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Back when I started work at a Linux company, I had trouble wrapping my mind around the idea that an operating system could have more than one desktop. Finally, I asked what the difference between GNOME and KDE was.
"Oh, that's easy," another employee told me. "KDE is for people who are used to Windows, while GNOME is for those who like innovations."
Today, recommendations are much harder. For one thing, both GNOME and KDE have morphed out of all recognition, making that summary long obsolete. For another, at least half a dozen other desktops are clamoring for users' attention.
How do you summarize a desktop? Match desktops with personalities? With priorities? With work habits? At the risk of making sweeping generalizations and collapsing into caricatures, here are a few suggestions of how to answer these questions today:
Cinnamon has only been a desktop alternative for the last eight months. Developed by Linux Mint, it is an effort to recreate the experience of GNOME 2 on top of the GNOME 3 code.
Cinnamon is a series of extensions that redesign the GNOME 3 main desktop. These extensions include a second panel, an editable menu, and control of virtual workspaces from the main window. If all the Cinnamon extensions are added, then GNOME 3's overview mode can be bypassed entirely. In this way, Cinnamon combines the best of old and new, giving a GNOME 2 experience while running on recent GNOME 3 code.
As you might guess from this description, this workaround is mostly of interest if you are already familiar with the possible choices of desktops. Unless Linux Mint is already installed, a new user might find the Cinnamon extensions simply another level of complexity to frustrate them. They might prefer to get similar results more simply with Linux Mint's Mate.
GNOME and the applications designed for it continue to be the foundation of many desktops, including Cinnamon, Mate, and Unity.
And no wonder -- with a uniform design philosophy, GNOME offers an integrated look and feel that makes it look more polished than any other modern desktop, with the possible exception of Unity. While you might not be able to do everything with a GNOME app, you can do the most common tasks, and without having the distraction of features that you rarely need.
Within reason, that minimalism seems reasonable. Unfortunately, in what looks like a case of willful blindness mixed with an illusion of objectivity, in GNOME 3, developers chose to extend the minimalism to the interface. In the name of reducing clutter and improving users' work flow, the latest GNOME releases have removed icons from the desktop and applets from the panel, and started automatically using virtual workspaces, removing control of them from users. Then, just to complicate matters further, it added an overview separate from the working window, from which applications are launched.
The trouble is not that all these choices are poor ones, although some might be. It's hard to argue against less clutter, and more use of virtual workspaces probably is more efficient. The trouble is that users have no choice except to accept it,
For those whose preferences happen to coincide with GNOME's choices, or who are indifferent to desktops, this situation is no great matter. Those who are willing to experiment, or change their habits, may also choose GNOME.
However, judging from the way that users have abandoned GNOME, many users are not prepared to accept such limitations. They might seek out extensions that make GNOME more flexible, but they may also prefer to look for another desktop environment that gives them more freedom of choice. Although the recent GNOME 3.4 was more favorably reviewed than the rest of the GNOME 3 series, more and more GNOME is looking like an ambitious innovation that stumbled over its own cleverness.
KDE today has a split personality than would make Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde envious.
On the one hand, KDE is a classic desktop, with an ecosystem of applications that only GNOME comes close to rivaling. Unlike GNOME apps, KDE's have neither a consistent interface nor a highly organized one, but most of them have more features and options you have ever seen on a desktop without opening a terminal.
Some users find the array of features so overwhelming that they are only confused. Others, even if they decide against the KDE desktop, still install its libraries so they can use apps like the Amarok music player, the K3B disk burner, or the digiKam photo manager.
On the other hand, for the last four years, KDE has been doing more experiments with the desktop than any has other desktop project. Panels, menus, and desktop icons -- all the elements users are conditioned to expect -- are still a part of KDE, but they have been rearranged as KDE reorganized its back end into a series of subsystems.
Even more confusingly, the traditional elements have been extended by a series of features, ranging from hot spots on the edges of the screen to a library of special effects and tools that encourage task-oriented organization, and multiple icon sets. Many KDE users never use these extended features, but ignoring them altogether can be like holding a conversation while pretending to ignore a ghost that has dropped by for a haunting: they leave some users edgy and bewildered.
In addition, KDE has what might be called an anti-cloud approach. Instead of encouraging you to do everything in a web browser, KDE has opted for widgets that incorporate online services directly into the desktop.
All KDE's features make high demands on memory, so you probably don't want to use it with less than two megabytes of memory. But if you have the hardware and the temperament, KDE is an all-purpose choice with features for users of all levels of experience.
LXDE (Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment) is a reaction to the perceived bloat of desktops like KDE or GNOME. Its home page claims that it runs well on computers manufactured as far back as 1999, and it is definitely faster than most of the desktops described in this article.
However, while most lightweight desktops look antiquated or are so pared down that they seem crippled, LXDE looks modern and simply minimalistic. If you compare its customization options to a major desktop's, you will notice that LXDE offers the choices that users are most likely to want -- and absolutely nothing more. In this sense it is similar to Xfce, although it is faster than some implementations of Xfce, Xubuntu in particular.
Mate is Linux Mint's fork of the GNOME 2 code.
Like the complementary Cinnamon, Mate is a recent option, developed and maintained for GNOME users who dislike GNOME 3. However, given the simplicity of GNOME 2, it might be recommended equally strongly for new users.
At a glance, Mate is obviously not Windows 7. However, a few minutes of exploration reveals that both are minor variations on the traditional desk. The features look different, but on both the functionality is almost identical.
If Mate were a car, it would be a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla. It's so ordinary that teenagers wouldn't take it for a joyride, but it's dependable and gets the job done.
In other words, anyone who prefers to focus on applications rather the desktop will probably appreciate Mate. If for some reason they don't, then Trinity or Xfce might appeal to them.
Trinity is a fork of the KDE 3 release series, designed to modernize it and keep it alive. To some eyes, it might look old-fashioned, like a video game designed for another era in which video cards were less advanced. To others, it is a piece of classic design in which form and function were united in a way they rarely are today.
The main drawback to Trinity is that it is built by only a handful of developers, who are trying to nurse software whose design -- and, for all anyone knows, its code as well -- is over a decade old. At the same time, the developers are trying to modernize it and keep it current. These are demanding tasks, and in the past Trinity's quality control has not been as high as it might be. Wisely, however, the project has decided not to hold to a fixed release cycle, opting only to release when ready.
If Trinity seems not quite right for you or a person you are advising, you might look at Cinnamon, Mate, or Xfce as an alternative.
Unity is Ubuntu's interface for GNOME. Its design is based heavily on the constraints of mobile interfaces, although its memory requirements are by no means light. Signs of this influence include a fixed panel, and the replacement of the traditional menu with the dash, a series of filtered views of installed applications that occupy the entire screen.
Like mobile interfaces, Unity is easy to learn. However, navigation is not always efficient. Frequently, Unity frequently require several more mouse-clicks than other desktops to perform the same function. Administration and customization functions especially tend to be buried deep in Unity, although the filtered views on the dash can make them somewhat easier to find.
Moreover, Unity tends to enforce a single way of working. For instance, most applications open full screen unless their windows are so small that doing so would be ridiculous. Similarly, while you can add application launchers to the desktop, Unity's design conceals this ability. Customization options are also relatively limited, although more have been added with each release and a selection of plug-ins can extend them.
You may approve of such tendencies if Unity's way of doing things happens to be yours, but, if it isn't, you may soon feel so restricted that you wonder why you ever bothered leaving Windows.
Another consideration before using Unity is that, for all its simplicity, the desktop is also the testing lab for experiments in interface design approved by Ubuntu's founder Mark Shuttleworth. So far, the Head Up Display, an experiment in an alternative to traditional menus, is optional, but in a few years time using Unity could mean being a test subject when all you really want to do is get some work done. That could be fascinating, especially if you are a Ubuntu enthusiast, but it could also prove as distracting as an unreachable itch.
Until last year, Xfce's main appeal was its careful balance of usability and memory requirements. Then, with the exodus of disgruntled users from GNOME 3, Xfce became newly popular. According to one indication, it is now more popular than GNOME.
The reasons for this popularity are easy to understand. Using the same toolkit, Xfce feels half-familiar to GNOME 2 users. Even more importantly, like GNOME 2, it is a traditional desktop, immediately understandable and with few claims of being anything else. At the same time, it is faster than GNOME 3 or KDE, and its releases are generally far stabler than those of other desktops.
The only real limitation is that Xfce has never attracted more than a handful of applications specifically designed for it. However, Xfce does run both GNOME and KDE applications reliably -- which is more inter-connectiveness than GNOME and KDE have sometimes managed.
The same users who consider Cinnamon, Mate, or Trinity should also give Xfce a try. If a lightweight desktop is your goal, consider LXDE as well.
Diversity, not Fragmentation
The conclusion that emerges most clearly from these descriptions is that no desktop is likely to please every user. However, those that come closest tend to be those that allow room for a variety of work habits and a reasonable amount of customization.
For a minority, a lightweight alternative is appealing, but most users seem to regard memory bloat the way they do taxes -- it is not the price that concerns them but what they get for the price. In other words, unless they are working on an older computer with limited resources, most users do not seem especially worried about the memory that a desktop requires, so long as they have features that allow them to work as they want.
Some users (and even more pundits) are distressed by the resulting variety of choices, pointing out that it is inefficient, and the same design problems must be solved separately many times. But, rather than worrying about fragmentation (a word I have used myself too many times), perhaps we should be appreciating the diversity. All the alternatives may not be ideal for free software as a whole, but individual users can appreciate the luxury of being able to shop for exactly what they want.