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2017-03-21Dipping into some popular Linux desktop environments

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Confirmation bias ahoy! Last month Linux Format did another Ubuntu Remix live disc to allow people to try out desktop environments with Ubuntu, which seemed like a good opportunity to go back and convince myself that I made the right choice with XFCE and Xubuntu, also trying out some others of interest such as LXDE and KDE.

If you want to play along at home you can either boot from disc or use VirtualBox on whatever platform you're on plus a copy of the LXFDVD221 ISO from the torrent available from https://linuxformat.com/archives?issue=221 – although I recommend supporting the publication since it's a good hobbyist magazine. Even if you're not ready to consider Linux at the moment, a bit of familiarisation and learning through osmosis never hurts.

Unity

This is normal Ubuntu. My reaction to the fixed sidebar is still visceral dislike, ditto to a Mac-style ‘menu' top panel and left-aligned window close/minimise/maximise icons. It's tablet-y, text is noticeably large and the Amazon shortcut on the sidebar reminds you unsubtly that you're no longer in Kansas. It's not unusable, but it's so far removed from a typical tweakable desktop that I don't understand why it hasn't lost more ground. Maybe people prefer to download and install vanilla Ubuntu and add their choice of desktop environment rather than download forks that provide others as part of their installs.

Cinnamon

A fork of Gnome 3, I first came across this desktop environment in Mint, where a lot of Ubuntu users moved to, and didn't warm to the transparency or the panel menus being designed to look like speech balloons. I do appreciate the sensible default panel icons and generally traditional approach. Overall it feels very Aero-ish (although for the really averse to change it even comes with a WinMe window borders theme). I don't like GTK3 scrollbars in most apps, they're too thin and jump to exact positions when clicked, so a DE that uses them by default is quite a hard sell.

Mate

Based on Gnome 2, this is the other main DE for Mint and somewhat more lightweight. I don't really get why people would want two panels on screen, nor why anyone would want one at the bottom of the screen when it increases mouse travel. I could get used to it with Alt-Shift-Tab to pick windows, though, and with a different theme could be comfortable. With Cinnamon and Mate being given consideration it's a shame current Gnome itself isn't included in the Linux Format DE selection for comparison, so I decided to take a detour...

Gnome

For this I created a disposable virtual machine with some storage allocated and a vanilla Ubuntu install. After that, one quick add of the ‘universe' community repository and a sudo apt-get install ubuntu-gnome-desktop (choose gdm when prompted) plus a sudo service gdm restart later, and presto. Gnome 3 to me is similar to Unity (i.e. not a familiar paradigm) but better and more customisable. It's still extremely tablet-y, though, and not something I'd want to fight with to get things done. Screw trying to reduce desktop usage to ‘Activities' - just let me see what's running in buttons on a panel, the same requirement it's been since RISC OS and Win95.

LXDE

Whilst not having expectations set too high I was looking forward to this, as it's often compared to XFCE and I never really bothered doing so. I knew already that its default file manager isn't quite to taste, but the environment's reported responsiveness was certainly the case in VirtualBox. As expected it does feel a little unfinished compared to its older friendly rival, though that could just be a case of wearing its lightweightness and primitivism as a badge of honour – ditto things like the "start menu" apparently not being directly searchable.

XFCE

To be fair to the others my normal desktop is XFCE, and yet booting into it without any customisation initial impressions aren't great. Thunar as a file manager hides the file system hierarchy by default every bit as much as most do, the theme is uncomfortably dark in parts and the nice Whisker "start menu" used by Xubuntu is nowhere to be seen. There are also niggles such as window borders being barely selectable to resize. It's only because I'm aware of how relatively straightforward it is to tailor that I might be inclined to press on as a new user. The rest is a comfortably familiar traditional desktop with the bonus of a top panel I find sensible, albeit there's a dock there too (are they ever necessary when you can pin a couple of icons to a panel?)

KDE

I was wondering if KDE might turn out to be a case of home, the long way round. It was always one of the two main environments (with Gnome) when I was younger, very much the subject of holy wars in a developer community then largely in its twenties. It's still regarded as being the primary DE for customisers, so I was prepared to spend a bit more time with it.

The KDE remix wouldn't go above 1024x768 in VirtualBox, so try to resolve that I installed Ubuntu and then went for sudo apt-get install kubuntu-desktop – but choosing sddm when prompted turned out to be a mistake. Something went wrong and I had to sudo dpkg-reconfigure lightdm to get back to a bootable setup.

By default it's very flat and the default "start menu" substitute is hardly configurable, although there's a nicer "application menu" widget that can replace the "application launcher" one. Tray notifications are disconcertingly big and window shadows seem to be part of the current theme, the latter being fine as long as you stick to options such as Breeze. Initially there are animations on everything plus lots of translucency despite the flatness – however, once you get into System Settings and switch off most of the visual effects, reduce font size, set the panel up more to taste, etc. it's not unpleasant or as stark white as Windows 10. Overall it feels modern and professional, and throw in an icon theme such as Oxygen for a splash of colour and I think I could live with KDE happily enough, as in the below screenshot.

Conclusions

Unity would put me off desktop Linux if it was my main introduction to it. Current Gnome gives a better representation of a workable convergence between desktops and touchscreen devices, although still feels like a toy interface as a result. Cinnamon and MATE are… just there, really. Whilst I've not used Gnome 2 extensively I can understand why fans of it would fight to keep something familiar, and from an ex-Windows perspective they're friendly enough. KDE sits as a fine "modern traditional" desktop although LXDE and XFCE are more my natural territory, the latter being old and developed enough to have considered what users looking for a lightweight and configurable but non-flashy desktop will want and without being constrained by a principled commitment to run on very old hardware.

I think the main thing is not to be put off if the first desktop environment or distribution you try isn't quite what you want. My own introductory path of Mint and then Xubuntu hasn't been a bad one, and I'd be inclined to suggest Lubuntu or Kubuntu as alternate starting points too on the strength of this. Just not Unity (or Gnome) unless you're making use of touch screens and/or are more used to a Mac environment.


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