Building the Ultimate Modern Linux Desktop

Tuesday Sep 20th 2011 by Matt Hartley
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A veteran Linux user lists his choices for a top-flight desktop.

Despite what we've read in various Linux articles lately, there's a world beyond Ubuntu and their Unity desktop experience. Fact is, you can actually still stick with Ubuntu if you choose to and not feel obligated to use their choice for a desktop experience.

In short, Unity isn't mandatory for people who want access to the rest of the Ubuntu experience. In this article, I’ll show how you can take part in the benefits of using Ubuntu without limiting your desktop experience to Ubuntu’s ideals.

Your desktop, without the fluff

I've found that some people will select a Linux distribution based almost exclusively on the "out of the box" experience provided. This experience is based on desktop wallpaper, icons, window borders, among other easily changed aspects of the desktop.

This especially rings true with distributions like Ubuntu. New users used to howl on for days about the horrid Ubuntu "brown" color and how ugly everything was. It never occurred to these users that one only needed to install a new theme to rectify the unfortunate out-of-the-box desktop appearance. You could also add and remove many Gnome panel applets as well.

This allows you even more control over how the Ubuntu desktop would look each time you sit down to work.

Then Ubuntu changed from the classic Gnome Shell experience to one ironically called...Unity. Even if you prefer the Unity experience, I've found that there are countless applets missing, in contrast to the classic Gnome desktop.

This isn't to say that new ones aren't being developed for Unity users, rather that the applets I enjoyed are mostly gone from the Unity desktop.

Despite Ubuntu's recent desktop changes, some are rejoicing in the continued availability of the classic Gnome desktop. This includes classic window handling with the old-style user interface. In addition to that asset, you're also free to select Gnome panel alternatives, such as various software launchers, along with other useful goodies.

I happen to be partial to a combination of docks and application launchers. Because each of them serves a different purpose, and all of them are customized extensively to meet my own personal taste.

Since I prefer to use my mouse less often than most people, I found myself drawn to the idea of using an application launcher to run many of my applications. In addition to this time saver, I also needed a place for my indicator applets as well. This lead to me using a dock solution in place of the existing Gnome panels.

Selecting the right dock and launcher

Now some of you might be tempted to point out that using a dock is merely a way to embrace more "desktop fluff." I happen to disagree with this sentiment. The perceived "fluff" in question stems more from how the dock is being used, rather than the actual dock itself.

So what about resources then? Perhaps you're under the impression that all docks are buggy or resource intensive? The fact is that some docks are actually very light on resource usage. So the idea that you must run with 3D effects or other GPU intensive services is nonsense.

Remember, Linux on the desktop is all about choices. And finding the best dock for your desktop is just one of the many choices we have.

On my desktop, I rely on Compiz Fusion. So the idea of using a dock that relies on that technology was a natural fit for me. In the end, I wound up with the Awn dock due to its useful functionality. Not only can I duplicate almost anything that Gnome panels or Unity might have to offer, but I can theme my Awn dock to look more appealing.

Another great tool that I've found to be beneficial to my work day is the Synapse Launcher. Rather than simply using Alt-F2 or a terminal window to launch an application, I can use the Synapse Launcher instead.

The Synapse Launcher also indexes recently opened documents and applications, among other system events. This allow me to get access to something repeatedly without much effort. I've found it to be a very useful, time-saving utility to have running.

An alternative dock and application launcher

Given that not everyone is going to be an ideal match for the dock and application launcher I selected for myself, I'll share two alternatives that might better fit your needs.

The first is a dock called Docky. In addition to its clever name, Docky provides a solid front-end interface for the application launcher known as Gnome-Do. Both Docky and Gnome-Do allow you to launch just about anything else you can, think of thanks to a variety of great plugins to further extend their "launching" functionality.

As a side benefit, they also work pretty well on slower computers.

The best dock for the ultimate desktop

For those of you who want maximum "customizability" on your desktop computer, my suggestion is to consider Cairo dock as a viable application management option.

Cairo dock not only offers plenty of widgets and controls to get things exactly how you want them, it mirrors the kind of experience that many Linux enthusiasts prefer in the first place. It provides an experience where you can “get your hands dirty,” setting things up to meet your own desktop preferences. I've found it to be a very powerful tool.

Docks/Launchers vs. another desktop environment

For many users, the easiest approach might simply be to look for another desktop environment. After all, if you'd rather use something else besides Gnome/Unity, why put yourself through the extra hassle of trying to make it conform to your whims and desires!

But in the end, balancing functionality with appearance is a decision each of us has to wrestle with. I submit to each of you that merely switching to another desktop environment is really nothing more than throwing in the towel. Think about it. If you're already content with an existing Gnome experience, why allow something like Unity to drive you away?

The real challenge is making the desktop experience something that's unique to each of us. I've found that we can begin the personalization process with themes. This of course includes icons, wallpapers and other minor changes to the desktop.

However, without doing away with the default desktop environment provided by Gnome, KDE, etc., we're limiting ourselves by simply running away from one default user experience to another. Switching desktop environments isn't a failsafe solution to those yearning to create their own ultimate desktop experience.

Through careful thought and planning, I've crafted a desktop Linux experience that reflects the way I'd like to use my computer. By using a carefully selected application launcher and a highly customized dock, I've found that my desktop layout is one I wouldn't want to give up on easily.

Sadly, however, it seems that future releases of my go-to desktop distribution are not going to make this kind of customization as simple as it once was.

Ubuntu's no longer the ultimate desktop

Recently, I dropped Ubuntu and switched to Linux Mint as a compatible alternative. I did this not in protest or because Linux Mint offers a vastly different experience. Actually I've found that Linux Mint offers me a proxy to Ubuntu's huge software repositories without the Ubuntu related hassles. < P> Let's face it, Ubuntu deb packages are everywhere these days and this is a huge time saver for users.

The really neat part is that I can still run the cutting-edge software I enjoy, but I can do so without ever needing to worry about losing my existing user experience. The developers behind the Linux Mint project have made it expressly clear that they will continue the same experience using Gnome, without relying on the Gnome Shell.

Linux Mint also offers Ubuntu users some great time-saving utilities not found in Ubuntu by default. The Linux Mint menu is fantastic to use. Plus my Awn dock(s) bundled with the Synapse Launcher frees me from both Unity and those tired old Gnome panels. Another advantage to using Linux Mint is avoiding the nightmare that'll be the Ubuntu switch from X to Wayland.

Don't get me wrong, Wayland sounds incredibly promising, but if fighting with Unity has taught me anything, I'm done playing Ubuntu's guinea pig.

There will be big issues as NVIDIA isn't going to be supporting Wayland. They may not have shown their face just yet, but I promise you that video card issues will be plenty as Wayland is still finding its land legs.

My switch to Linux Mint isn't absolute. In the past I've been very happy with other distributions like Fedora and will be spending some long overdue time with Arch Linux in the near future. I see Arch as being a natural fit for me in many areas.

Perhaps this is one of my greatest assets that I enjoy using open source software and the Linux desktop as a whole. I'm not locked into a single user experience. Unlike OS X or Windows, when something goes terribly wrong with the user experience along the way, I can easily move on to another Linux distribution that better fits with my vision of the ultimate desktop.

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