Friday, 13 June 2014

Xubuntu with a *pure* Debian Base (from scratch)

Or, rather... How to make Debian look and behave like Xubuntu.

Why? Xubuntu is a very polished distro and has gained many fans over the last couple of years as Ubuntu users dissatisfied with the Unity interface have looked for something more akin to the old Gnome 2 way of working, or wanted something that would run well on hardware no longer supported by Unity. The current version, 14.04 is an LTS release and is as good an Xubuntu release as I have used, and looks stunning - modern, but straight-forward.

Still, Xubuntu has always been a little 'heavy' for an XFCE-based distribution, both in terms of RAM usage and it's reliance on many gnome packages and dependencies.

Debian is a leaner system, though out-of-the-box, XFCE looks really dated on Debian.

The Goal: Create a pure Debian installation with XFCE, themed to look like Xubuntu, but with as few gnome dependencies as possible, whilst maintaining the same functionality.

How: Starting with a net install, install the packages one by one, check dependencies, replace with alternative packages if available, then configure and theme like Xubuntu.

Difficultly: intermediate. Some prior use of Linux is assumed, with some exposure to the command line and packaging tools, although all commands will be given in full.

Time: 1 -2 days. You will be installing a base system and then adding the packages one by one to build a complete system. You will be editing configuration files and using the command line.

This tutorial will be in a number of parts so that you can follow easily if you want to have a go too:

Part 1  - will get you a minimal Debian install with working X, sound, login manager and basic XFCE desktop environment.

Part 2 - will get the XFCE desktop themed like Xubuntu.

Part 3 - will complete the Xubuntu theming through boot up and log on.

Part 4 - will install all the required applications for a fully functional system and perform final tweaks.

Part 5 - will set up the system for remastering and create an installable live ISO.

Edit 20/06/2014 You can now download the entire tutorial in PDF format:


  1. Hi RichJack,

    Thank You very much for the helpful and nicely detailed manual! :)
    Could You please also publish the Live CD ISOs, created by You?

    Thank You!

    Best regards,

  2. Hello Nickolay. Thanks for your comment. The live CD iso has been up for some time. You can access it from Sourceforge here:

    If you can't find it just let me know. Thanks :)

  3. Awesome. This is great. I had been trying to piece this exact setup together. Xubuntu looks GREAT but I much prefer the Debian technical base. (I don't like Ubuntu at all, in fact!)

    Those were some weird reactions you got over on the forums. I was sorry to see that.

    In an ideal world, this stuff would be packaged and added to the Debian repos. Maybe this is the final kick in the pants I needed to learn how to do that ...

    1. Hi krilli, thanks for your kind words. I am glad that this guide has been of use to you and some others at least :) Xubuntu tend to be pretty cutting edge with the XFCE side of things whilst Debian is generally conservative. It seems to me it is possible to get the best of both worlds.

      OTOH, plenty of development recently in both Debian Jessie and XFCE so this guide will probably need updating in the next few months or so.

  4. Thank you for a wonderful exposition of XFCE in Debian. I was not particularly trying to reproduce the Xubuntu theme but rather to set up XFCE from a netinstall without bringing in the entire DE in one go. Your series greatly helped me to understand how XFCE fits into the Debian framework. You might think about some sort of entry in the Debian Wiki ( maybe based on this series but not specific to the Xubuntu theming ) ?

    PS I too was disappointed to see the dismissive and rather elitist attitude towards your efforts on the Debian forum - it certainly did not represent my opinion.


  5. Thank you sooo much for this.
    Searched for something complete like this for a year now.

    It's just awesome, don't know what to say any further.
    Was probably a hell lot of work. Thanks for that!

  6. Thank you both for your positive comments. It was a lot of work and I am glad that people are finding it useful and can see wider uses for it beyond Xubuntu theming! I can see that it was worth the effort now.

    One day when Debian Jessie stabilises and I have a bit of time, I'd like to update the guide.

  7. Great tutorial!!
    I have one question to ask since it is a problem I cannot manage to solve.
    I have a radeon based video card to which are attached two screens (VGA port and DVI port) of different dimensions (one rectangular and one square).
    On Xubuntu, using xrandr and arandr I can manage to use both screens properly, side by side, without one being just the clone of the other.
    On Debian+Xfce though, when I try to set them up, I am told that they cannot go side by side because the screen estate is to small, specifically the virtual screen size which is 1360x1360 while it should be 3000x2000, but I am not able to set it up properly and actually managed to confuse Xfce so that I had to do a live session to delete the conf file (00-dualhead.conf) I made in xorg
    This is a thread I started on Debian forums:
    I kindly got some help, but I am still stuck and perhaps you can help me solve the problem.


  8. Hi Clemens
    Sorry you are having trouble with your monitor setup. It's really difficult to advise because I can't replicate your seup - I don't have 2 monitors or a Radeon video card. What I can say is that using my DebianXBlueBuntu with arandr I can connect my laptop (Intel graphics) to my 30" TV and get side by side display with the highest resolution on both screens. No manual config was required.
    The only thing that I can suggest is that you look carefully at the setup in Xubuntu and your Debian, specifically kernel version and driver versions. If they are different, bring Debian to same as Xubuntu. It will be technically possible to get your setup working, but perhaps difficult.

    1. Thank you for your kind reply.
      Reading that you have your system recognize the tv right away, I tried unplugging one of the screens, rebooting and then plugging it in again. This time the virtual screen size problem disappeared!
      Perhaps you could add this little trick to your guide somewhere.

      Clemens :)

    2. That's great news that you got your setup working, glad to be have been of help in some small way. I'm currently quite busy on my new project, Chromixium, but I do plan to update the guide sometime after Jessie goes stable.

  9. Chromixium looks like a really interesting project, I will certainly give it a try :)
    I am also following your Debian Xfce/Xubuntu guide and I am trying the last section on backup and imaging and I have a little problem yad doesn't install due to libpango dependency (the Wheezy one is v. 1.0.0, the one required by yad is 1.18.0).
    I found an earlier package here:

    Another little thing I noticed is that isolinux is not in the depositories, but I guess it is included in Syslinux, also Syslinux-utils is not there.
    In any case I will try and see what happens :)


  10. I meant repositories :8
    and the link to yad 20 was actually


  11. Me again :)
    Also refractasnapshot 9.1 does not work (base loads on gdebi but the install button remains gray, without turning black to allow install proper), so I installed the earlier version 9.0.9-4 found here:

  12. All went well and I managed to make a copy of the system :)
    Thank you so much for your wonderful guide and good work with Chromixium.

    p.s. sorry for having written so many separate comments, feel free to delete them or put them into one.
    I would have done it myself but I posted as an anonymous user.

    1. Hi Clemens!

      Don't worry about the separate comments, I'm pleased you got your system copied.

      I think I put in the instructions that you will need to enable the Debian Sid repositories to use the latest refracta tools and install the list of dependencies first before installing the tools. I see you're using Wheezy, so I think you were best to use old versions of the tools.

      Cheers :)

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  14. Hey, thanks for the guide. This is exactly what I needed! I am probably going to do something similar on Fedora.

  15. This is exactly what I was looking for. Thank you very much.

  16. Thanks for the work you've put for this project. I will follow your instructions and try to build the system using Debian 8.2 and XFCE 4.12.

  17. So nice, happy with this blog!