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.
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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