How to Customize the XFCE Desktop Environment

XFCE Desktop Environment screenshot
XFCE Desktop Environment.

Below is a guide on how to customize the XFCE Linux desktop environment in a number of ways, such as to add panels and launchers, switch menus, change the desktop wallpaper, include a customized docking panel, and more.

Learn how to install Xubuntu if you don't already have it.

01
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Add New Panels to XFCE

Add Panel To XFCE Desktop
Add Panel To XFCE Desktop.

Depending on how you set up your XFCE in the first place, you might already have one or two panels set up.

You can add as many additional panels as you want, but it's worth mentioning that they always sit on top, so if you place one in the middle of the screen and open a browser window, the panel will cover half of the web page.

To manage your panels, right-click one and choose Panel Preferences. To delete a panel, select it from the drop-down menu and click the minus button. Or, to add a new panel, use the plus sign.

When you first create the panel, it's a small box and has a black background. Move it to the general position where you would like the panel to be.

Our recommendation is one panel at the top, which is exactly what Xubuntu and Linux Mint deliver. Remember also that if you delete every panel, it makes it trickier to get one back again, so you'd be wise to not do that.

Click the Display tab within the panel's settings to change the mode to horizontal or vertical. Vertical is good for a Unity style launcher bar.

Enable Lock Panel to prevent the panel being moved around. If you want the panel to hide, select Intelligently or Always from the Automatically hide the panel menu.

A panel can contain multiple rows of icons but generally, we recommend setting the row number to 1. You can set the size of the row in pixels and the length of the panel. Making the length 100 will make the panel cover the entire screen (either horizontally or vertically).

You can check Automatically increase the length to increase the size of the bar when a new item is added.

The black background of the panel can be changed through the Appearance tab in the panel's settings. The style can be none to use the system style, or you can set it to Solid color or Background image.

02
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Turn On Window Compositing Within XFCE

XFCE Window Manager Tweaks
XFCE Window Manager Tweaks.

In order to add opacity to the XFCE panels, you need to turn on Window Compositing. This can be achieved by running XFCE Window Manager Tweaks.

Right click the desktop and go to Applications > Settings > Windows Manager Tweaks. When you see the screen above, select the Compositor tab and then put a check in the box next to Enable Display Compositing.

Click Close and then go back to the panel preferences settings tool to adjust Windows opacity.

03
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Add Items to an XFCE Panel

Add Items To XFCE Panel
Add Items To XFCE Panel.

A blank panel is about as useful as a sword in the Wild West. To add items to a panel, right-click it and choose Panel > Add New Items.

There are loads of items to choose from but here are some particularly useful ones:

  • Applications Menu
  • Separator
  • Indicator Plugin
  • Action Buttons
  • Launcher

The separator helps you spread the items across the width of the panel. When you add the separator, a little window appears. There's a checkbox that lets you expand the separator to use the rest of the panel which is how you get a menu on the left and the other icons on the right.

The indicator plugin has icons for power settings, the clock, Bluetooth, and many other icons. It saves adding other icons individually.

The action buttons provide user settings and access to the log out option, although this is covered by the indicator plugin.

A launcher lets you choose any other application installed on the system to be run when the icon is clicked. 

You can adjust the order of the items you add to the panel by using the up and down arrows in the Panel Preferences > Items window.

04
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Solving Application Menu Issues With The XFCE Panel

XFCE Menu Problems Within Ubuntu
XFCE Menu Problems Within Ubuntu.

There's one major issue with installing XFCE within Ubuntu, and that's the handling of menus.

Here's how to solve this problem:

  1. Switch back to Unity and search for application settings within the Dash.
  2. Go to Appearance Settings and switch to Behavior Settings.
  3. Change the Show Menus For A Window radio buttons so that In the Window's Title Bar is checked.
  4. When you switch back to XFCE, right-click the indicator plugin and choose Properties.
  5. From the window that appears, you can choose which indicators are displayed.
  6. Finally, check the hidden checkboxes for Application Menus and then click Close.
05
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Add Launchers to an XFCE Panel

XFCE Panel Add Launcher
XFCE Panel Add Launcher.

Launchers can be added to a panel to call any other application. Here's how:

  1. Right-click the panel and choose Add New Items.
  2. Click Launcher.
  3. Click Add.
  4. Click Close from the menu.
  5. Right-click the new launcher item on the panel and choose Properties.
  6. Click the plus symbol for a list of all the applications on your system.
  7. Select the application you wish to add. Use the Ctrl button to select multiple applications at once.
  8. Click Add.

Now you can adjust their position on the panel using the up and down arrows in the launcher's properties.

06
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The XFCE Applications Menu

XFCE Applications Menu
XFCE Applications Menu.

Another item you can add to the panel is Applications Menu. The problem with the applications menu is that it's kind of old school and not very attractive.

Add it just like you can any item: right-click the panel, go to Add New Items, select Applications Menu, and then click Add.

Follow this guide to learn how to customize the application's menu.

Below, we'll look at a different menu system that you can use which is also part of the current Xubuntu release.

07
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Add the Whisker Menu to XFCE

XFCE Whisker Menu
XFCE Whisker Menu.

There's a different menu system that's been added to Xubuntu called Whisker Menu.

To add Whisker Menu, add an item to the panel as usual and search for Whisker Menu.

If the Whisker item doesn't appear in the list, you'll need to install it. You can install Whisker Menu by opening a terminal window (Ctrl+Alt+T) and typing the following:

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install xfce4-whiskermenu-plugin

The default Whisker Menu is fairly decent and modern looking, but as with everything in the XFCE desktop environment, you can customize it to work the way you want it to.

To customize Whisker Menu, right-click the item from the panel and select Properties.

The properties window has four tabs:

Appearance Tab

Whisker Menu appearance tab

The appearance screen lets you change the icon used for the menu and the behavior so that text is displayed with the icon.

You can also adjust the menu options so that generic application names are shown such as word processor instead of LibreOffice Writer. It's also possible to show a description next to each application.

Other tweaks to be made to the appearance include the item icon size, category icon size, and background opacity.

Behaviour Tab

Whisker Menu behavior tab

The behavior tab has settings which allow you to amend how the menu actually works. By default, clicking a category changes the items that appear, but you can change it so that when you hover over a category, the items change.

You can also change the number of items to display as recently used, plus ignore favorites.

Commands Tab

Whisker Menu Commands tab

The Whisker Menu commands tab is where you choose commands for things like All Settings, Lock Screen, Log Out, Edit Profile, and Edit Applications.

Search Actions Tab

Whisker Menu Search Actions tab

The search actions tab lets you change the text that can be entered into the search bar and the actions that will occur.

08
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Change The Desktop Wallpaper Within XFCE

XFCE Change Wallpaper
XFCE Change Wallpaper.

To change the desktop wallpaper, right-click on the background and choose Desktop Settings.

There are three tabs available:

Background

This tab lets you change the wallpaper. There are several wallpapers built-in but you can also select your own photos by changing the Folder drop-down menu to wherever your images are located.

You can change the style so that the wallpaper image is zoomed, tiled, centered, stretched, or scaled. Or, have no styling at all.

Notice the checkbox next to Apply to all workspaces. This lets you decide to have the same wallpaper for all workspaces or a different one for each.

You can also use this tab of the desktop settings to have the background change at regular intervals, from as frequently as every second to just once a day.

Menus

The menu tab lets you handle how menus appear within the XFCE desktop environment.

The options include being able to show a menu when you right-click the desktop. This gives you access to all of your applications without having to navigate to the menu that you added to a panel.

You can also set XFCE up so that when you middle-click with the mouse, a list of open applications appear. You can further customize this menu to show different workspaces as well.

Icons

The final tab is for changing the icon type and icon size. You can also adjust the icon tooltip size, enable thumbnails, show hidden files on the desktop, and enable single click mode to activate items.

The icons tab is where you can show or hide default icons, too, such as the Home, Filesystem, and Trash icons.

09
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Add the Slingscold Dash to XFCE

Add Slingscold To Ubuntu
Add Slingscold To Ubuntu.

Slingscold provides a stylish but lightweight dashboard-style interface. Unfortunately, it isn't available in the Ubuntu repositories.

There's a PPA available, though, that lets you add Slingscold. To do that, open a terminal window and execute the following commands:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:noobslab/apps
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install slingscold

Add a launcher to a panel and add Slingscold as an item to the launcher. 

Now, when you click the Slingcold launcher icon in the panel, a screen similar to the one above appears.

10
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Add the Cairo-Dock to XFCE

Add Cairo-Dock To XFCE
Add Cairo-Dock To XFCE.

You can get a long way using just the XFCE panels but you can add a much more stylish docking panel using a tool called Cairo-Dock.

To add Cairo-Dock to your system, open a terminal and run the following command:

sudo apt-get install cairo-dock

After Cairo-Dock is installed, run it by selecting it from the XFCE menu.

The first thing you will want to do is make sure it starts every time you log in. To do this, right-click Cairo-Dock and go to Cairo-Dock > Launch Cairo-Dock on startup.

Cairo-Dock has loads of configuration features. Right-click the dock and choose Cairo-Dock > Configure. A tabbed interface will appear with the following tabs:

  • Current items
  • Add-ons
  • Configuration
  • Themes

The most exciting area here is the themes tab. You can choose from dozens of pre-configured themes. Select Load Theme to scroll through them. When you find one you think you'll like, click Apply to use it.