Desktop environments

Monday, 28 November 2005, michuk

Windows users may not be aware of the fact that the alternative operating systems (like GNU/Linux or BSD) offer a choice of a desktop environment we want to work with. There isn’t one default desktop, but many of them, each offering some unique features concerning usability, speed or visual effects (so called bloat and fancy). Still, most of the distributions offer a default desktop, but it’s very easy to switch to a different one, if we don’t like it for some reason or if it’s too demanding for our hardware.

KDE in Kubuntu
Pic 1. KDE in Kubuntu

So, in Linux we have to make a decision whether we want to work in a desktop environment that is full-featured and well-integrated with other tools like office suite or Internet apps, or we want to use a simpler window manager offering only basic functionality like toolbar, clock and main menu and save a few CPU cycles. In both cases we can find a desktop we’ll love, we just need to search for it. Here are some of the most popular choices:

  • KDE – the most popular desktop environment, offering the broadest functionalitybut also quite resource consuming. Sometimes criticized for too many options and redundant features. Still, a desktop of choice for most of the modern distros including Mandriva, openSUSE, Aurox, Xandros, Linspire and more
  • Gnome – just like KDE, it is a full-featured desktop and it requires quite modern computer (Pentium II with 128 MB RAM will do but may be a little slow). Gnome is known for its attention for usability and clean interface. It usually offers fewer features than KDE but it’s certainly easier to use. It’s supported by the major players in the Linux market (Redhat, Novell) and it’s a defaul desktop in many popular distros including Ubuntu, Fedora, SLED (Suse Linux Enterprise Desktop), Debian and more.
  • XFCE – the Gnome younger brother. It is also a GTK+ desktop but it’s simpler than Gnome and offers fewer features. It’s recommended for older computers. It is the default desktop in distros like Xubuntu and KateOS
  • Fluxbox, Windowmaker, IceWM – three popular window managers (we cannot call them desktop environments) offering basic functionality like toolbars, docks, menu and window management. They are simpler than XFCE but less resource-hungry. Good for very old computers and users who prefer speed than usability.
  • FVWM – one of the olders window managers for GNU/Linux. It’s known for its highly configurable design (it even offers its own scripting language). It’s themable as well – a very nice theme for FVWM: FVWM-Crystal is developed by Maciej Delmanowski.

Not that these are just examples of popular window managers and desktops in use. There are hundreds (sic!) of specialized managers designed for many purposes, so it’s pretty likely you will find a one you like.

Articles on desktop environments and window managers