Now and Then - Lean Desktop Environments

Now and Then: The Development of 6 Lean Desktop Environments

Back in early 2008, we published a feature recommending the best 6 lean desktop environments. These desktops are: Xfce, ROX Desktop, LXDE, FVWM-Crystal, EDE, and Étoilé.

How did these desktop environments fare over the past 12 years? Are they still going strong, are they outclassed by other software, or are they only remembered like fingerprints on an abandoned handrail?

Let’s start with Xfce.


Xfce aims to be fast and lightweight while still being visually appealing and easy to use. It aims to be fast and low on system resources.

Click for full size image

We were impressed with Xfce in 2008. And we’re still impressed by this desktop environment. The project has migrated to GTK3, witnessed a big revamp of its user interface, and more besides. It fared particularly strong in our recent survey of the best desktop environments. The project is under active development.

While the project bills itself as a lightweight desktop environment, this advantage has diminished. As the chart shows, its memory footprint is about the same as KDE and GNOME. That’s not really the fault of Xfce, it’s more a reflection that GNOME and KDE’s recent releases have made good strides in reducing memory consumption.

ROX Desktop

ROX Desktop
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ROX Desktop was started by a University of Southampton student back in 1999.

The ROX desktop is no longer being actively developed, but its legacy still lives on. When the project was active, it stood out from the crowd, offering a different approach.

ROX is mostly abandoned and left in fragments that the user is left to sort out.


LXDE (Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment) was built to be lightweight, user friendly, and fast. The software seeks to be modular, so each component can be used independently.

LXDE is present in the Community repository for Arch. The pace is development is glacial though.

A spinoff from LXDE is LXQt which was formed from the merger of LXDE and Razor-qt. LXDE and LXQt coexist as separate projects, but their goals are identical: to provide a lightweight desktop.


Click for full size image

FVWM-Crystal aims to create an easy to use, powerful desktop environment. It’s based around the FVWM window manager. Unlike many other lightweight environments available at the time (in 2008), it also featured plenty of eye-candy. FVWM-Crystal boils down to a set of FVWM configuration files, some Python and shell scripts, a set of application icons and images.

FVWM-Crystal receives very little press. But it’s still under active development with regular releases.  It supports about 400 different applications, with advanced support for terminals, and great keyboard support. Recent updates include a new configurable button bars which offers a contemporary look.


EDE was billed as a small desktop environment built to be responsive, light in resource usage and to have a familiar look and feel.

The project saw a couple of major releases in 2013 and 2014. But sadly the project didn’t carry on with development. With its last update in June 2014, this project is not on its last legs, it’s as dead as a doornail.


Étoilé was intended to be an innovative GNUstep based desktop environment built from the ground up on highly modular and light components with project and document orientation in mind. We liked its framework and some of its applications including Mélodie, a music jukebox using CoreObject for the music library and MediaKit for playback.

Back in 2008 Étoilé was in an early stage of development and was not ready for production systems. The focus of Étoilé moved from a desktop environment to a development environment.

The software is sadly abandoned seeing its last release way back in April 2012. The GitHub repositories are still floating around but nothing builds. This project was exciting, but never fulfilled its promise.

All the articles in this series:

Now and Then - See How Promising Open Source Software Has Fared
DFileManagerA venerable file manager
More DistributionsThe fate of 15 more distributions
Programming LanguagesGo, Rust, Dart, Julia, Clojure, Elixir and more
File ManagersSpaceFM, gentoo, Marlin, Eagle Mode, and Beesoft Commander
DistributionsThe fate of 15 distributions
Lean Desktop EnvironmentsXfce, ROX Desktop, LXDE, FVWM-Crystal, EDE, and Étoilé
IDEsBrackets, Light Table, Julia Studio, Dart Editor, and Aptana Studio
Music Playersqomp, Lollypop, Yarock, Pragha, and Volumio
Web Browserseww, Liri, Vivaldi, Ubuntu Internet Browser, Fifth, Dooscape, and Breach
Terminal EmulatorsTerminology, Cool-Retro-Term, and Final Term
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3 years ago

ROX-Filer is alive and actively developed. In combination with JWM windrow manager, it is the desktop on Puppy Linux and derivatives such as EasyOS.

3 years ago
Reply to  BarryK

What’s your point Barry? The ROX desktop is no longer being actively developed as evidenced from the project’s website. It was a collection of applications, one of which was ROX-Filer. A few bits of it may live on (forked by others) etc. That doesn’t mean the project is alive.

The last official release of ROX-Filer was in 2011. It’s probably in some distro’s repositories (it is in Arch). Even if it has been forked, a file manager combined with an independent window manager does not make a desktop environment.

3 years ago

Whatever happened to rat poison?

Friar Tux
Friar Tux
2 years ago

Not sure why Cinnamon shows, on your chart to be the most resource heavy. On my laptop it appears to be the same as The Wife’s Mate DE. (Both using HP Pavilion.) Just curious.