The pros and cons of some of the most popular GNU/Linux desktop alternatives, together with an assessment of their intended audiences.
"It's like starting another operating system," a colleague complained recently when he switched from the GNOME to the KDE desktop. He was exaggerating, but the impression is accurate. Unlike Windows or OS X, where the desktop and the window manager -- the program that controls how programs open -- are fixed, in GNU/Linux, you have dozens of choices for a graphical interface, each one with its own look, tradition, and utilities.
The result is unparalleled choice -- but equally unparalleled confusion among new users. How do you decide which desktop to use? To help you decide, here are the pros and cons of some of the most popular alternatives, together with an assessment of their intended audiences.
Through much of its early history, GNOME was playing catch-up with KDE, first in terms of features and then in terms of popularity. However, those days are now several years in the past. For over five years, GNOME developers have paid special attention to usability, and the fact that such major distributions as Debian, Fedora, and Ubuntu default to GNOME now make it roughly equal to KDE in popularity.
Some weak points remain. GNOME continues to lack a font installer, and its help system continues to be overhauled. However, for the most part, GNOME today is a modern desktop that can be easily learned by anyone familiar with the concept.
If anything, the main problem with GNOME these days is that advanced users are largely ignored, as Linus Torvalds complained. The browser view of the file manager is increasingly hard to find in some distributions, and its organization around the current user's desktop and home directory is an irritant for those used to thinking in terms of the entire system structure.
Some, too, complain of code bloat, as GNOME continues to add new features with each release. However, for the most part, GNOME deserves its dominant position among desktops, offering a wide range of utilities and a professional, blessedly, non-Windows look.
By name, IceWM is a window manager, and not a desktop at all. However, with its own control center and a broad assortment of themes, IceWM actually occupies a gray area somewhere between the two categories.
Users praise its low footprint and its use of plain text files for customizing settings, and its often one of the first choices for those who want a graphical interface for older machines or thin clients.
KDE is presently undergoing a massive face lift in the shape of version 4.0, which is due in January 2008. Meanwhile, its current version remains one of the two most popular desktops for GNU/Linux and other UNIX-like operating systems. It has the reputation of being more Windows-like than GNOME, and therefore the most likely of the two to appeal to new users.
This reputation depends as much on the past as on present day reality, but undoubtedly KDE offers one of the friendliest user experiences of any available desktop, with adjustable levels of eye-candy and the support of dozens of programs written specifically for the desktop. Its configuration options are especially thorough, and are conveniently arranged in the KDE Control Center, where they can be easily found.
KDE's main weaknesses are a chaotic main menu and a combination file manager and file browser -- an outdated concept that only weakens the efficiency of the file browsing capabilities. Some, too, feel that its default themes are less professional-looking than GNOME's. And, like GNOME, KDE is often accused of code bloat -- an unfair accusation in both cases, considering their efforts to accommodate a broad variety of users and work styles.
Next page: Rox, Symphony OS, Xfce...
The ROX Desktop is a lightweight desktop developed by the same team that does Zero Install, the alternative software installation system. It includes a number of unique programs, including the ROX-Filer file manager, a virtual terminal with many advanced features, such as options for selecting the exact command for rebooting the system or for displaying message logs, and OroboROX, a window manager with a dozen themes.
Compared to other desktops, the ROX Desktop makes heavy use of its drag and drop capabilities. For instance, to change the desktop wallpaper, you drag an image to the dialog rather than selecting a file with a file manager, while to archive a file you drop it on the appropriate icon.
Much of the desktop is configurable, but the controls are dispersed, and may take a while to track down until you are familiar with them. In addition, some aspects, such as the default panel icons, are not configurable at all.
In general, the ROX Desktop is not for beginning users, but for intermediate and advanced ones with a preference for small applications rather than single, centralized ones.
Some aspects of it, such as the search function in ROX-Filer, which depends on regular expressions, also assume knowledge of the UNIX command line. If you fit this user profile, you will probably appreciate the ROX Desktop, but, otherwise, you are apt to find it idiosyncratic and inflexible in the work flow it implies. Definitely an acquired taste.
Symphony OS (not to be confused with IBM's Lotus Symphony office suite) is a large scale attempt to rethink the desktop.
Unlike most desktops, it uses no desktop icons, task bars, nested menus or dialogs. Instead, Symphony OS uses what it calls "targets" in each of the four corners of the desktop for system settings, personal files, the application menu, and the trash. When you open an item from a target, it opens in a separate pane on the desktop, while icons for minimized programs appear on the bottom of the desktop. The desktop is also full of other little touches, such as bumpers that prevent a window moving past the edge of the desktop.
These changes are a lot to absorb at once, so you should try Symphony OS for several hours before making a decision about it. Probably, Symphony OS is not for everybody's daily use, but, if nothing else, it will make you aware of how conventional other desktops can be.
Xfce is rapidly becoming the third alternative in GNU/Linux desktops. Although relatively few distributions install it as the default desktop, an increasing number of major distributions now include Xfce as a standard choice.
The reason for Xfce's popularity seems to be that the desktop is a carefully chosen compromise between full-scale and minimalist interfaces. On the one hand, it is noticeably faster in starting and closing programs than either GNOME or KDE. On the other hand, it is more customizable than many smaller desktops, with options for customizing desktop wallpaper and fonts. It also tends to look better than some minimalist desktops, thanks to its anti-aliasing of fonts.
Two small drawbacks to Xfce are its lack of drag and drop support and its relatively few utilities. However, that said, Xfce's Thunar file manager has the same virtues as the desktop in general, balancing performance with features so well that I have known at least one person to install Xfce solely in order to use Thunar.
The real question is whether Xfce can keep its delicate balance. Given the desktop's increasing popularity, some users worry that its development team will give into the temptation to compete with GNOME and KDE directly and the program will start to suffer from bloat. However, for now, Xfce remains one of the more attractive choices for desktop users.
Next page: How to chose among them all
Choosing a desktop
These are only a small selection of the graphical interfaces available. Running just a window manager, such as AfterStep, FVWM, Enlightenment, or Window Maker is always a popular solution.
To some extent, you can also mix and match window managers with desktops -- for example, I prefer to use Sawfish with GNOME rather than the default Metacity, because it is faster and does not show ghostly outlines of windows as they are being minimized on slower systems. However, you should check compatibility before changing the default window managers of either KDE or GNOME.
Other users prefer minimalist tiled desktops, such as Ion or ratpoison, which are designed to be used from the keyboard rather than via the mouse, and often require configuration before they can be used.
In the last year or so, too, desktops with 3D effects like Beryl and Compiz are attracting the interest of those with the RAM and the processors to use them. However their instability still makes them little more than toys -- despite the race among distros to be the first to ship with one of these desktops as the default.
Amid such a variety of choices, how do you decide which desktop to use? Many people will probably want a minimalist install of both GNOME or KDE, simply because of the number of programs written for them. Beyond that, however, your choice is a matter of priorities. If you want the comprehensive sort of support you get from desktops on other operating systems, you may be content to stick with GNOME or KDE, or perhaps Xfce. If you feel more adventurous, then you might try the Rox Desktop or Symphony OS, while, if system speed is your concern -- either because you appreciate efficiency or have an older system -- then a window manager or a tiled desktop is probably your best choice.
Alternatively, if you want to investigate them thoroughly, why not install as many as your distro includes? In return for an investment of perhaps ten gigabytes of hard drive space, you can investigate all of them at your leisure, choosing the one you want from the login screen. After all, that's one of the advantages of free software -- you can test drive programs to your own content until you find exactly the one that suits you.