Linux Desktops

Originally posted on Linux Mint forums  this excerpt has been described as “one of the best ‘layman’s language’ descriptions of the Linux desktop ever written:”

‘m no geek nor technology genius, but as a Sidekick, part of my duty is to be a good steward of my resources – including those on my personal Bat-Computer. A little while back my poor little computer was crippled by “Windows rot.” For the umpteenth time I grew tired of paying someone to fix it, and I didn’t know there was any alternative other than buying a Mac. But once I saw the price tag, I was like, “Forget that!” But my Hero led me by His providence to a completely free (as in cost) alternative, Linux!

But I was entering a whole ‘nother world of choices and customizations I had no idea about. This “layman’s guide to Linux desktops” is a short account of my own journey in this wonderful new world. It describes the major Linux desktop choices you might find in your favorite Linux distribution:

If you’re coming to Linux for the first time from Windows or Mac, you’re not familiar with the very concept of having different desktops to choose from! The only thing I ever really changed on my Windows desktop was wallpaper and themes. But in Linux, you can choose different window managers and desktop environments.

The two are different things. The window manager controls how the desktop windows are “drawn” by your computer. When we refer to windows in Linux, we don’t mean that other operating system by Microsoft, we mean the little boxes that contain the graphics for
whatever application you launch.

In Linux you can choose between window managers like Icewm, Openbox, Fluxbox, and Xfwm. Openbox is a big favorite because it has a nice “right-click anywhere on the desktop” feature that brings up a whole menu from which you can launch applications, open a
terminal, etc. You can even have wallpaper. Many folks with older low-powered machines like mine use only a window manager and no desktop environment at all. Without the extra visual “eye candy” and decorations, computers running only a window manager run very fast! Search the term “Linux window managers screenshots” to see what can be done with just a bare-bones window manager!

A desktop environment on the other hand includes a window manager but also includes stuff like panels, applets, and applications that are designed to work best in that particular desktop environment. Among desktop environments are KDE, Gnome, Xfce, Enlightenment, and LXDE. Each has it’s own special features and applications. The “heavyweight” desktop
environments (KDE and Gnome) have all sorts of wonderful features like “plasmoids” and the famous “spinning cube.” They’re more demanding on resources, but on computers 2 years old or newer, they run plenty fast.  Xfce is kinda sorta like “Gnome Lite,” if you will. It “feels like” Gnome but offers fewer of the extra fancy features and is designed to work better on modest hardware. LXDE is a very “lightweight” desktop environment – so light in fact that it has been “accused” of being a window manager instead of a full-fledged desktop environment. The look of LXDE reminds a lot of people of what “Windows 98” looked like.

Each of the desktop environments has it’s own set of applications that work best in their “native” environment. That is called “integration.” Xfce applications, for example, are integrated into the Xfce desktop environment, so the experience of applications in their
“native” desktop environment will tend to be snappier and more responsive. Most people mix-and-match applications anyway. You can use any application in any desktop environment! But if you have limited space on your hard drive, it’s better not to do that, since installing a single KDE application onto a Gnome desktop, for example, may also “pull in” large libraries from the other desktop environment. Here’s are some of the applications listed according to the desktop environment they are native to:

CD Burners:
Brasero – Gnome
Xfburn – Xfce

File managers:
Konqueror – KDE
Nautilus – Gnome
Thunar – Xfce

Music Players:
Amarok – KDE
Rhythmbox – Gnome
Exaile – Xfce
LXMusic – LXDE

These are just a few examples. The KDE file manager also doubles as a nice web browser! Some find it complicated, others love it. Brasero always just makes coasters out of my blank CDs, but both Xfburn and K3B work flawlessly. Other people find that Brasero works best for them. The only way to be sure is to “use what you have,” and if it doesn’t work or you don’t like it, try one of the others. So much choice! It’s wonderful, but a bit overwhelming to a Linux newcomer. So much of it is a matter of taste and what works on your own machine. It took me a year of trying them all to finally choose a favorite! I chose what works fastest on my hardware yet still offers most of the features I want in a desktop.

Now you see why it’s a bigger question than it seems like at first!  So many choices! But don’t hurry! Try a few, one every month or two when you feel like exploring, and if you’re delighted with what you’ve got, just keep it! But it’s fun to see what the others are like. Many a nicely “pimped out” desktop with wicked special effects has won a few people over from Windows and Mac. And many an aging heap has been saved from a landfill and converted into a screamin’ fast machine by a sweet-and-simple, bare-bones window manager!

How to choose?

 – Look at screenshots from the different DEs and WMs and pick a pretty one!

 – Consider a “lightweight” if you have an older, low-resource computer that you want to run fast!

– Experiment with the different applications from the different DEs and see what works best for you and fits your needs and tastes.

Don’t forget to ask your family if you share the computer with them!

Enjoy the ride. It’s fun to try them all.


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