Customize The XFCE Desktop Environment

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Customize The XFCE Desktop Environment

XFCE Desktop Environment
XFCE Desktop Environment

I recently released an article showing how to switch from Ubuntu to Xubuntu without reinstalling from scratch.

If you followed that guide you will either have a base XFCE desktop environment or a Xubuntu XFCE environment.

Whether you followed that guide or not this article will show you how to take a base XFCE desktop environment and customize it in a number of different ways including:

  • Adding panels
  • Adding items to panels
  • Adding launchers
  • Switching menus
  • Changing desktop wallpaper
  • Changing the desktop icons
  • Add a dash style interface
  • Adding a customized docking panel
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Add New XFCE Panels To The XFCE Desktop Environment

Add Panel To XFCE Desktop
Add Panel To XFCE Desktop.

Depending on how you set up your XFCE in the first place you might have 1 or 2 panels set up by default.

You can add as many panels as you would like to add but it is worth knowing that the panels 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 your web page.

My recommendation is one panel at the top which is exactly what Xubuntu and Linux Mint deliver.

I do however recommend a second panel but not an XFCE panel. I will explain this further later on.

It is also worth noting that if you delete all of your panels it makes it trickier to get one back again so don't delete all of your panels. (This guide shows how to restore XFCE panels)

To manage your panels right click on one of the panels and select "Panel - Panel Preferences" from the menu.

In the screenshot above I deleted both of the panels that I started with and added a new blank one in.

To delete a panel select the panel you wish to delete from the drop-down and click the minus symbol.

To add a panel click the plus symbol.

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

Click on the desktop tab within the settings window and change the mode to either horizontal or vertical. (Vertical is good for a Unity style launcher bar).

Check the "Lock Panel" icon to prevent the panel being moved around. If you want the panel to hide until you hover the mouse over it check the "Automatically show and hide the panel" checkbox.

A panel can contain multiple rows of icons but generally, I recommend setting the number of rows slider to 1. You can set the size of the row in pixels and the length of the panel. Setting the length to 100% makes it cover the entire screen (either horizontally or vertically).

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

The black background of the panel can be amended by clicking on the "Appearance" tab.

The style can be set to default, a solid color or a background image. You will note that you can change the opacity so that the panel blends in with the desktop but it may be grayed out.

To be able to adjust opacity you need to turn on compositing within the XFCE Window Manager. (This is covered in the next page).

The final tab deals with adding items to the launcher which will again be covered in a later page.

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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 on the desktop to pull up a menu. Click the "Applications Menu" sub-menu and then look under the settings sub-menu and choose "Windows Manager Tweaks".

The above screen will be displayed. Click on the last tab ("Compositor").

Check the "Enable Display Compositing" box and then click "Close".

You can now go back to the panel preferences settings tool to adjust Windows opacity.

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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 on the panel you wish to add items to 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 is 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 give you user settings and provide access to log out (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 items order in the list by using the up and down arrows in the properties window.

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Solving Application Menu Issues With The XFCE Panel

XFCE Menu Problems Within Ubuntu
XFCE Menu Problems Within Ubuntu.

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

You will need to do two things to solve this issue.

The first thing is to switch back to Unity and search for application settings within the Dash.

Now choose "Appearance Settings" and switch to the "Behaviour Settings" tab.

Change the "Show Menus For A Window" radio buttons so that "In the Window's Title Bar" is checked.

When you switch back to XFCE, right click on the indicator plugin and choose "Properties", From the window that appears you can choose which indicators are displayed.

Check the "hidden" checkboxes for "Application Menus".

Click "Close".

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Add Launchers To An XFCE Panel

XFCE Panel Add Launcher
XFCE Panel Add Launcher.

Launchers, as mentioned previously, can be added to a panel to call any other application. To add a launcher right-click on the panel and add a new item.

When the list of items appears to choose the launcher item.

Right click on the item on the panel and choose "Properties".

Click on the plus symbol and a list of all the applications on your system will appear. Click on the application you wish to add.

You can add a number of different applications to the same launcher and they will be selectable from the panel via a drop-down list.

You can order the items in the launcher list by using the up and down arrows in the properties list.

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The XFCE Applications Menu

XFCE Applications Menu
XFCE Applications Menu.

One of the items I suggested adding to the panel was the applications menu. The issue with the applications menu is that it is kind of old school and not very attractive.

If you have a lot of items within a particular category the list stretches down the screen.

Click here for a guide showing how to customize the current application's menu 

On the next page, I will show you a different menu system that you can use which is also part of the current Xubuntu release.

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Add The Whisker Menu To XFCE

XFCE Whisker Menu
XFCE Whisker Menu.

There is a different menu system that has been added to Xubuntu called the Whisker menu.

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

If the Whisker item doesn't appear in the list you will need to install it.

You can install the Whisker menu by opening a terminal window and typing the following:

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install xfce4-whiskermenu-plugin
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How To Customize The Whisker Menu

Customise The Whisker Menu
Customise The Whisker Menu.

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.

In order to customize the Whisker menu right click on the item and select "Properties".

The properties window has three tabs:

  • Appearance
  • Behaviour
  • Search actions

The appearance screen lets you change the icon that is used for the menu and you can also change 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 is also possible to show a description next to each application.

Other tweaks to be made to the appearance include the positioning of the search box and the positioning of the categories. The size of the icons can also be adjusted.

The behavior tab has settings which allow you to amend how the menu actually works. By default clicking on 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 icons that appear at the bottom of the menu including the settings icon, lock screen icon, switch users icon, log out icon and edit applications icon.

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

You will notice in the image above that the wallpaper has changed. The following page shows how to do that.

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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
  • Menus
  • Icons

Make sure you are on the background tab. If you are using Xubuntu then there will be some wallpapers available but if you have a base XFCE desktop you will need to use your own wallpapers.

What I did was create a folder called "Wallpapers" under my Home folder and then within Google images searched for "Cool Wallpaper".

I then downloaded a few "wallpapers" into my Wallpapers folder.

From the desktop settings tool, I then changed the folder dropdown to point to the "Wallpapers" folder in my Home folder.

The images from the "Wallpaper" folder then appear within desktop settings and I then choose one.

Notice that there is a checkbox that allows you to change the wallpaper at regular intervals. You can then decide how often the wallpaper changes.

XFCE provides multiple workspaces and you can choose to have a different wallpaper on each workspace or the same one across them all.

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

The options available include being able to show a menu when you right click on 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 (on laptops with touchpads this will be the same as clicking both buttons at the same time) a list of open applications appear. You can further customize this menu to show different workspaces as well.

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Change The Desktop Icons Within XFCE

XFCE Desktop Icons
XFCE Desktop Icons.

Within the desktop settings tool, there is an icons tab which enables you to choose which icons appear on the desktop and the size of the icons.

If you have lost the desktop settings tool right click on the desktop and select "Desktop Settings". Now click on the "Icons" tab.

As mentioned previously you can change the size of the icons on the desktop. You can also choose whether to show text with the icons and the size of the text.

By default, you have to double click the icons to start the application but you can amend this to a single click.

You can adjust the default icons that appear on the desktop as well. The XFCE desktop generally starts with the Home, File Manager, Waste Basket and Removable Devices. You can turn these on or off as required.

By default, hidden files are not shown but as with everything else, you can toggle this on and off.

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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 is a PPA available though that enables you to add Slingscold.

Open up a terminal window and type in 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 on the Slingcold launcher icon in the panel a screen similar to the one above appears.

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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 to your system open a terminal and run the following command:

sudo apt-get install cairo-dock

After Cairo 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 on the Cairo dock that appears and choose "Cairo-Dock -> launch Cairo at startup".

Cairo Dock has loads of configuration features. Right click on 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 tab is the "Themes" tab. From this tab, you can choose from dozens of pre-configured themes. Click "Load Theme" and scroll through the available themes.

When you have found one that you think you will like to click the "Apply" button.

I am not going to go deeply into how to configure Cairo Dock within this guide as it deserves an article to itself.

It is certainly worth adding one of these docks to spruce up your XFCE desktop. 

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Customize The XFCE Desktop Environment - Summary

How To Customise XFCE
How To Customise XFCE.

XFCE is the most customizable Linux desktop environment. It is like Linux Lego. The building blocks are all there for you. You just need to put them together with the way you want them.

Further reading: