Like many of you I dismissed Xfce for the longest time as old and ugly. I was wrong. Ask yourself what you really need from a desktop environment (DE), and be honest. The list is probably a lot shorter than you expected - mine was.
- Performance (smooth frame rates, etc)
- Things to look clean and modern
- Customisable widgets to monitor temps and CPU load, etc at a glance
That's quite a short list. So why is it so darned difficult to find a DE that I like? I won't perform a comprehensive comparison of all the DE's here but I will share with you some of my experiences over the last 5 or so years as a newcomer to Linux.
During that time I've primarily used Gnome 3, KDE Plasma 5 and now Xfce as my default daily driver across multiple systems. I also performed a deep level comparison as part of a Masters dissertation in 2014 where I tried pretty much every major desktop in the name of science. A lot of has changed in the last few years though so take my now outdated findings with a pinch of salt. For example, Gnome 3 is now the primary major desktop of Ubuntu replacing Unity, a shame I always kind of liked that one.
Liking XFCE so much was a surprise
Last summer I switched from Gnome 3 to KDE Plasma 5 and never looked back. I fell in love with the complete customisation of every single pixel that could be achieved. Don't like that window border? Gone. Not a fan of the default layout? Change it. In fact KDE Plasma is seemingly built around the concept that the defaults are going to be changed anyway so let's just make this thing super modular and customisable.
I was recently handed a Thinkpad T480s from work and it's a great, capable machine for my needs. I wiped it straight away and installed Arch + KDE Plasma. My regular workflow includes a couple of Chrome sessions with a dozen or so tabs open in each, VSCode, Telegram, Quassel, Discord, terminal windows everywhere and Franz hosting several different chat clients in one place. A typical day sees around 6-10gb of RAM in use at any given moment. CPU temps sit at around 50-55c at 'idle' (i.e. writing an email or something).
I hadn't ever really realised before how annoying having a warm but not hot laptop was because I'd never really known anything else running Gnome and KDE for so long. That was until I gave into peer pressure from the Jupiter Broadcasting crew and gave XFCE a shot. My 'idle' temps now sit at around 40-45c and memory usage is down to 3-5gb, both a significant drop.
So not only were my temps down 10+c on average but my battery life is now, frankly, unbelievable. From this Thinkpad I could expect around 5-6 hours on battery before but now I regularly get 10-12+ hours out of it. For example I came off the charger at 9am this morning, it's now almost 4pm and I'm still sat at 63% remaining with constant usage and work throughout the day.
Give it a try
I can tell you that applications feel like they load faster. My battery life is about double. My laptop is cool to the touch. It just works. And it is customisable with widgets which I already prefer to their counterparts I was using on KDE for the last year.
More anecdotal performance evidence includes higher frame rates when resizing and moving windows around. It just feels smooth and responsive. I love it.
I installed Manjaro who have a particularly nice theme. My biggest critiscim of Xfce in years past was always that it just looked like shit. The defaults in Xfce haven't done anything to address that but under the hood things have been quietly and reliable refined and improved for years now.
I'd liken Xfce to the VW Golf in some ways. Years of refinement is the only way to achieve the level of polish that both of these products have. No monstrous rethinks of how we use the desktops here. And that, is a good - no great - thing.