets infected with the same redesign disease plaguing KDE and GNOME.

  12. "Linus (...) The founder of the world's most secure operating system..." LOL WUT? Some guy named De Raadt might have something to say here.

  13. Switched yesterday from Gnome3 to Xfce on my home server.
    Gnome 3 is something unbeliveable: never seen a so big waste of resources.

    I stayed in gnome 3 fallback mode for a while... but yesterday I switched to XFCE. Now I have to fight a little with theme and windows decorator and compiz and... but at least is something usable.

  14. Okay, I've read enough -- it's a revolution. That's what it is. Can't be helped. That's what makes everything great! You would think there's only one side of a coin but the truth is, there is the other side and some other sides in between. I have to love this -- it means we're moving somewhere -- good or bad it totally depends on the individual users.

    For the complaints -- if it were me, I'd treat it as a challenge to improve and innovate. Notice Apple, they always, always produce products -- are they better than the competition -- no. are they bug free -- no -- but still, lot's of people patronize Apple products...

    I admire the dev teams of Unity and Gnome 3. Brave and visionary, with all these comments, it's hard to maintain composure and focus.

    More power to these brave developers and visionaries. Hope they continue to innovate and produce products for our benefit.

  15. "The founder of the world's most secure operating system recently demonstrated his expertise"

    ...really? Most secure OS in the world? I must have missed the memo.

    I admit that compared to windows with a somewhat knowledgeable user it is probably more secure, but most secure would have to be OpenBSD or a derivative of.

  16. I dislike that Gnome 3. I preffer unity. UNITY FTW

  17. Come on people. Linus is right. Gnome3 is a unholy mess.
    I gave it a spin and without some clever add ons it is totally useless
    as a developers platform. Too many clicks to do simple tasks.
    How is that a improvement? I find Gnome2.xx to be buggy at times too.
    Desktop icons disappear for example. Compiz can be buggy as hell. With
    Xfce and a few tweaks it is quite a nice desktop.
    Xfce applications work fine with few bugs.
    Besides, there are options for changing prefered applications
    if I am not happy with Xfce defaults.

  18. Switched to Xfce also; in this instance I agree with Linus! Grabbed Xubuntu and set it up, didn't take long to have it working the way I'm used to. Now I can get back to swearing at my code instead of my desktop! :)

    Seriously, if you're a code cutter, GNOME 3, and Unity don't cut it!

  19. I didn't mind Gnome3, but then again all I ever did was a web browser, email, and to open a terminal where I did all of my work.

    It was when I put in a 2nd video card and Gnome3 would no longer run that I installed Xfce. It was a little bit of googling to figure out how to map my keyboard shortcuts, but now I am back in business.

    Xfce may not be the "Coolest" desktop environment, but when you are someone who hooks up multiple monitors just to have more visible terminal sessions open at once, you aren't really worried about looking "Cool"

  20. Unity + Gnome 3 = suckers.
    Fluxbox forever!

  21. I tend to use gnome3, even though what bothers me about it is its huge memory use, and requirement for a video card with 3d support.
    for more memory intensive things, use JWM, it's really fast, and its easily customisable! Unfortunately, some packages like guake don't work in it, and if you're looking for compiz, you won't find it in JWM, but it is really a very good window manager.

  22. To me, a casual usual; and serious worker. Gnome 3 fell short of all positive notes. It felt like the parody "Macbook Wheel", by the Onion on youtube. "Everything is a few hundred clicks away." Even for casual use; the system was simply bogged down being on. Sure fancy graphics are cool the first 5 minutes (I don't really care about them at all), but after a week, I doubt anyone really notices smooth transitions or alpha blending. Would you really sacrifice 5-15% of your computer power just by hitting the "on" switch so it can be pretty? The operating system is to make things I want working simply work. If its too busy being itself, REQUIRING 3d graphics cards; then what does it have left for my needs? Gnome was changed for the sake of change. Its like firestone making square tires, and at the same time discontinuing their round ones. They make look different and shiny, but are they going to get you anywhere? Its a clumsy touch-screen interface for a pick-up-and-play user. So many are going to the unity type interface; simple is now outside of the box thinking. And XFCE felt like gnome 2, but someone forgot to finish it. I am on FC14, it just went end of life; but I am going to ride it until the wheels fall off. Fallback mode was neutered Gnome 2.x. They need to release an alternate version that uses GTK3, but looks and acts exactly like the apex of perfection: gnome 2. If they don't do exacly that; I am not going to break gnome to make it usable, dealing with repository errors every time something updates or I need an install. I will simply have to go to openbox or hammer on XFCE until I make it bearable. These are sad times.

  23. AnonymousMay 25, 2012

    Come on people. Linux are freedom! You can customize it! If you like GNOME 3 just like it. If you like XFCE just like it. We are friends here!

  24. AnonymousJune 19, 2012

    I like GNOME 3 look and after a while you get use to it ! I think it sad that gnome 2 is not supported for graphic card that dos not work ! I would not run fallback mod the way it is so I'm installing XFCE for an old computer !
    But gnome3 is still young and it as face a lot of adversity. It will get better ! And one day the old computer will die ! So I wish long life to gnome3 hoping for improvement. :)