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Top 10 Linux desktops part 1

The first four desktops go head-to-head as we highlight their best features...

The KDE design is beautiful, taking the clean lines of other modern desktops across all platforms

The Linux desktop is one of the most important things about your Linux experience, aiding or supporting your workflow and tasks in many ways. We look at the top ten available for various distros right now to try and help you decide…

KDE (Plasma 5)

The beautiful desktop has just received a major upgrade that reflects more modern aesthetics

Best for: Home leisure
Associated distros: Kubuntu, openSUSE, Mageia
Workflow: Uses the traditional desktop metaphor, with a window bar and program menu. Files, folders and widgets can be organised on the desktop as well

The KDE design is beautiful, taking the clean lines of other modern desktops across all platforms
The KDE design is beautiful, taking the clean lines of other modern desktops across all platforms

To us, KDE has always been the desktop that has had the best aesthetics. Everything is uniform and beautiful. However, the designs sometimes get stuck in the time they were made in, and KDE Plasma 4 looks a little bit dated in 2014. However, that’s all about to change as Plasma 5 has launched with a brand new look and a slightly different workflow.

KDE versus GNOME was the desktop battle of the previous decade, with sides apparently leaning towards GNOME but with plenty of reasons why you should check out KDE. In the end, neither really won and, while still very popular, they’re no longer in the zeitgeist like your Cinnamons or Unitys. Plasma 5 may not be quite the spark to get the old rivalry going again but it’s definitely an interesting update to the desktop environment.

Firstly, the workflow is roughly the same: a mouse-led workflow for organising windows on the desktop and on the bottom panel, listed in the traditional method. KDE popularised widgets on the Linux desktop and they remain in the latest version of the desktop, including the interesting folder view from Plasma 4. While this is not activated by default like the previous KDE, it can be added like any other widget to better organise your files and desktop.

The new aesthetics for Plasma 5 are really very nice. Crisp, clean straight lines of modern computers and extremely well-labelled in the process. It’s absolutely wonderful to use when it’s working and reminds us of using Cinnamon for the first time when that was the king of design, and KDE 4 before that.

It is still a touch buggy, though, and doesn’t play nicely with other installations of KDE 4 on the same distro. It’s also not readily available through repositories yet, so you’ll have to go looking on Google for instructions on how to install it – for major distros this usually involves downloading installation files, or adding a repository/PPA to your system and then installing it from there. Otherwise you need to look into compiling it from source.

Plasma 5 is definitely one to keep an eye on as it matures over the next six months, and we’re interested to see if new usable features will be added rather than design overhauls.

GNOME

The veteran desktop environment is forging a new path of its own that not everyone agrees with

Best for: Development, touchscreens
Associated distros: Fedora, Red Hat Enterprise Linux
Workflow: The system is designed for both touchscreens and keyboard-heavy navigation via shortcuts, reducing the emphasis on the mouse

The search function in GNOME was one of the first to be implemented into a Linux desktop environment
The search function in GNOME was one of the first to be implemented into a Linux desktop environment

The GNOME desktop is probably the most well-known desktop in all of Linux, in no small part due to its extreme popularity during the last decade. It was the desktop of choice for a lot of distros, although there wasn’t as much choice as there is now, meaning most Linux users active in the Noughties will have encountered it at least once in their lifetime.

Things change, though, and GNOME received a radical overhaul in 2011 that didn’t go down so well with several vocal members of the community. The all-important workflow of GNOME 2 was dropped for a brand new design that relies heavily on keyboard shortcuts along with mouse control. Over the intervening years, features have been added that imply a touch- focused interface reminiscent of the way you’d control running apps and windows on a smartphone or tablet.

The current philosophy behind GNOME seems to be a drive towards simplicity. Many native apps only contain the bare minimum features for the task they perform, such as the GNOME browser and the network managing tools. When maximised, windows lose the ability to be exited via the classic x symbol in the corner. In fact, normal windows do not have a maximising or minimising button. Toolbars are accessed from the top panel in an effort to keep things neat and tidy, to possibly increase screen real estate, and generally give the whole desktop a more smartphone-esque appearance.

There are a number of issues that this can cause. As the design goes against the traditional ‘desktop metaphor’ seen in most desktop environments, it can take some time for people to adjust – especially if you sometimes need to go back to more traditional desktops in the meantime. The reliance on keyboard shortcuts also means that mousing around the desktop requires many more actions than before.

With a bit of practice and know-how, learning the new workflow and switching out the default apps can lead to an excellent desktop with advanced search capabilities. It will still have a few quirks about it, and there’s no real way to use it on a touchscreen just yet, but it may well be a forward- thinking move if technology does go that way.

Unity

Ubuntu’s desktop environment is part of a distro and device- spanning concept

Best for: Family computer, media PC
Associated distros: Ubuntu, LXLE
Workflow: Use of search and the HUD to perform actions as well as regular browsing
of the side bar to click between apps. Good for touchscreens

The Unity search uses different scopes to make searching easier – these can be customised andmorescopescanbeadded
The Unity search uses different scopes to make searching easier – these can be customised andmorescopescanbeadded

One of the most controversial desktops to date, Unity is part of Canonical’s grand vision for an overarching Linux distro – in this case Ubuntu – across several types of devices. Being familiar with the desktop means you should be able to get started straight away on the phone interface as well, or at least that’s the theory. Launched in 2010 and becoming Ubuntu’s default desktop in 2011, Unity is a graphical shell that sits on top of GNOME and was originally implied as an alternative to GNOME 3 when it was released (to divisive reception around the same time).

Unity takes the search aspect of modern desktops and tries to split it up into categories for easier navigation, which is particularly handy if you’re not sure exactly what you’re looking for. What kind of music are you feeling in the mood to listen to today? Maybe you should scroll through the music tab to find out. Even if you do search, you can then easily drill down between these lenses and even add more as you see fit. The launcher on the side acts as a quick launch and a way to switch between open applications, with a focus on application-switching rather than window- switching by default.

There are also some extra minor features like the HUD, a way to access items in the toolbar of any open or in-focus applications instead of mousing through menus. It’s an interesting system but, as a lot of workflow is based on muscle-memory or only remembering the vague description of menu items, it’s not always helpful.

It’s very much one of the more touch-friendly desktops, so much so that it almost makes the mouse seem like a hindrance to the operation of the desktop. Much like GNOME it can be keyboard-heavy in a lot of senses, however it generally feels a little more usable than the current GNOME shell because the mouse isn’t completely obsolete.

While Unity is heavily tied to Ubuntu it is open source and said source is available for you to use. It’s not regularly packaged in repos, though, so you will have to find a third-party repository or build it from scratch.

Cinnamon

The former GNOME fork that has emerged as one of the more powerful and flexible desktop environments

Best for: Office, everyday computing
Associated distros: Linux Mint, Antergos
Workflow: Traditional desktop metaphor relying on mouse navigation with windows on a taskbar but with extra keyboard shortcuts to facilitate navigation

Cinnamon started as the GNOME shell in a more traditional configuration and has evolved into a unique thing
Cinnamon started as the GNOME shell in a more traditional configuration and has evolved into a unique thing

Linux Mint has been around longer than the GNOME shell or Unity, and in fact used GNOME 2 as its default desktop for a time. Like Ubuntu, once GNOME updated the desktop to its current version, the team at Linux Mint decided they wanted to use something slightly different.

After trying out a release with the Mint Gnome Shell Extensions (MGSE) to bring the desktop to a more recognisable state, the team forked GNOME to create the Cinnamon desktop for the following release. The design ethos of Cinnamon has been to take the advanced features of GNOME – namely notification integration and desktop search – and package them in the more familiar format of the so-called traditional desktop metaphor. This includes an application menu and open windows listed on the panel at the bottom.

In addition to these basic features is a highly customisable applets section that lists and accesses specific services such as networking, updates, notifications, display resolution, and more. Features can be added and removed from here and in recent updates they will smartly sense when a different application is handling
some of these core tasks and make sure icons don’t double up. Cinnamon is very much about not compromising. There are no features included just for the sake of a philosophy or corporate deal. There is no unnecessary branding, and the interface is quite minimalist in size but not function. Everything is neatly labelled and presented to maximise finding your way around the desktop and file manager.

It’s most certainly not touch-friendly, though. Menus are small and designed to maximise screen real estate, making buttons difficult to press if that’s how you want to use them. In terms of keyboard shortcuts, the basic super key to open the search and Ctrl+Alt+direction key still work as they do in GNOME. However, Down and Up expose everything on the workspace or across all workspaces respectively.

Cinnamon is now no longer a fork of GNOME, having become its own desktop and not just a shell around this time last year. This means it can grow beyond the boundaries set by GNOME and optimise the underlying code a bit more. However, it does result in a slightly less mature codebase. There are no major issues with it now, though.

Check out part two for the other six destops.

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