Ubuntu vs Xubuntu

Ubuntu Desktop
Ubuntu Desktop.

There used to be huge differences between Ubuntu and Xubuntu. The most obvious differences were the choice of default desktop environments but Xubuntu also tended to come with software lighter on resources.

Ubuntu ships with the Unity desktop which whilst intuitive and easy to use is not very customizable although you can now move the launcher to the bottom of the screen which previously wasn't an option.

Xubuntu utilizes the XFCE desktop environment. XFCE is more basic looking than Unity but it is highly customizable making it easier for users to set up menus and panels in the way they see fit. The XFCE desktop environment is also lighter on resources meaning that it works better on older or low-end hardware.

If you have already installed Ubuntu and you don't like the Unity desktop you might be tempted to try Xubuntu instead. 

Before you do, it is worth considering whether simply installing the XFCE desktop would be the right step forward rather than installing a completely new distribution.

If you aren't that bothered about making your desktop prettier and customizing your desktop and you find that Ubuntu does everything you want it to do then there is no need to switch to Xubuntu.

If however you find Unity to not be everything that you require or you find that your computer is lagging under the strain a little bit then Xubuntu is definitely something to consider.

Other than the desktop environments the only other differences are the applications that come pre-installed. The installer is virtually the same, the package managers are very similar, the updates come from the same place and the support community is the same except for the choice of desktop environment.

So how different are the applications? Let's take a look.

Ubuntu vs Xubuntu Applications
Application TypeUbuntuXubuntu
AudioRhythmboxNo dedicated audio player
Photo ManagerShotwellRistretto
Web BrowserFireFoxFireFox
Instant MessengingEmpathyPidgin


In the past, Xubuntu used to be pre-loaded with lighter software packages such as Abiword and Gnumeric for word processing and the creation of spreadsheets.

Now though most of the major packages are the same and there is nothing particularly different between the photo managers that would make you switch your entire distribution.

Generally speaking, you aren't gaining anything by switching from Ubuntu to Xubuntu except for the XFCE desktop.

Therefore if you are thinking of switching from Ubuntu to Xubuntu it is better to install the XFCE desktop environment instead.

To do this from within Ubuntu open a terminal window and type in the following commands:

sudo apt-get update

sudo apt-get install xfce4

Now all you have to do is click the icon in the top right corner and log out of Ubuntu.

From the login screen, you will see a little icon next to the username. Click on the icon and you will now see 2 desktop environment options:

  • Unity
  • XFCE

Choose XFCE and log in.

The method I am going to show for installing the XFCE desktop within Ubuntu is by using the command line tool apt-get.

Open a terminal window within Unity by either searching for "TERM" via the Dash or by pressing CTRL + ALT + T.

Installing the XFCE desktop is simply a case of typing the following commands:

sudo apt-get update

sudo apt-get install xfce4

To switch to the XFCE desktop environment, click your username in the top right corner and log out.

When you reach the login screen click the little Ubuntu icon next to your username and there will now be options for the Unity desktop and the XFCE desktop. Change the desktop to XFCE and log in normally.

A message will appear asking whether you want the default panel arrangement or whether you want a single panel.

The latest version of Xubuntu has a single panel at the top but I still prefer the 2 panel setup,  a standard panel at the top and a docking panel with my favourite applications at the bottom.

Note that the menu system that comes with the XFCE desktop is different to the one that comes with Xubuntu and until you install a better menu system the 2 panel setup is probably a better choice.

It is up to you as to which option you select but rest assured it is easy to change your mind at a later point. XFCE is highly customisable.

If you want everything that comes with Xubuntu but you don't want to go through the hassle of reinstalling from scratch follow these instructions.

Open a terminal window by searching for "TERM" in the Dash or by pressing CTRL + ALT + T.

Enter the following commands into the terminal window:

sudo apt-get update

sudo apt-get install xubuntu-desktop

This will take longer than installing just the XFCE desktop but will be quicker than reinstalling Xubuntu from scratch.

After the installation has completed click on your username in the top right corner and log out.

From the login box click on the Ubuntu symbol. There should now be options for Unity and Xubuntu. Click on Xubuntu and log in as normal.

The Xubuntu desktop will now be shown.

There will be some differences. The menu will still be the standard XFCE menu and not the Xubuntu menu. Some of the icons will not appear on the top panel. None of these things are reasons to spend the time uninstalling Ubuntu and reinstalling Xubuntu.

In the next guide I will show you how to customise Xubuntu and the XFCE desktop.

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