The work laptop is now on Xubuntu 12.10 beta, which includes XFCE 4.10. This works just like 4.8 but with a few annoyances fixed (e.g., there's a menu editor, it comes with the GVFS backends; though I still have to faff to make caps lock a control key). And that's how it should be.
The question with minimal desktops is the fine line between as simple as possible and just a bit too simple. How much basic stuff do you have to add back? 4.8 took it slightly far, 4.10 is almost Just Right. XFCE is so far a case study in Not Fucking It Up; I hope they never go to version 5, and just update 4 forever.
What I heartily recommend about Xubuntu: My machine is instantly way more responsive than under GNOME or KDE. This is the fucking future, our computers have four cores of streamlined and optimised CPU power with not a lot to do, they should fucking run like it.
Of course, you can go too far. Oliver Keyes just tried Lubuntu:
"I have been using it for 5 seconds. The interaction design was clearly done by a fucking postdoc in heuristic estimation or getting CoffeeScript to work underwater or some similarly highly-interesting-shit-that-is-ultimate
ly-irrelevant-to-MAKING-SOMETHING-USEFUL. The icons are about as intuitive as one of those zelda box-moving games, the taskbar is so slim as to be virtually invisible, and no amount of whizzy speed makes up for the fact that they clearly took all ubuntu elements that demonstrate Canonical's Windows poseur status and KILLED ANYTHING THAT WASN'T DESIGNED WITH THAT IN MIND. TL;DR if you offered me a choice between using this and having my balls deep-fried and served to the queen as an entree my only objection would be to using low-grade oil in the fryer."
I have in fact run an all-macho desktop of just Sawfish and xterms, middle-click to start anything. After a while I got sick of doing everything by hand and just installed KDE 3, which didn't suck and was just lovely (if still a bit fat), and I don't know what fucked-up rush of blood to the head was responsible for KDE 4 but it was an unmitigated disaster and conclusive evidence that computer scientists need to be kept on a short fucking leash around shit people actually use, particularly if they EVER use the words "semantic" or "ontological" in ANY circumstances. Different-but-the-same shit happened to GNOME 3, only worse.
When people combine the words "desktop" and "innovation", I reach for my revolver.
(For gratuitous horror: I'm actually posting this from Windows 7. Well, I did say to IT that I'd beta-test it. Firefox is noticeably faster on the same hardware; wonder if it's still faster in Wine.)