How to install a minimal (XFCE based) ubuntu desktop

If you are feeling fairly adventurous or just simply want a change to get a simple but fast booting desktop you might want to consider installing a minimal desktop environment  – that is, install the basic packages & software that YOU want rather what a distribution such as ubuntu/xubuntu/lubuntu/ubuntu gnome would present to you.

Its not particularly difficult – you just need to be fairly comfortable with a small bit of terminal work.  Its actually great fun – you learn lots by tweaking stuff – installing your own themes and wallpapers etc.

Before you begin you need to have a plan – just a basic plan.  Ask yourself the following:

  1. What desktop environment do you want – xfce / lxde/ unity/ gnome-shell ?
  2. Where are you in the world – i.e. what locale are you – you need to understand what two letter or four letter code applies to you
  3. You want graphics – what graphics card do you have and what drivers if any do you need?
  4. You want sound – what sound driver and configuration do you need?
  5. What web-browser do you want to use?
  6. What is your favourite file-manager?
  7. What extra software do you need to use?

Look at your current desktop – try to answer the above.  You need to figure out what key debian package names for each of the above.

Quick Tip: – if you don’t know the package name, you can search through the descriptions quickly via the following:

apt-cache search

apt-cache search greybird

This example reveals that the greybird theme that comes with xubuntu is installed via the package shimmer-themes.

My recommendation is to use something like Virtualbox to play-around with minimal installs – you can easily snapshot various check-points and use the rollbacks to back out of stuff.

Lets begin.

Lets be up-front, this article is inspired by this article but with a focus on ‘buntu.

First download the minimal ISO.  This is a tiny basic installer containing very little itself.  Everything is downloaded from the internet.  So make sure you are using a wired connection – no wireless at this stage.

Write this to a CD using your favourite burning software such as brasero.  Alternatively use unetbootin to write it to a USB stick – or if using Virtualbox, attach the ISO to a new virtual machine.

On boot you will receive a screen like this:


Press Enter and just answer each of the questions posed.

When you get to this screen you have a choice  of choosing one of the standard desktop environments or just continuing to a basic text only interface.  Lets choose the latter:


Let the wizard complete and install the remaining basic packages.

Reboot – remove the CD/USB/virtual CD drive and login using your username and password you defined during the text wizard stage above.

Next – make sure the repositories are up-to-date:

sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get upgrade

Lets ensure we configure our system to not install suggested packages or recommended packages:

cd /etc/apt
sudo nano apt.conf

Type in the following:

APT::Install-Recommends "0";
APT::Install-Suggests "0";

Save and quit nano – CTRL+O, CTRL+X

Quick Tip: when typing package names, type the first few characters and press TAB. This will either autocomplete the package name or display the matching package names allowing you to narrow down the correct full package-name.

Lets now install the basic graphics stack:

sudo apt-get install xserver-xorg xserver-xorg-core xfonts-base xinit x11-xserver-utils

Now lets install our chosen window manager and desktop environment + basic packages such as a terminal to type in. Here I’ve chosen XFCE – the window manager is xfwm4 and you must install a session i.e. xfce4-session:

sudo apt-get install xfwm4 xfce4-panel xfce4-settings xfce4-session xfce4-terminal xfdesktop4 xfce4-taskmanager tango-icon-theme

Finally lets install a basic graphical login manager – lets stick with lightdm but you could use something heavyweight such as GDM or MDM:

sudo apt-get install lightdm lightdm-gtk-greeter

Reboot and login graphically:

sudo reboot --

ubuntu minimal [Running] - Oracle VM VirtualBox_055

That is the basics. Everything else that follows is your customisation requirements.

Ok, I want to stick with thunar – you could use nautilus etc.

sudo apt-get install thunar

I want some nice automatic recognition of inserted USB sticks and disks by thunar

sudo apt-get install gvfs gvfs-backends policykit-1 udisks2

I also want sound – I like pulseaudio:

sudo apt-get install gstreamer0.10-plugins-base gstreamer0.10-plugins-good gstreamer0.10-plugins-bad pulseaudio gstreamer0.10-pulseaudio pavucontrol

Reboot for the sound packages to take effect.

Launch the pulseaudo volume control and check that the sound is configured correctly – check if the sound is muted. Obviously unmute if necessary

Next install your chosen browser – in this case firefox. Remember to install the associated locale – mine is english

sudo apt-get install firefox
sudo apt-get install firefox-locale-en

Smarten stuff up – choose your theme, add a compositor, opacity settings etc.

I want to browse YouTube – so I need Flash:

sudo apt-get install flashplugin-installer

For Virtualbox you should also install dkms before installing the guest-additions:

sudo apt-get install dkms

Remember to add the permissions for your user:

sudo usermod -a -G vboxsf <username>

Finally my media player is rhythmbox:

sudo apt-get install rhythmbox rhythmbox-plugins


18 thoughts on “How to install a minimal (XFCE based) ubuntu desktop

  1. Thanks for this. Am settings up a development environment in Debian, and sick and tired of all the dross that comes with most Linux distros these days. Very helpful, indeed

  2. Maybe I don’t get what you’re trying to make clear, or maybe this tutorial has been overtaken by time, but why are you installing the xfce components by hand? With the introduction of the Xubuntu minicore, all the user has to do is select the Xubuntu desktop (as it is in your image above – Software Selection). That will install the basic components, including for example networkmanager, without all the apps (e.g. browesers, office suites, mediaplayers….)

    • Correct … At the time the core version did not exist. Its still useful though for those of us that want to know what is hiding behind the core version and want to roll their own desktop

      • And Xubuntu core is not available on 14.04 LTS release. Only on 16.04 LTS. I don’t know about other (with short support period) release.

        P.S. Sorry for my english. It isn’t my native language. I’m from Belarus and speak Russian.

        • And xubuntu core isn’t minimal system. It’s core system. There aren’t theese unnecessary applications, but there is a few garbage packages e.g. printer drivers.

  3. Hi, like you said in the beginning I used wired connection and everything went well. Now, how can I enable wifi? Do I need to install a network manager? If so, please advise me a light one with graphical interface and how to install it. I’m rather new to Linux, but I’ve learned a lot here 🙂

    Thank you

    • personally I would install the following package – despite its name – it doesnt require too many dependencies – network-manager-gnome. If necessary:

      sudo nano /etc/NetworkManager/NetworkManager.conf

      change the line managed=false to managed=true

      Save, stop and start network manager:

      sudo service network-manager restart

  4. Pingback: instalação leve de ubuntu | Listas

  5. Hi,
    I think is better to change in the page:

    sudo gstreamer0.10-plugins-base gstreamer0.10-plugins-good gstreamer0.10-plugins-bad pulseaudio gstreamer0.10-pulseaudio pavucontrol


    sudo apt-get install gstreamer0.10-plugins-base gstreamer0.10-plugins-good gstreamer0.10-plugins-bad pulseaudio gstreamer0.10-pulseaudio pavucontrol

    Thank You for this page, It was very useful for me.


    • RemasterSys should take care of that – never tried personally. May try this sometime.

      Alternatively, you can clonezilla the Virtual Machine and install onto a physical box – you may have to change fstab stuff etc but you can do this from a live CD.

  6. Pingback: Installing the lightweight LXDE-QT desktop | xpress-ubuntu

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