Linux desktop environment showdown
Normally, at the end of the year, I do my usual Linux distro showdown. But I have never really done a proper desktop environment comparison, regardless of which operating systems run them, even though in the Linux world, quite often, it is hard to separate the two. Well, it seems to me, this is a great opportunity to give you a comprehensive head-to-head clash between the leading desktop environments that bless our distros.
Before we begin, it is important to make a humble statement. There’s desktop environment, there’s desktop manager, and there’s window manager. Sometimes, the definition and distinction of these three is not entirely clear. And then, there’s the shell to make things even worse. So if you feel I am blatantly disregarding scholarly terms, please be tolerant. After all, it’s all about what the user sees.
We will begin by outlaying the basics, some pros and cons, my subjective observations throughout the years, as well as the expected future growth prospect. Then, we will declare a winner, the one desktop environment that combines all the necessary elements, stability, practicality, ease of use, and no less important, fun.
This used to be the darling desktop environment of the Linux world. It probably still remains the most task-efficient desktop for the widest range of users. The combination of good situational awareness and clear presentation of desktop elements, including, in its traditional configuration, the top panel with its three-level menu, the bottom panel with the open windows and the workspace list, and a handful of desktop shortcuts, remains unbeatable from the practical and functional perspective.
Moreover, Gnome 2 was always extremely stable and light on system resources. Debian and CentOS proved they could easily and still can manage on as little as 150MB worth of memory, which is often less than half the resources that most counterparts require. If there’s a downsize to Gnome 2, it is the fact the simplified interface requires digging into the command line or specialized configuration editors to make advanced changes.
The one big problem with Gnome 2 is that it has sort of been officially discontinued. Regardless, a small number of new distributions continue using the environment, like SolusOS, for instance.
Moreover, Gnome 2 will continue receiving updates and bug fixes until the end of support cycle for RedHat Enteprise Linux 6, which will be around for at least another 5-6 years. If you are keen on preserving the look & feel of Gnome 2, you might want to consider trying the MATE fork, which we will discuss shortly. On paper, Gnome 2 was succeeded by Gnome 3.
The successor to Gnome 2 is everything that Gnome 2 is not. Designed as the next, modern continuation of the earlier desktop environment, Gnome 3 broke its simplicity paradigm by making things so simple they became either too difficult or just plain irrelevant.
Gnome 3 was created as an interface that might bridge between the classic keyboard-and-mouse computing platform and a future generation of touch device. However, blending the two proved and continues to prove to be extremely difficult and controversial, resulting in user alienation and the creation of numerous alternative solutions, intended to fill in the gap left by the Gnome 3 departure from the old Gnome philosophy. A prime, and somewhat radical example would be the removal, and subsequent inclusion following negative feedback, of the power off button in the system menu.
At the moment, Gnome 3 is not very friendly in its vanilla form, and usually requires numerous extensions and tweaks to restore some basic behavior, including the management of shortcuts and icons. The layout of the new user interface demands more actions to achieve the same level of functionality like Gnome 2, which leads to a loss of productivity. From the stability and performance perspective, the new environment severely lags behind its predecessor. Finally, many applications designed around the Gnome 3 desktop also suffer from a significant degradation in visibility and usability. A good example is the Documents program, which features nothing more than an empty gray screen with borders.
Several prominent distributions like Linux Mint decided to abandon Gnome 3 altogether after several unsuccessful attempts to create a usable work environment. On the other hand, AriOS 4 uses Gnome 3 heavily modified with extensions, offering a decent compromise between functionality and looks.
It is hard to foresee the future of Gnome 3, and it will probably remain around for as long as the big players in the Linux world continue offering development and support, the chief among them being RedHat and Novell. However, with the rising success of Unity and Cinnamon, specifically created to replace Gnome 3, the question whether this desktop environment will survive into the next decade remains open.
MATE was designed as a fork and replacement for the controversial Gnome 3 environment. From the visual standpoint, MATE is almost identical to Gnome 2, with several core components being renamed. From the functional angle, MATE inherits all the goods and bads of its cutlery parent.
MATE features prominently in the Linux Mint releases, as one of the two desktop environments offered by the development team, alongside Cinnamon. Personally, I have found MATE to be quite useful in making distributions that struggle with Gnome 3 regain their good looks and performance.
This is one of the older Linux desktop environments, and once a bitter rival of Gnome 2. While it is very similar in looks and functionality to Windows, it has not succeeded in making Linux become a popular alternative to the Microsoft operating system, mostly because the application stack and games in Linux cannot directly replace the needs of most people.
Nevertheless, KDE marshals on full steam, going through its version increments. Unlike Gnome, KDE seems to have weathered its major release change from KDE3 to KDE4, and since, has seen numerous improvements, both aesthetically and functionally.
KDE is notable for presenting almost all of its options to the user through a variety of menus and sub-menus, and this used to be its major weakness, luckily recent editions tend to slim down on the very cluttered presentation layer. Performance is solid, but the resource usage is usually higher than Gnome, although the guzzler competition has been evened out with the release of Gnome 3. Moreover, KDE components can sometimes be buggy, and you will often encountered crashing applications when using the desktop environment.
Alongside possible bugginess, you do get an almost absolute freedom in tweaking your desktop any which way you like. KDE can indeed be modified to look like any other desktop environment, and it can emulate Windows behavior quite well. For new users looking for a painless transition from their Microsoft experience, KDE can be a suitable candidate. It is also very popular in the Linux world and offered with virtually every distribution.
The Linux Mint development team spawned Cinnamon as an answer to their dissatisfaction with Gnome 3. Since, this desktop environment has flourished into a beautiful and robust product, and has met with praise among the users. Cinnamon tries to blend the best features of the older Gnome 2 environment with more modern looks and new functionality. Moreover, it is quite stable and light of resources.
While Linux Mint is the prime consumer of Cinnamon, the desktop environment is available for many other distributions, with surprisingly good results. For example, both Ubuntu and Fedora gain massively from using Cinnamon, in terms of looks, stability and usability. Cinnamon comes with the classic layout, which is similar to what KDE and Windows offer. You get the classic menu, open windows and system area division of the single bottom panel, which seems to be the prevalent and possibly most efficient layout for most users of conventional computing devices.
My prophetic acumen tends to lean toward Cinnamon gaining more focus and popularity in the Linux world, mostly because it is extensible and non-intrusive and can be integrated with other distributions without any major overhaul of their internals.
This lightweight desktop environment used to be treated as a no-choice alternative for heavier Gnome and KDE desktops for machines that could not handle them. It is hard to get rid of labels, but recently, Xfce has seen a lot of improvement, turning away from its spartan image into a more fully fledged, practical and fun environment. The invention of Unity and Gnome 3 seems to have turned a large number of users toward Xfce, and in turn, it has developed a fresh new attitude.
Xfce is somewhat similar to Gnome 2 in its workflow. In the past, Xfce suffered from separate management for its various setting, creating massive clutter and confusion. Lately, the various options have all been merged into a single, consistent menu. Moreover, the distribution is trying to offer a pleasing and efficient environment to a variety of users. At the same time, Xfce retains its performance and stability.
One relatively weak side of Xfce is that it comes bundled with so-called lightweight programs that are not as well-known or useful as some of the mainstream solutions, which can cause alienation with common users, although there is nothing to stop you from using the exact same programs on this desktop environment. But the way things are, Xfce is definitely gaining in practicality and popularity.
At the moment, Unity is used solely by Ubuntu. The desktop environment was developed alongside Gnome 3 as the future solution that could serve a hybrid work model, that of the conventional desktop and touch devices. Like Gnome 3, Unity met and continues to meet with controversy, although the environment manages to maintain a fairly good balance between modernistic looks and practicality.
The big difference to most other desktop environment is that it offers a side panel called Launcher, somewhat similar to the Favorites menu in Gnome 3 Activities. Unity also uses a global menu, akin to OSX. Another interesting part is the system menu with integrated online search. The combination of somewhat rigid desktop management and new visual element could pose a problem for most users. However, it is also the closest formula to a touch or pseudo-touch interface that might one day feature on smartphones and tablets using Ubuntu.
Looking at the last two and a half years of Unity development, it is evident the environment has undergone numerous improvements. Whether it will succeed on a larger scale also depends on many other factors that are not strictly related to its quality and functionality, namely the success of Ubuntu in the gaming sphere, the application stack, and the smartphone craze. If Ubuntu takes off in any or all of these spaces, Unity will flourish. And as we have seen earlier, superior workspace layout does not necessarily mean popularity or success, as evident in the long history of KDE, Gnome 2, and other desktop environments.
The list above is far from complete. There are many other desktop environments. To name a few, Enlightenment, OpenBox, FVWM, LXDE, Trinity, and more. We are hitting that narrow line between environments and standalone window manager, but you will forgive me.
Anyhow, all these might be useful, beautiful or both, however I did not think it wise to include them in the showdown. The major reasons include their popularity, availability, as well as relevance to wider public. While Enlightenment might be considered a very aesthetic and lightweight environment, few distributions offer official support for it, which could deter potential users focused on productivity.
Likewise, some of the very spartan environments might infuse new life into very old machines that cannot support the modern desktop environments, but usually the price is one of a higher skill level required to setup and use them.
And the winner is …
Now, the tricky part. How does one declare a winner? First, there’s the matter of taste. Aesthetics. Needs. Practicality. Long term support can also be important. Stability is also rather crucial. And we cannot ignore the question of future growth. Some desktop environments might have it all, but they are not destined for any greatness, or even living into the next decade, because they will not be financed and sponsored properly.
With all these factors taken into consideration, Dedoimedo feels that Cinnamon offers the best overall blend, followed by KDE and Xfce and narrowly shadowed by Unity and MATE. It is quite possible that Unity will overtake all the rest by the sheer force of its numbers, but that does not change the fact that some of its rival do offer genuinely superior experience.
Cinnamon combines looks, functionality, stability, and low resource usage in an unbeatable recipe. It is also highly popular, which helps, and it is sponsored by Linux Mint, currently the most popular Linux distributions around for quite some time. My belief slash hunch is that we will see a wider adoption of Cinnamon in the coming years, and that any future growth of Linux directly or indirectly inspired by laudable Ubuntu efforts will also most positively reflect on Cinnamon. So it comes down to spice, like in that awesome RTS game. And the books. Spice? You know what I’m talking about, right. And I guess, that brings this article to a close. Happy holidays and such.
Now, what do you have to say?
Igor Ljubuncic aka Dedoimedo is the guy behind dedoimedo.com. He makes a living out of his very hobby - Linux, and holds a bunch of certifications that make a nice pile in the bottom drawer.