Looking for Alternatives to Unity in Ubuntu 11.10: LXDE and XFCE

The Unity desktop, which comes as the only out-of-the-box desktop environment with Ubuntu 11.10, has attracted a great deal of criticism from Linux lovers.

While some users may be impressed by the “stunning good looks” of the Unity desktop, many are angry at the attempt to use the glitz factor to popularize Ubuntu. There are reports indicating that this has in fact backfired in some ways, and resulted in Ubuntu’s popularity falling among users who have loved the traditional simplicity of the various Linux flavors.

Nevertheless, I discovered some important Unity desktop shortcuts to try and keep up my efficiency with this environment.

Also, it seems it isn’t a bad idea to try out alternatives to Unity. Jeff Hoogland, the lead developer of the Bodhi Linux project, has written a fairly detailed account of various desktop environments. Going by first hand accounts from users I’ve interacted, I decided to pick LXDE and XFCE.

LXDE – The “Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment”

LXDE is indeed lightweight, going by the quickness with which it loads on my computer and the fact that it demands very little system resources.

LXDE from the Ubuntu Software Center

The LXDE Desktop can be downloaded and installed from the Ubuntu Software Center

Without the add-on apps, the download was pretty small for me – a little over 10 MB.

LXDE Network Manager

The LXDE Network Manager and the Desktop

The taskbar and applications menu appear at the bottom – so this makes it a familiar environment for those switching from Windows XP or 7. In my opinion, the Docky that can be installed in Unity to achieve a taskbar like feel isn’t really a great solution for users trying to navigate between windows using mainly their mouse.

The XFCE Desktop Environment 4.8

Mr. Hoogland refers to this desktop environment as “slightly older and more mature than LXDE”.

If you’re in the default Ubuntu 11.10, you can head straight to the Ubuntu Software Center and type xfce4 in the text area. This will bring up the option to download and install the XFCE system on your machine.

XFCE in Ubuntu Software Center

The XFCE desktop environment can be downloaded and installed from the Ubuntu Software Center

The download size is about 20 MB, without the add-ons included.

On logging out of the current desktop, there will be an added option in the available desktop environments – XFCE. Once you log in, you can choose to use the default configuration for the panel setup in the confirmation dialog that pops up.

XFCE is certainly a very pleasant desktop environment, and blazing fast to work with. I think the ready dock panel at the bottom is quite impressive and better than the Docky I used earlier.

Switching between several open applications using Alt-Tab is noticeably quicker when you're in either in LXDE or XFCE.

Have the LXDE and XFCE desktop environments been a boost for you, if you've made the switch from the default Unity? Would you recommend them to users? I’m keen to hear your thoughts!


Having a machine with rather small memory for now a days, I found that Ubuntu or Mint kept running out of memory, and grinding to a halt. I therefore tried Xubuntu, and am very pleased with the results. A little bit of customizing, and I have what I consider a very workable desktop. All the applications that one might require are available from Ubuntu Software centre.

The only real snag I have come across is if you want to use Nautilus as your file manager, it takes over desktop management and you end up without any wallpaper. Thunar the default file manager is pretty good however, or you can use Xfe a brilliant little file manager.

By Bernard Victor

Go to the man page for Nautilus and it will tell you how to keep it from taking over the whole page management. I use it for fvwm with Ubuntu 11.10 so it should work for other desktops.

By Earl Violet

Having used LXDE now for a while I find other alternatives unbearable slow. Besides being blazing fast, I find no functionality lacking in LXDE, and it is so flexible and customizable. I wonder why people keep messing with Gnome3 and so forth, must be sort of masochism.

By jsp722

I tried using Unity with Ubuntu 11.04, but quickly changed to the spinoff Lubuntu. At version 11.04 it was a bit shaky - not fully mature, so when Ubuntu 11.10 came out I tried again. Lubuntu 11.10 was officially welcomed into the Ubuntu family by then, and it showed the difference by presenting a much more polished version.

But it does have a few limitations due to its small size, and I shifted over to Ubuntu's official XFCE version, Xubuntu. I'm currently using that in both 32-bit and 64-bit form, and I have no complaints at all. In both Lu- and Xu-buntu I install Compiz simply for the whiz-bang visuals. Even with Compiz, on an ancient (2003) Compaq both of them run at a decent pace, but on anything newer they are extremely fast. As for file managers, my working habits don't seem to be deeply dependent on the characteristics of any particular one. I don't even mind PCManFM!

I did try Mint (both 9 and 11) and found too many things that I didn't need that were really woven into the fabric of the distro. I got rid of the verbose and multi-level menu at once, as I found it very nearly as time-consuming to search as Unity (less desktop acreage, to be sure, but more words).

I do intend to try Ubuntu 12.04, in the wild hope that with an LTS version some adjustments in the arrangement will result in a system I can learn to love. If not, there's always the lightweights!

By Emery

A great addition to such light desktops is Cairo-Dock; it adds a light and pretty panel/dock/widgets, with a lot of useful applets and easily customizable.
Not that the XFCE panel is not good, but it feels a little rough on the edge.
The overall is far superior to Unity, and can run smoothly on a first gen netbook.

By pouic

I'm running Xubuntu 11.10 on my HP/Compaq nc6000 laptop w/1gb of RAM and it purrs like a kitten. Best Linux setup I've ever had.

By Human

Why Xubuntu-desktop??? This drags in all packages, dependencies, apps for Xubuntu! May as well just install Xubuntu. Bad advice.

installing xfce4 or lxde from Software Centre installs ONLY the desktop environment, and, as this page is about alternatives to Unity which is a DE, that is what you want. What you are suggesting installs everything, not just the DE.

Bucky Ball

By Bucky Ball

Thanks for the correction! I've made some edits in the article.

By Naweed Chougle

Add new comment