How to Customize the XFCE Desktop Environment

Make your XFCE desktop truly your own

Here's 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.

Add New Panels to XFCE

Depending on how you set up XFCE, you may have one or two panels set up. You can add as many panels as you want. Panels always sit on top, so if you place one in the middle of the screen and open a browser window, the panel covers half the web page.

  1. To manage panels, even if you don't have any, right-click anywhere on the desktop.

  2. Select Applications, then choose Settings.

    Applications and Settings options in the options menu in XFCE
  3. Select Panel.

    Panel item in the Settings menu
  4. In the Panel window, select the plus sign to create a new panel.

    Plus sign in XFCE
  5. The panel is a small box with a black background. Drag the panel to move it to a different location on the desktop.

    Xubuntu and Linux Mint place one panel at the top, which is recommended. If you delete every panel, it's tricky to get one back again.

  6. In the Panel window, select the Display tab to change the Mode to Horizontal or Vertical. Select Vertical for a Unity-style launcher bar.

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

  8. Choose the number of rows. A panel can contain multiple rows of icons. However, it is best to set the row number to 1.

  9. Set the size of the row in pixels and the length of the panel. Set the length to 100 to make the panel cover the entire screen (either horizontally or vertically).

  10. Select Automatically increase the length to increase the size of the bar when a new item is added.

  11. Go to the Appearance tab to change the black background of the panel. Set the style to none to use the system style. Or, set it to Solid color or Background image.

Turn On Window Compositing Within XFCE

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

  1. Right-click the desktop, then select Applications > Settings > Window Manager Tweaks.

    Window Manager Tweaks
  2. Go to the Compositor tab.

    Compositor tab in Window Manager Tweaks
  3. Select the Enable Display Compositing check box.

    Enable display compositing option in Window Manager Tweaks
  4. Select Close, then go back to the panel preferences settings tool to adjust Windows opacity.

    Close button in Window Manager Tweaks

Add Items to an XFCE Panel

To add items to a panel, right-click the panel, then choose Panel > Add New Items.

Add Items To XFCE Panel

Choose from the selection of items. Here are some useful ones:

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

The separator spreads the items across the width of the panel. When you add the separator, a window appears. Select the check box to expand the separator to use the rest of the panel. This places a menu on the left and the other icons on the right.

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

The action buttons provide user settings and access to the logout 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. 

To adjust the order of the items you add to the panel, select the up and down arrows in the Panel Preferences > Items window.

Solve Application Menu Issues With the XFCE Panel

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 to Unity, then search for application settings in the Dash.

  2. Select Appearance, then go to the Behavior tab.

    Behavior tab in Appearance settings
  3. In the Show the menus for a window section, select the In the window's title bar check box.

    "In the window's title bar" option for window menus
  4. Switch to XFCE, right-click the indicator plugin, then choose Properties.

  5. From the window that appears, choose which indicators are displayed.

  6. Select the hidden checkboxes for Application Menus, then click Close.

Add Launchers to an XFCE Panel

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

  1. Right-click the panel, then choose Add New Items.

  2. Choose Launcher.

  3. Click Add.

    XFCE Panel Add Launcher
  4. Select Close.

  5. Right-click the new launcher item on the panel, then choose Properties.

  6. Press the plus symbol for a list of the applications on your system.

  7. Select the application you wish to add. Use the Ctrl button to select multiple applications at once.

  8. Select Add.

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

The XFCE Applications Menu

Another item you can add to the panel is the Applications Menu. To add it, right-click the panel, go to Add New Items, select Applications Menu, then click Add.

XFCE Applications Menu

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

There's a different menu system that you can use, which is also part of the current Xubuntu release.

Add the Whisker Menu to XFCE

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

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

  2. If the Whisker item doesn't appear in the list, you'll need to install it. To install Whisker Menu, open a terminal window (press Ctrl+Alt+T) and enter the following:

    sudo apt install xfce4-whiskermenu-plugin
  3. The default Whisker Menu can be customized to work the way you want.

    XFCE Whisker Menu
  4. To customize Whisker Menu, right-click the item from the panel, then select Properties.

The properties window has four tabs:

Appearance Tab

Go to the Appearance tab to change the icon used for the menu and the behavior so that text displays with the icon.

In 20.04 LTS release the Panel button menu no longer appears in the Appearance tab, it is now located in its own tab right next to it.

Whisker Menu appearance tab

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

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

Behaviour Tab

The Behavior tab has settings that change how the menu 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.

Whisker Menu behavior tab

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.

Whisker Menu Commands tab

Search Actions Tab

Go to the Search Actions tab to change the text that can be entered into the search bar and the actions that occur.

Whisker Menu Search Actions tab

Change the Desktop Wallpaper Within XFCE

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

XFCE Change Wallpaper

There are three tabs available:

Background

Go to the Background tab to change the wallpaper. There are several wallpapers built-in. To select your photos, select the Folder drop-down arrow, then choose the location where your images are stored.

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

Select the Apply to all workspaces check box if you want the same wallpaper for all workspaces. Clear the check box if you want a different wallpaper for each workspace.

You can also use this tab to change the background at regular intervals, from as frequently as every second to only once a day.

Menus

The Menu tab has options for 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 your applications without navigating 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 appears. You can further customize this menu to show different workspaces.

Icons

Use the Icons tab to change 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.

Change Your XFCE Theme

A few things can make a difference in the appearance of your desktop, including a new theme. The Linux community developed hundreds of original themes to spice up any desktop. Your distribution may have a few available as packages to install.

If you want to install new themes to use from the internet, you can do that, too.

  1. Select the Applications menu on the desktop.

  2. Choose Settings > Appearance.

    Appearance in Settings
  3. Select the theme that you want to try. When you select a theme, it is applied to the desktop, and you can see what it looks like. The last theme you select is applied.

    XFCE theme applied
  4. Go to the Icons tab at the top of the window.

    Icons tab in Appearance
  5. The icons work similarly to the other themes. Choose one that you want to try, and leave it selected to keep it applied. When you're done, select Close at the bottom of the window.

    Close button in Appearance window

Add the 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.

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

    sudo apt install cairo-dock
  2. After Cairo-Dock is installed, run it by selecting it from the XFCE menu.

    Add Cairo-Dock To XFCE
  3. To make sure it starts every time you log in, right-click Cairo-Dock and go to Cairo-Dock > Launch Cairo-Dock on startup.

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

    • Current items
    • Add-ons
    • Configuration
    • Themes
  5. Go to the Themes tab to choose from dozens of pre-configured themes. Select Load Theme to scroll through them. When you find one you like, select Apply to use it.