Choosing a Linux Desktop: 7 Tips

Friday May 20th 2016 by Bruce Byfield

Choose a Linux desktop should be about finding the Linux environment that works best for your individual workflow.

Newcomers to Linux desktop struggle with the concept of choosing a Linux desktop environment. Just the idea of having a choice is difficult if you are used to Windows or OS X, but how do you choose between a dozen major Linux desktop options, and several dozen minor ones?

The question has no easy answer, especially when most newcomers have no experience with any of the Linux desktop options. Nor are most of the articles written on the subject much help, because they decide what is best for newcomers instead of helping them decide for themselves. If you have experience with Linux, Distrowatch's Search page is more useful, but is of limited use for newcomers.

I would like to suggest another approach: presenting opposing design choices, and letting newcomers choose according to their own preferences and work habits. Here are seven to help newcomers get started:

7. Classical vs. Innovative

Classical desktops have a workspace, one or more panels, and a menu. From MATE to Xfce, they account for the vast majority of desktop environments in Linux. They are seldom flashy, but they offer a predictable interface that almost anyone who has used a computer has seen before. Those who want a desktop that operates like most versions of Windows should probably consider a classical desktop.

By contrast, innovative desktops depart from the classical design. GNOME, for example, uses an overview screen for launching applications, Unity a desktop whose true home is a mobile device. Similarly, although you can set up a classical desktop in KDE, the design extends the classical desktop with multiple desktops and several ways to easily swap icons in and out.

6. Mobile vs. Non-Mobile

Users who do much of their computing on phones or tablets can choose a desktop inspired by mobile devices, with simple workspaces and multiple screen changes. For these users, GNOME is a reasonable choice, but Unity an even better choice. Alone among desktops, Unity is designed for convergence -- the use of the same desktop on any form factor. Unity is especially recommended for those who have a touch-screen monitor.

5. Launchers vs. Utilities

On the one hand, for some users, the desktop is no more than an application launcher. They spend as little time as possible in it, and expect nothing. For such users, Unity, and LXDE are probably suitable.

On the other hand, for some users, the desktop is part of an eco-system, and its settings determine how they work. These users should investigate GNOME, KDE, Cinammon, and MATE.

4. Minimal or Maximal Design

Several Linux desktops are designed to reduce clutter while offering the simplest possible layout of tools and controls. Applications designed to run on such desktops are designed for the most common circumstances, but may be lacking when problems arise. GNOME, LXDE, and Unity all fall into this category, and so do all window managers.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are desktops whose designers who are determined to leave nothing out. Although these maximal designs can give newcomers option anxiety, they have any feature than you could ever expect to need. Often, they simplify by choosing intelligent defaults, or hiding advanced features on a separate tab. Examples of these maximal designs include KDE and, to a lesser extent, Cinnamon.

3. Menus vs Desktop Launchers

Some users prefer to start applications from the menu and keep their work space clean. Others prefer to add launchers to the desktop or panel for applications, document types, or URLs, cluttering their work space but allowing quick access to resources.

Which one you prefer is a matter of choice. However, if you prefer using the menu, try GNOME or Unity.

But if you prefer desktop launchers, try MATE, Cinnamon, or Xfce. If you strongly prefer desktop launchers, KDE will give you the most configuration options, including the ability to customize each virtual workspace.

2. Full-Screen or Multi-tasking

Do you generally work with one or two applications at a time? Or do you regularly use more than one application, switching back and forth between them as you work?

If you answer "yes" to the first question, you will probably be content with Unity. It is not that Unity cannot multi-task so much as the fact that by default it opens applications full-screen, and the display of the top-level menu in the panel can be confusing as you switch between windows.

However, if you answer "yes" to the second question, almost any other desktop will probably be more to your liking.

1. Light-weight vs. Full-Featured

Until the last few years, Linux desktops were full-featured. Both KDE and GNOME offered both a place from which to launch applications and extensive eco-systems of utilities and applications designed to work with them.

However, you may prefer to choose applications by preference instead of by desktop environments. Or perhaps you have an older, slower machine. In both cases, a lightweight desktop like LXDE, or a window manager such as IceWM or Openbox may be a better choice for you.

Making Your Linux Desktop Choice

Sometimes, one of these opposing pairs may be more important the rest, ans answering it will be enough for a decision. However, the best way to use this series of choices is to consider each, then tally up the number of times a desktop environment comes up in the comments. Although the result will not always be a single desktop, you should usually be able to reduce the possibilities to one or two.

To narrow down the selection even further, consider the specialities of each Linux distribution. Zorin, for example, offers a Windows-like look and feel, while MATE and Cinammon are frequently recommended for Windows users because, like Windows, they are examples of the classical desktop. Similarly, although no distribution (so far as I am aware) emulates OS X, Unity was inspired by OS X, so refugees from the Mac may feel the most comfortable with it.

However, whatever method you use to choose your Linux desktop, take your time. Finding a desktop that suits your preferences and work-flow could make all the difference to how you react to the experience.

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