The year of...
June 19, 2012 11:21 PM   Subscribe

Can you bring me up to date with the state of Linux desktop environments?

I'm a long time Linux user who has gone over the last five years from a rather involved enthusiast to simply a user. Having just picked up an old laptop that needs to be rebuilt (software wise) I've realised I don't know anything about the current state of Linux desktop environments.

My main desktop PC was put together over five years ago and runs a vaguely recent version of KDE 4, it still uses a very hacked together configuration that tries to emulate KDE 3.5, with limited success. I think KDE 3.5 is the best free desktop environment I ever found.

So my specific questions:

1. What projects are active? Is KDE gradually tapering off? Is Enlightenment still around? etc...

2. What works? What projects are widely regarded by the open source community as being the ones that Just Work (TM)? Does KDE 4 actually make sense now? Is Gnome still about over simplifying things?

Bonus related question: How does the general state (usability and popularity) of Linux on the desktop now compare to that of five or even 10 years ago? General thoughts welcome.

I'm not afraid of doing my own googling and testing but some general pointers in the right direction from people who have actually paid attention to this stuff over the last few years would be great.
posted by deadwax to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
How old is this laptop? I have a pair of desktop systems that I installed Ubuntu on, including the Unity UI. I thought it was beautiful, but the only GUI software I run on them is the terminal and firefox. Some people complain that it's 'dumbed down', but it doesn't bother me. It does seem kind of more "tablet like" then "desktop like". I'm running 10.something, while 12 just came about recently. It looks like you can switch back and forth between KDE and Gnome pretty easily.

A lot of people like
Linux Mint, which is a more "desktop like" desktop. You should be able to change the window manager with that as well.

Anyway, Ubuntu worked fine for me, but these machines are used as servers, rather then general desktop systems, so I don't interact with the UI too much. I was also able get it installed onto an 8-gb USB stick, and the machines don't have hard drives at all, which I thought was neat. It also makes it super simple to backup and restore, all you have to do is turn it off and image the memory stick on another machine. (In fact, I only went through the setup once, then used the same image on the second system)

If you're feeling really adventurous you could try running android on it, then slap on.

If you really want to screw around I'd suggest setting up virtual box and trying out different OSes and seeing what you like.
posted by delmoi at 12:20 AM on June 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


(oops, scratch "then slap on". I was going to mention ubuntu for android, but that's not something can just download, apparently)
posted by delmoi at 12:22 AM on June 20, 2012


(here's a better video for android on x86)
posted by delmoi at 12:36 AM on June 20, 2012


Distrowatch is a great way to get a sense of what's interesting in linux and unix distributions at any given time.
posted by smoke at 12:57 AM on June 20, 2012


I've actually grown rather fond of Gnome 3. Yeah, everything has changed but in a good way & if there's a specific itch then there's usually an extension available (from extensions.gnome.org IIRC) to fix it.

You'll need a 3D capable system, but old-style Intel chipsets are capable enough for Gnome 3.

The 'new' line of development you might want to explore are the tiling window managers. If you're feeling adventurous, have a play with XMonad.
posted by pharm at 1:59 AM on June 20, 2012


Current state of distros:

- Those that use GNOME 3 with GNOME Shell - e.g. Fedora
- Those that use GNOME 3 but with Unity (alternative window manager) - e.g. Ubuntu
- Those that cling to GNOME 2 and/or GNOME 3 tweaked to work like 2 and/or LXDE and/or Xfce - e.g. Mint/MATE/Lubuntu/Xubuntu
- The same old KDE distros

GNOME 3 is very polarizing. Some like it, some think it is the worst thing to happen to desktop linux in a decade. If you were a KDE user then you'll probably continue to be a KDE user today.

By the way, the kernel guys finally decided to stop doing a never-ending series of 2.6.xx.y versions, and decided to start doing 3.x.y instead (where x = major release and y = bugfix/maintenance) so don't freak out when you see kernel versions like 3.4. The version bump did not reflect any particularly big developments as with previous bumps, it was just time for a change.
posted by Rhomboid at 2:24 AM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've been clinging to KDE 3.5 for a while now, and I recently switched to the Trinity Desktop Environment which is a non-KDE affiliated project that continues development of KDE 3.5. It's not perfect, but it works.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 3:28 AM on June 20, 2012


Enlightenment (E17) is still around and still pretty, but it's lost some of its edge now that fancy hardware-accelerated effects are commonplace. I install it about once a year to play around with. It's become much less crashy in the last few years, but as a desktop it lacks lots of the integrated features of Gnome KDE
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 6:16 AM on June 20, 2012


I've got a circa 2004 laptop with 1 GB of RAM that runs Xubuntu (XFCE) just fine. A lot of people that I know that don't like Gnome 3 or Unity have migrated to XFCE. It's a good choice if you like the traditional Start Menu type of interface for a desktop.
posted by COD at 7:26 AM on June 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I personally prefer KDE 4 to 3 now that they have gotten most of the kinks worked out of it. There is still much active development going on.
posted by nolnacs at 10:58 AM on June 20, 2012


I've been using Linux as my primary desktop since 1995*, so take the following with a grain of salt...

Gnome2 was the first DE that got me to switch away from just using a straight WM (FVMW2 for life!). So, when the "upgrade" to Unity happened as the default in Ubuntu 11.04 or 11.10 I figured it couldn't be that bad. Sadly, all of the Gnome3 variants are awful unusable messes. I've tried Unity, the straight Gnome3 Shell, and Cinnamon. Cinnamon sucks the least. I gave each of them at least a month to woo me. The suckage lead me to look elsewhere.

KDE4 was a mess, although not as bad as Gnome3, and I've heard it's even less bad now but I've not had the time to try it. I also used XFCE4 at around the same time. XFCE was alright, but I felt like it didn't integrate as well with the Gnome apps, and I really just wanted Gnome2 back.

So, I've settled on Mate running on the LMDE variant of Mint. It's everything I liked about Gnome2 with none of the stuff I disliked about Gnome3. Everything seems to work exactly as I'd expect it to.

I happily ran Ubuntu from 4.10 through 11.10. A hardware failure coupled with my hatred of Unity prompted me to try something new. I imagine that I'll go back to Mate on Ubuntu whenever I have a chance to rebuild my machine (so, the next time it dies).

*At some point all of the computers in my house had died and my wife and I have shared a Macbook ever since. I like OS X, sort of, but I find it's not as easy to do heavy Unix System Administration tasks in.
posted by togdon at 11:33 AM on June 20, 2012


1. What projects are active? Is KDE gradually tapering off? Is Enlightenment still around? etc...

KDE 4
Gnome 3
Unity (built on a Gnome 3 foundation)
Mate (Gnome 2 4evah)
Cinammon (Gnome 3 in Gnome 2 drag)
XFCE
Enlightenment (Yeah, still exists, still obscure, but there are distros for which it's the default)
LXDE (probably the most lightweight thing to call itself a desktop environment)
Wikipedia has some others

2. What works? What projects are widely regarded by the open source community as being the ones that Just Work (TM)?

Oh, there isn't any consensus. And every distro offers a different experience of any given desktop environment. Most of the major distros offer livecds which gives a good way to try before you buy install.

How does the general state (usability and popularity) of Linux on the desktop now compare to that of five or even 10 years ago?

Much, much better than 10 years ago. Maybe a toss-up with 5 years ago -- it's still the case that it works well when you're using hardware with open-source drivers and dealing with open formats; not necessarily so well (or downright badly) with things without open-source drivers or with proprietary formats.

You need to research your hardware in advance -- wifi remains the biggest bugaboo, with a few things that are open and work out of the box, a bunch for which it's easy to get it to work, but it still takes some extra steps, and a bunch more for which it's a pain. Several of Intel's video chipsets ' official drivers are open source, and the open source drivers for Radeon and Nvidia have gotten much better, but still lag behind the closed source ones in performance.

Gaming options have very recently started to get better, but access to the latest videogame is a priority, it's definitely still the case that Windows is what you want.

I imagine that I'll go back to Mate on Ubuntu whenever I have a chance to rebuild my machine

It's not currently in the official repositories, but a 3rd-party Ubuntu package is available.
posted by Zed at 4:56 PM on June 20, 2012


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