Ubuntu Desktops Compared

We look at the Ubuntu desktops and compare them: what's the best Ubuntu desktop for your individual workflow and preferences?
Posted October 31, 2017

Matt Hartley

The Ubuntu desktop has evolved a lot over the years. Ubuntu started off with GNOME 2, then moved onto Unity. From there, it came home to its roots with the GNOME 3 desktop. In this article, we'll look at the Ubuntu desktops and compare them.

Ubuntu official – now with GNOME 3

Ubuntu moving on from Unity was perhaps the best thing for the project. Not only did it free up resources to refocus Ubuntu's efforts on other elements of the distro. It also brought the distro back to its roots by returning to the GNOME desktop.

One of the first things you'll notice about the current Ubuntu 17.10 release is that even though the switch was made to GNOME 3, the installation feels about the same. Obliviously there are subtle differences, but overall it's a very close match to the Unity desktop.

ubuntu desktops compared

With the customized GNOME 3 layout, the activities menu is in the upper left corner with the dock on the left as well. To show more applications, one only needs to browse down to the lower left side of the dock.

ubuntu desktops compared

Here we have Ubuntu applications categorized into two groups - Frequent and All.

ubuntu desktops compared

One thing that still baffles me is the inclusion of the Amazon app on the dock. No one really wants this. Yet even after all the poor press Ubuntu received over it's inclusion during its initial release, an Amazon launcher remains. Even if it's not a Unity Scope, it's still a not so gentle reminder of one of Ubuntu's biggest past failings in my opinion.

However, not all is bad with Ubuntu's new GNOME layout. I happen to think the Help launcher is well placed and offers surprisingly useful help opinions for end users. I love that it's not network dependent (works offline), offers logical navigation and provides the kind of suggested help that can assist just about anyone out of a tech support issue.

ubuntu desktops compared

Additionally, I am also pleased to see an introduction to GNOME included in the help launcher. For those Ubuntu users who are used to Unity and find themselves looking for Unity functionality like Scopes, this refreshing attention to detail makes the GNOME iteration of Ubuntu stand out proudly from it's past releases.

The single biggest difference I think Ubuntu Unity users will notice when trying this GNOME iteration of Ubuntu will be the settings panel. Visually, the control panel is very sleek and clean in appearance. Unfortunately the settings panel isn't without its issues. First, the search function is not well marked for those who aren't familiar with GNOME 3 design.

ubuntu desktops compared

And even though the settings now offer a fluid flow to them within the settings panel, controls for some features are still very much not as full featured as they need to be. Specifically audio. Come on Ubuntu it's 2017, isn't time for the same sound controls found in the PulseAudio Volume Controls to be found in your sound settings? This means adding Recording and Playback tabs, with the ability to route the audio from one device to another easily.

ubuntu desktops compared

Next we have software installation. For this we have the Ubuntu Software Center which these days is simply a rebranded version of the GNOME Software Center. The overall layout is clean and easy to navigate. However true to the new GNOME design nonsense, the search feature is difficult to find for the less tech savvy among us. A microscopic magnifying glass sitting next to the minimize button isn't good design.

ubuntu desktops compared

Who is Ubuntu (GNOME) best for?

Ubuntu offers its users a stable, well designed desktop experience for anyone who is relatively computer savvy. However if you park someone who is not familiar with GNOME in front of it, you will receive some strongly worded criticism.

The problem is that GNOME 2 was about truly straight forward usability whereas GNOME 3 is about keeping desktop features "out of you way" and making things look pretty. Therefore Ubuntu is a good option for existing Linux enthusiasts and Windows users who don't mind adjusting their usual work flow surrounding desktop navigation.

Kubuntu using KDE Plasma

Kubuntu is definitely a desktop operating system for power users. It's very powerful, with some very compelling features. But it's also a bit much for someone who isn't used to this level of control over their desktop. This isn't a negative, rather something to be aware of.

Overall Kubuntu's desktop is logically laid out. It looks like something that anyone who has used a computer before would be able to find things easily. I realize this might differ from what I said initially, but we'll get into that in a minute.

ubuntu desktops compared

ubuntu desktops compared

The application launcher is located in the lower left corner on the panel and provides immediate access to commonly used software. In addition, the launcher also has extra functionality to provide access to your Favorites, Applications (the rest of them), Computer (files/directories) and History.

The Kubuntu help feature isn't nearly as useful as we found with Ubuntu. It appears to be exclusively related to KDE Plasma related activities and is devoid of anything useful outside of the scope of the Plasma desktop. If we go into this accepting that Plasma isn't really the most newbie friendly environment in the world, I suppose this is actually not that big of a deal.

ubuntu desktops compared

One area where KDE really shines is with how the settings are laid out. The sections within the control panel are clearly spelled out. There is little to no need to search for anything. But if you did need to search for a feature, the search box within settings is very easy to locate.

And of course, we need to talk about how Kubuntu handles audio. Surprisingly, they actually do a better job that other distros I've seen in the past. Even though audio volume is handled in much the same way as we've seen with other Ubuntu distros, Kubuntu does something right that others do not. Kubuntu offers me the ability to Automatically switch running streams of audio to new outputs as they become available. This feature is huge and a very heartfelt hat tip is warranted for providing this to end users.

One area that I am still on the fence about however, is KDE's obsession with Phonon being built into the Plasma desktop. While I respect the desire of the Kubuntu team to make sure that control is the hallmark of the Plasma desktop, historically Phonon hasn't played well with PulseAudio. Assuming that my tests were accurate, the issues appear to be resolved.

ubuntu desktops compared

When setting up multiple soundcards (headsets, etc) to use Phonon, you're being given the ability to "prefer" one sound device over another for set audio tasks. These tasks vary from general playback to audio recording. The issues that I think most people will have is even if you enter your preferences, the automatic device switching feature mentioned above may indeed create some confusion if it overrides the Phonon preferences.

And of course, Kubuntu users can install new software using the Kubuntu Software Center. To point out that this version of the software center is superior to that of Ubuntu's is a bit obvious, since it's better in every way.

ubuntu desktops compared

When you first launch the application, you're presented with a clean interface where you can quickly and easily locate installed applications, install Plasma addons, access repository settings and install updates. And once again, searching for software can be done from a proper search box – not an icon.

Who is Kubuntu (KDE Plsma) best for?

Historically I've been extremely harsh on the Plasma desktop and those distros that use it. Today, I find myself looking at this desktop with a new perspective. Kubuntu remains a strongly technical desktop distro for those who demand advanced settings controls and functionality. And while I still don't think it's a great choice for newbies, I do believe it's a distro I may be looking into myself in the near future.

Ubuntu MATE – A desktop for a retrospective user

Ubuntu MATE has been my goto desktop distribution for what feels like an ice age. Ubuntu MATE utilizes the classic GNOME 2 feel with the MATE desktop environment. Some users might find this experience to be a bit too dated in appearance for their liking. I however, always found it to be the best performing out of the desktop environments mentioned in the article and thus allowed me to dedicate my hardware resources to tasks such as running software or rendering video.

ubuntu desktops compared

The default menu launcher provided by Ubuntu MATE reminds us of the GNOME 2 menu layout.

ubuntu desktops compared

However if you prefer a dock or another panel layout instead, you can change this in the MATE Tweak tool provided with the installation.

ubuntu desktops compared

The Ubuntu MATE control panel is very standard. The layout is "classic" in appearance, while still providing you with access to anything you might need. The search box is also provided to allow you to find any setting you might not see at first glance.

ubuntu desktops compared

The provided sound settings within Ubuntu MATE offer the same dated non-pulseaudio friendly experience found with traditional Ubuntu.

ubuntu desktops compared

And finally, we have what I consider to be Ubuntu MATE's crown jewel of features – the Welcome Menu. This tool provides you with access to help, an introduction to features and of course, a very slick method for installing software...including software offered outside of the default repositories via PPA (personal package archives).

ubuntu desktops compared

Speaking of installing software, the Ubuntu Software Boutique is this distro's own spin on introducing the user to software for Ubuntu they may have never even heard of. The boutique does this by creating categories that include both open source and closed source applications from a variety of sources. With its one click software installation, it makes software handling a breeze. I dislike the fact that an icon is used for software searches, but outside of that the boutique is simply outstanding.

ubuntu desktops compared

Another feature to the boutique is that it also provides a news feed that contains an updated list of bug fixes and new applications added.

Who is Ubuntu MATE best for?

Ubuntu MATE is the only desktop I install on any new Linux user's computer. The reason is simple. I can install an LTS release of Ubuntu MATE. Setup the update to automatically install security updates only and the software boutique handles all of their software needs.

What's your favorite Ubuntu flavor?

So what Ubuntu based desktop experience do you prefer? Maybe you're an XFCE fan or decided long ago it's hard to beat LXDE? Hit the comments, I'd be interested in your perspective on the perfect Ubuntu based desktop experience.

Tags: Ubuntu, Linux desktop, Open Source App

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