2 Jan 2012

Lightweight Giant Debian XFCE

When I started a poll about a month ago, I did not know what the outcome would be. I mean the “Best XFCE-based distribution” poll. I had a vague vision that Xubuntu would come out somewhere near the top not only because *buntu is the most popular distribution family, but also because it is a really good distribution on its own.
But I had no idea which system would share the leadership with Xubuntu. All the candidates were actually decent Operating Systems, each with points pro and con.
Have you seen the results? If not, they are here.
Xubuntu actually came to the top, followed by Linux Mint XFCE.
Mint XFCE is the distribution I have written a lot about. Mostly about my love: how it rose and how it had fallen apart.
Who was in third place? Debian XFCE! It was a surprise to me. Of course, I know what Debian is, but I was under impression that the majority of people prefer “classical” Debian with GNOME2. And then… Debian with XFCE. Unbelievable mix, but…
I have already written about Debian a lot. Mostly about how to install it, not to install it and re-install it, based on my own experience. Yes, I do love Debian. But this love came through fire, water, and copper pipes.
I have also written about Debian KDE Live. And I liked this distribution.
Having the contest results in hand, I had no other choice but to give Debian XFCE a try. As usual, I prefer a Live version where possible. There is a Live Debian XFCE, as part of the Debian Live project.
The ISO image of Debian XFCE Live weighs 835 MB. As in Debian KDE, there are 2 versions of the ISO available: one for CD and one for USB drives. I downloaded the second one, because the BIOS of my laptop Fujitsu-Siemens Amilo Pi 1505 does not support booting from CD ISOs on a USB stick.
The latest release of Debian XFCE Live has the index 6.0.3 and was published on the 14th of October 2011. Once the image was downloaded, I dd'ed it to my 8 Gb USB stick.
The flash drive is in the port. Reboot. Choose to boot from USB. Let's go!

Booting up

The first screen was about the selection of run mode of Debian XFCE. There are 2 types of Live mode: one for old processors (I guess 486) and one for 686 and higher. My choice was for the second one (686), because my laptop has an Intel Centrino dual core processor, definitely higher than 686. Other than the Live run, the first menu offers an option to go straight to the installation in simple or expert, text or graphical modes.
The boot time of Debian XFCE Live is really, really quick. It seemed to stop for a few seconds when I thought that nothing was happening, but then it fired up the ready-to-use desktop.
Once booted, I was in Debian XFCE Live running Linux kernel 2.6.32-5 with XFCE 4.6.2 on top. Both kernel and Desktop Environment versions are not the most recent, and they were not such even at the date of release back in October 2011. But that is the essence of Debian: this operating system only uses well-tested and stable packages. If you want to be on the bleeding edge, you need to go somewhere else, for example to Debian Sid, Crunchbang or Aptosid.
Coming back to Debian XFCE Live: once it was booted, I checked memory usage. It is hard to believe, but my eyebrows went up when I saw the results in the Taskmanager window. All that the Operating System took was... 118 Mb of memory! See the screenshot! This number already included Taskmanager itself - about 10 Mb and screenshot utility - 2 Mb. If we take these out, the result would be even more impressive: Debian Live XFCE runs in 106 Mb of memory! Amazing!
And that’s not the limit! If you want to tweak even more, you could probably remove some applications from autostart, for example the print queue applet, if you don't have a printer.
That’s Debian. That’s XFCE.

Network configuration

I was well aware that Debian XFCE Live won't run immediately on my laptop's wireless network card Intel 3945 ABG. I have this experience based on both Debian KDE Live and Debian GNOME installations. That's why I tried to use the same approach as I used during the Live KDE run, i.e. copy firmware from the existing Debian installation into the Live filesystem. Unfortunately, the sequence of commands
sudo mkdir /debian
sudo mount -t auto /dev/sda8 /debian
sudo cp /debian/lib/firmware/iwlwifi-3945-* /lib/firmware/
sudo modprobe iwl3945

did not work. I spent a good 10 minutes, or even more, trying to figure out what was going wrong. The solution was in proper configuration of the Wicd network manager. It did not have wlan0 as the wireless network interface name. Once the corresponding field in Wicd's Preferences was populated, I was able to see available networks, including my own home network.
A few more usual steps to configure security details, and I am connected.
Of course, you are unlikely to use the same approach. In most cases you'll need to download firmware from Debian repositories. But I still think that fixing the interface name is an important step to go through.


The freshly booted system launches a Tips&Tricks window. That’s the only window you see on the screen.
The default desktop wallpaper in Debian Live XFCE is the same as in any other Debian Squeeze spins I've tried so far. It is a space-themed image with the Debian spiral logo on it.
There is one panel at the bottom, where you can find the usual items.
The menu button with the XFCE logo is in the left bottom corner. Next to it are shortcuts to Terminal, file manager (Thunar) and browser (Iceweasel). In the central part of the panel is the taskbar, as usual. The notification area with network and battery status icons is on the right. The desktop switching icons for the 4 default virtual desktops is next to the notification area. It is followed by a "show desktop" button and clocks. And finally, the right-bottom corner is occupied by the Quit button. As you can see, everything is more or less standard. I would actually move the Show Desktop button to the left, next to the Menu button, but that’s a question of taste and can be adjusted easily.
Desktop effects are off by default in Debian XFCE Live, but I was able to switch on compositing in the Windows Manager Tweaks part of the Settings panel. They worked. As expected. Period.


Iceweasel 3.5.16 is the default browser in the Debian Live XFCE. There are no more network tools in the menu, apart from the Wicd network manager. If you need to add anything else, you need to use the package manager.
Iceweasel behaved strangely on my own blog. It randomly gave me artefacts in the left top corner of some pages. I am not sure, but it may be linked to incorrect processing of scripts from the advertising network. If you’re using Iceweasel right now, do you notice anything unusual? Please leave your comments about this.
The office part of the Debian XFCE Live menu contains full set of OpenOffice.org applications, including Draw and Base, and is OO.o version 3.2.1. It is definitely not the freshest version, but still reliable and functional. What I have noticed – or to be precise did not notice – was the logo of Oracle on OO.o splash screen. It is not there. ePDF Viewer, Dictionary and Orage calendar complete the Office section.
Multimedia tools include Xfburn and Brasero disk burning applications, Quod Libet and VLC players, Ex Falso mass tag editing application, Aumix and Mixer applications. I was surprised to see that some functions were duplicated in Debian Live XFCE. Why would you need Xfburn and Brasero at the same time? The same can be said for mixing tools.
The Graphics section of the menu contains GIMP, OO.o Draw, Ristretto image viewer and a scanning tool. Not the widest selection ever, but who would complain about lack of functionality if you have GIMP? Maybe some people would need Inkscape too, but it is easily reachable in repositories. There is no screenshot tool in the Graphics menu, but it is presented in Accessories.
Apart from the Screenshot tool, Accessories contains Notes, Terminal, Squeeze archive manager, Taskmanager, Mousepad text editor and some other simple and useful applications.
Some of the same applications are also listed in the System menu: Thunar, Terminal, and Taskmanager. At the same time, System includes other items like Reportbug, Debian installer, Printing and others.
I tried to run Debian installer from the Live-686 session and got an error in a CLI-style window that the kernel versions of the installer and the current system did not match. Despite this message, the next screen took me into the graphical installer. This behaviour confused me very much.
I have not found any package manager in the menu. Neither Synaptic, nor anything similar is there. Of course, Synaptic was only one sudo apt-get install away, but why not include it by default? It is quite strange to have a Linux Operating System without a package manager tool. Actually, this is the same behaviour as in Debian KDE, so I should not be surprised so much.
Also, there was no partitioning tool in Debian Live XFCE.
I think these two tools (Synaptic and GParted or their equivalents) are very useful, aren't they?
As long as Debian Live XFCE uses the same repositories as any other Debian Squeeze, I won't list all the available (and unavailable) applications here.
I tried to install Google Chrome from the official site. The downloaded package was not associated with any application. That’s why I used the aptitude install command. It found some missing dependencies, installed it, but threw an error at the end. Eventually (but not immediately) the Google Chrome icon appeared in the menu… and it worked! I was baffled.
Debian Live XFCE shows inconsistency between icons for the same application in different parts of the system. For example, Thunar has different icons in the “Accessories” and "Favourites" sections of the menu. The same is valid for the Iceweasel browser. I think the reason for this is that “Favourites” and “Shortcut” sections don’t link directly to a specific application, but rather call up default applications for the purpose (file management or Internet browsing). As opposed to this, the menu items link directly to specific programs: Iceweasel, Thunar. If you install Google Chrome or any other browser and make it the default, then items on the shortcuts panel should call Chrome, not Iceweasel. I tried this idea, and an initial test confirmed it.

Keyboard layout

The default keyboard layout in Debian XFCE Live is English US. Of course, I needed to change it to something more appropriate for me: a combination of English UK and Russian with Ctrl-Shift as the switch hotkey.
Configuration of the keyboard layout was an easy task. As usual in XFCE, you need to start from the end. Add the Keyboard Layout indicator on the panel, and then configure available layouts and hotkeys in the Preferences of this indicator. Nothing unexpected there, everything is in its usual place.
On the negative side, the touchpad did not support the scrolling function. There is nothing about it in XFCE mouse settings either. Am I right to blame XFCE 4.6 in this? I had a different experience with XFCE 4.8 in Xubuntu.


Flash is included in Debian Live XFCE by default. I was able to watch YouTube videos almost immediately. The only stopping point was... volume! Yes, there was an issue. Volume control for the laptop speakers was taken to the minimum in the default Mixer settings.
Debian Live XFCE
supports MP3 and Flash out of the box
Mounting of the external network drive was not possible until I installed smbfs package, the one which allows you to mount external Samba partitions.
Once the partition was mounted via sudo mount -t cifs //remote/partition /mountpoint -o guest,nolinux command, VLC and Quod Libet had no issues with opening MP3 files from there.


What is Debian XFCE Live and how does it compare on the market?
This is a distribution that we need to respect, because it is stable, universal and reliable. This is valid for anything in the Debian Stable branch, which is currently Squeeze.
But usage of the XFCE Desktop Environment on top of Debian Squeeze has its own points, positive and negative.
Unfortunately, I need to admit that the list of applications in Debian XFCE Live is pretty Spartan. Some necessary applications are missing from it. In contrast, some functions have duplicated applications. It is not explainable by disk image size since it had overgrown the CD size, but remained far below the DVD size.
The unexpected issue with the wlan0 interface name in Wicd adds some negative points onto the scorecard too.
Otherwise, Debian Live XFCE is pretty much a stable, predictable and responsive system. A few tweaks, and the installed version of it would fit even low-end computers.
Generally speaking, Debian Live XFCE deserves the high appreciation which it got from users who voted in the poll.


  1. "All that the Operating System took was... 118 Mb of memory!"

    In Live mode, it uses more memory for file caching. After installation you will notice that it actually uses 30 or 40mb less :)

  2. I run Debian Squeeze XFCE. It's a different system than yours. I run it on a netbook that can't use the default kernel very well. I installed from the businesscard installer. I enabled backports to grab a more recent kernel and wireless support. I built my own collection of software. It took a fair bit of time.

    It might be worth it if you want a faster, lighter weight system than what either the *buntus or the various Mints offer. Even if you strip down Ubuntu to what you have on Debian, Debian will still use less memory than Ubuntu. At boot, my fairly "heavy" XFCE system uses 90 meg. of RAM.

    One other point. I started with WICD for my wireless support. It wasn't very reliable. What drove me to replace it with network-manager was the interference with suspending and hibernation. Suspending would take about a minute and a half. Resume would take a similar amount of time, and wireless would not longer work. Network-manager cut those times to less than two seconds, and wireless resumed along with the rest of the system.

  3. @Psychorat:
    Thanks for comment.
    Unfortunately, I had no chance to try installed Debian XFCE. But I trust you. Really, 30-40 Mb is fantastic result!

  4. @Anonymous:
    Basically, you created your own distribution based on Debian netinstall. 8-) It is always the best option if you only want to get what you need.

    I tried many distributions with Network Manager and Wicd. Generally, my preference is with NM. I am with you here.

  5. For those who are interesting to create custom ubuntu based distros, i have made a script to create ubuntu net-installations from the ubuntu mini iso.. im using this to test various desktop environments and software compilations via Virtualbox, so i can guarantee that u can get such a lightweight desktop and memory consumption from an ubuntu base :)

    im not a coder so its a big project for me (and pretty big script, about 200k).But right now i almost have reach a beta and i'll release it soon :)

    it will be able to install a full custom:
    -Kubuntu or Kde classic 4 & 3 (Trinity)
    -Ubuntu Unity,Gnome shell,Mint-Gnome,Mint-Mate
    -Xubuntu or Xfce classic
    -Lubuntu or LXDE Classic
    -Enlightenment (E17)

    And over 200 applications with recommendations per Desktop environment to choose (From Login managers to 3d applications + bugfixes) via menu driven dialogs.

    sorry if i sound to much excited but i really love it! and i hope you to..

  6. @Psychorat:
    Very exciting news indeed!
    Do you want to write more about your script and publish it here as guest post? I am happy to do this for you!

  7. Of course, That would be brilliant!

    And its a chance to finish it, because i always had that "put more and more stuff syndrome"

    ill keep you updated on this.
    Thanks, and sorry for my bad English.

  8. He's approximately right-on the money with the memory consumption of XFCE-4.8.

    I primarily run DWM only here, and sometimes only GNU Screen and recently did a comparison of XFCE-4.8 and DWM memory foot print using Gentoo.

    XFCE used approximately 10-20MB more memory over DWM. (XFCE-4.8 ~110-120MB; DWM ~100MB)

    Being a long time DWM user after using XFCE for a short time, I was extremely surprised with XFCE's memory usage compared to DWM.

    I'm also running quite a few background (init.d) services. And memory usage is also effected by compile time options.

  9. @Anonymous:
    Debian XFCE uses version 4.6, not 4.8.
    I think I've mentioned this in the post.

  10. I would not recommend aptosid even to my worst enemies for their lack of good manners and empathy. If you want a Debian Sid derivative and not the original Debian Sid, go for Semplice (with openbox) or siduction (KDE4, *XFCE* and LXDE available) Of course, you can always use the netinstall Debian CD and dist-upgrade it to Sid for the pure Debian experience.

  11. @Markus Schimpf:
    Yes, I know that Aptosid community is not the most welcome. I know it by my own experience.
    But community does not equal to distribution. It is still decent OS.

  12. I used a Debian Xfce Live CD snapshot (squeeze), from a few months back, and installed it to my hard drive.

    I am still running that install now, having 'upgraded the hell out of it' with packages from Wheezy to Experimental.

    I take great delight in switching between the repo distributions using synaptic, and juggling between testing and the bleeding edge.
    The occasional 'apt-get --purge autoremove' is great
    for expelling redundant dependencies. ;-)

    When I'm good and ready, Remastersys is installed for custom spins.
    Oh, and DKMS is a breeze for updating proprietary drivers (Nvidia etc).

    Overall, very impressed and pleased with this proper rolling release distribution.

  13. @Anonymous:
    Thanks for sharing your receipt of best distro!

  14. My netinstall of Debian testing + Xfce 4.8 64-bit uses 74 MB at startup (with Xfce terminal and ps_mem) and it's known that 64-bit operating system uses more memory than than 32-bit.

    My netinstall of Debian stable + Xfce 4.6 32-bit uses 59 MB at startup with xfce terminal and ps_mem.

  15. My own freshly booted Debian Squeeze with GNOME2 is about 100 Mb. It varies from 98 to 103 Mb from boot to boot, but it is still much more than XFCE version.

  16. my script right now is like this


    1. That's cool! I like it!
      Would you mind if I make it like a guest post with this video? Maybe I should wait until the script is finally released.

  17. Looking good Psychorat!
    Will your script be available somewhere to download?

    One question: can language be chosen during setup?

    1. i need to finish some things and i'll upload it :)

      i can make it multilingual also with external language files but my first priority right now is to complete the applications set and maybe clear some bugs.

  18. Hi there, i just uploaded my script. You can use it by doing the following :

    1) Grab a mini.iso image from here > http://help.ubuntu.com/community/Installation/MinimalCD < and install a basic system without any extra packages.

    2) After the reboot you have to login and run these 3 commands at the terminal (if you cant see the login press CTRL-ALT-F1) :

    $ wget http://www.fileden.com/files/2012/1/23/3253730//rmc011.sh

    $ sudo chmod +x rmc011.sh

    $ ./rmc011.sh

    Any suggestion/idea would be very helpfull

    1. Should I make a separate post for this and ask people to comment/try/feedback?

    2. Sure..
      i will soon host this project somewhere with screenshots and more information. Here is some for now.

      Without extra software installed
      KDE4-BASIC - On disk : 2.3GB MEM on boot : 300MB
      MINT-MATE-BASIC - On disk : 2.0GB MEM on boot : 100MB
      XUBUNTU-CUSTOM - On disk : 2.4GB MEM on boot : 100MB
      FXCE-BASIC - On disk : 2.0GB MEM on boot : 70MB
      LUBUNTU-CUSTOM - On disk : 1.9GB MEM on boot : 80MB
      LXDE-BASIC - On disk : 1.7GB MEM on boot : 50MB
      E17-BASIC - On disk : 1.6GB MEM on boot : 50MB

      Enabling Sound : Unmute and raise the levels of the "Master" and "PCM" channels in your system audio mixer.
      Chromium Browser : In "Preferences" > "Personal Stuff", change the "Appearance" option to "Use GTK+ Theme" to match your desktop theme.


      * I can't hear any sound.
      Unmute and raise the levels of "Master" and "PCM" channels in your system audio mixer

      * Some programs are icon-less.
      This might happen in some naked core installations.Please install more icon themes from the package manager or internet.

      * Gtk apps look ugly and not integrated to Kde theme.
      You have to change the default gtk widget style to "oxygen-gtk" in > System settings > Application appearance > Gtk+ appearance.
      * Gtk theme settings have no effect on gtk applications.
      Kde uses .gtkrc-2.0-kde4 file to store the gtk settings but the applications are looking for .gtkrc-2.0 so you have to link .gtkrc-2.0-kde4 to .gtkrc-2.0 after the first login with this command : ln

      ~/.gtkrc-2.0-kde4 ~/.gtkrc-2.0

      * Xfce panel Sound volume plugin.
      You have to enter in the configuration at least once, in order to auto-set the alsa channel and work properly.

      E17-BASIC / E17-CORE
      * LXDM login manager :
      Problem : Annoying error message about wrong window manager.
      Solution : You have to change the session to "Enlightenment" instead of "Default", at Lxdm login screen.

      * The Obconf extension for Lxappearance removed because does not show previews. You can always change your windows theme with the Openbox configuration manager.
      * The gnome-alsamixer replaced with alsamixergui because of a lubuntu related bug that make it crash on start.(i know that alsamixergui is not "fit" to desktop theme, but its better than nothin' :) The other
      alternatives are not working either).

  19. I'm a recent convert to Debian XFCE Squeeze and I was so taken
    by its lightness that I ditched altogether my previous 6-months
    old Linux distro, Peppermint 2 (LXDE, cloud-oriented, Ubuntu
    11.04-based, quite light by itself but not lighter than Deb.
    "Squeeze XFCE) Note that my PC is a geriatric 10-year old
    P4 Northwood@2.4, w/1.5G RAM and twin 160G HDDs.
    Of particular interest is the complete absence of any crash
    for the 40 days since the installation despite the daily heavy
    use (used to get about 1 complete freeze per week with my previous distro.)
    Installing the NVIDIA proprietary driver for my VGA was simply
    a matter of 5 minutes. I just installed it (along with
    "nvidia-settings" and "nvidia-xconfig") from Synaptics, sudoed
    nvidia-xconfig after the instal.,
    edited the generated /etc/X11/xorg.conf to correct the horiz.
    and vert. frequencies of my monitor, rebooted and all was well
    and real-fast. I'd advise though any new Deb. user to upgrade
    the browser (Iceweasel) to the latest - just visit the site
    http://mozilla.debian.net/ and follow the simple instructions.
    This will upgrade Iceweasel to version 10, which is unbelievably
    fast (and very light on system-load compared to the latest
    Chromium I was using in Peppermint 2, especially if one opens
    many tabs simultaneously, as I habitually do.)
    The fact that many components of Deb. Squeeze XFCE are quite
    older versions is pretty immaterial to a common user like me,
    I just need a light and reliable system that works.
    I'd highly advise Deb. Squeeze XFCE to anyone that values peace
    of mind.
    Greetings from (the financially fuxxed-up but still sunny) Greece.

    1. I am happy you enjoy Debian. It is really rock solid distribution! And XFCE adds it more light.

  20. I installed Debian XFCE on AMD64 machine, but installation of Inkscape is unsuccessful. It spits out an error message as following.

    Errors were encountered while processing:
    E: Sub-process /usr/bin/dpkg returned an error code (1)

    I googled, but could not find an solution to this. Anybody has this happened?

    1. I would probably advise you to check on forums like http://linuxquestions.org

    2. Start from scratch, and did a base system install. then immediately installed Inkscape, and it worked.

      Anyway to install a full version Firefox? I tried to install it and got all kinds of errors.

    3. There are packages available for Iceweasel 12 on Debian 6.0. I installed that and it works very well. I am using Debian Testing/Experimental though.

    4. I have just checked in my Debian Squeeze. Iceweasel 3.5.16 is the latest version here.

  21. Xfce is a lightweight desktop environment for UNIX-like operating systems. It aims to be fast and low on system resources, while still being visually appealing and user friendly.

    To install Xfce on debian 7 wheezy
    # apt-get install xorg xfce4 xfce4-goodies thunar-archive-plugin synaptic gdebi wicd

    To install extra XFCE packages
    # apt-get install xdg-utils xfce4-power-manager xfce4-goodies htop bzip2 zip unzip unrar-free

    There are more gui to choose from http://namhuy.net/1085/install-gui-on-debian-7-wheezy.html

    1. I struggle to understand why you need to install Xfce in Debian separately, if there is a special ISO for Debian Xfce edition?