The perfect desktop would be the one you design yourself. Failing that, which of the main Linux desktops is right for you?
A few months ago, this question came to a choice between GNOME and KDE. Now, with the introduction of GNOME 3 and Ubuntu's Unity, the question has become more complex.
Should you accept the latest innovation, or go with a desktop that proves itself? A simple desktop, or a complex one with all sorts of customization? One that doesn't change, regardless of whether you are using a mobile device or a workstation, or one that changes to fit the limitations or advantages of each computing device?
To help you decide, here are some of the major pros and cons for the four leading desktops that vie for your attention. Go directly to the review of each Linux desktop:
GNOME 2 and Derivatives
Officially, the GNOME 2 release series is yesterday's news. But it's still very much alive in distros like Debian that are slow to update or choose to wait for GNOME 3 to mature more.
Just as importantly, if your video drivers don't support hardware acceleration, then GNOME 3 defaults to Fallback Mode and Unity to Ubuntu Classic, both of which are essentially GNOME 2 desktops with a few minor differences. For instance, Fallback Mode lacks the System menu, while Ubuntu Classic includes the app indicators and other tweaks found in earlier Ubuntu releases.
- Late GNOME 2 releases are the culmination of over a decade of development. They're stable, and their interfaces are easily learned. These are major advantages to everyone, but particularly new users or those who view a desktop as an application launcher, where you spend as little time as possible.
- GNOME 2 desktops should continue to be compatible with new GNOME-specific applications for at least a few releases. For instance, in GNOME 3's Fallback Mode, you still get improved notifications and messaging windows that don't take the focus away from your current window when you click them.
- You have an entire ecosystem of utilities and panel applets for added functionality. By contrast, GNOME 3 avoids placing applets in the panel in the name of distraction-free computing, placing them -- less conveniently -- in the general list of applications.
- GNOME 2 derivatives continue to have the old accordion style menu whose sub-menus spill out across the screens, potentially distracting from your work. The usual solution of limiting menu items can make you forget about potentially useful applications.
- Midway through the second series of releases, GNOME became committed to a minimalist usability style that covers only the most common use cases and does not always accommodate a variety of workflows. GNOME 3 takes this style even further, but even in GNOME 2 it can be a nuisance, as Linus Torvalds famously complained.
- You can probably continue using a GNOME 2 or a derivative for a year or two, but ultimately it's probably a dead end. These desktops might receive maintenance, but little else. Any fork of GNOME 2 is unlikely to be a large project, and GNOME and Ubuntu are likely to tire eventually of maintaining an obsolete code base. Sooner or later, you will likely need to make another choice.
Go directly to the review of each Linux desktop: