Best alternative Linux desktops: 5 reviewed and rated
27th Jan 2013 | 10:00
See how good your Linux desktop could be
The desktop on your Linux box used to stand for something very simple. If you were a KDE user, you valued control, power and the ability to customise.
In rough terms, if you used Gnome you wanted the desktop to get out of the way so you could get on with using your computer. If you used anything else, such as Xfce, LXDE or TekWM, you were running an ancient machine that would struggle with either of the big two of KDE and Gnome.
The change brought about by the release of KDE 4 changed all that. To compete, Gnome threw away its years of solidity for a new way of working; Unity arrived, with similar features to Gnome 3 but with the aim of tempting users away from Mac and Windows.
Brave as they were, these designs had much wrong with them, especially in the months following their release. Various products arrived to fill the gap left by the move away from the traditional desktops, some with the idea of refinement (Mint's Gnome Shell extensions and Cinnamon) and others aiming for a return to the old ways.
This desktop reformation and counter reformation has brought us to today's situation, and there has never been a better time to survey what's out there and what makes each project.
As they're easily the two biggest desktop projects, we've left out Gnome 3 and KDE 4, as well as Unity, but we've included Xfce to represent the more established desktops.
How we tested
We could have installed all of the desktops on the same Ubuntu box, testing them on the same files and applications, but that would have given Unity an unfair advantage. Likewise, Cinnamon and Mate would have had an unfair advantage had we picked a Mint box, as would Trinity and Razor-qt had we tested on Mandriva or another KDE-inflected Linux distribution.
So, we installed one distro per desktop. To get a feel for each desktop, we performed a range of tasks, including web browsing, copying files in a file browser and working on virtual desktops.
Desktops were rated according to how coherent the experience felt and how easy they were to work with. All our conclusions are subjective.
Desktops on test
Which desktop has the best suite of tools?
The thing that distinguishes a desktop environment from a mere window manager is the suite of applications that it contains.
As the longest-established of the desktops we're looking at, you might expect Xfce to have the most complete set of tools, and it acquits itself well, with a native browser, Midori (available as part of the Xfce Goodies bundle), and a media player, Parole, which uses the GStreamer functionality. Xfce also includes a text editor, Mousepad, which is based on Leafpad.
Mate, as a fork of Gnome, also has the benefit of years of development. Nautilus (file manager), Gedit (text editor) and Eye of Gnome (image viewer) have been forked and renamed Caja, Pluma and Eye of Mate respectively, and offer identical (and even improved, in the case of Caja) functionality to their Gnome equivalents.
The Evince document viewer, Gnome Terminal and File Roller compression tool have also been forked to Mate, giving it a good, functional set of basic tools. While these are the applications that make up Mate officially, in reality every other Gnome app will work on it, so if you use Mate, there will always be an elegant solution to whatever you want to do.
Perhaps because of a desire to keep things as light as possible, the developers of Razor-qt don't bundle it with any software other than the bare desktop. They do, however, suggest a list of software that they see as being compatible with the project's aims, to complete a fully-featured Qt desktop.
These applications tend towards the fast and light, such as Clementine - a rewrite of Amarok before it was ported to KDE 4. There's also a strong preference for names that begin with the letter Q, as in QBitTorrent, QPDF view, QTwitter, QXMLEdit et al.
Trinity can be thought of as KDE 3 by another name. As such, it has a vast amount of native software, including the Konqueror web browser/ file manager. The aim of rolling the two functions in to one application was to blur the division between files on your machine, files on your network and files on the internet, and it worked fantastically well - so well that even the normally KDE-phobic members of Team LXF switch to KDE when they have to upload anything to our creaking servers. Quite why Konqueror was replaced with Dolphin in KDE 4 is a mystery to us, as even after nearly five years Konqueror is more useful, and its inclusion in Trinity is a massive boon.
As with Razor-qt, there's a reliance on one letter of the alphabet (in this case, K). Apart from looking silly, this makes things hard to find in an alphabetically-sorted menu; you find yourself having to read the name of each entry rather than just scanning down the first letter of the word.
As Cinnamon is a fork of the current version of Gnome, there's no need for the developers to fork their own versions of the applications; everything just works. But they have made their own modifications to the Nautilus file manager.
As the Gnome team repositions its desktop to a primarily tablet-oriented interface, it's reducing the number of features it has, to simplify the experience for people who will use the interface with swipes and finger-taps rather than mouse clicks.
Cinnamon has ditched Nautilus in favour of its own file manager, Nemo, which adds icons for searching for files, to toggle between file location and path bars to help you find your files, and buttons for Icon view, Compact view and List view. It's only really noticeable when you view the two file managers side by side (see image, left).
Trinity benefits from the huge number of features built in to KDE 3.
These desktops put the graphical into Graphical User Interface
Good looks are as subjective in software as they are in any other sphere, but there are some things that we can all agree on. One is that Ubuntu has looked a heck of a lot nicer since it dropped the brown in favour of its current purple desktop background. The trouble is that many users also feel that it was easier to use in those days, regardless of how nice it looks.
When examining the appearance of the desktops on test, therefore, we're not just looking at fonts, colour, transparencies and animations; we want to glance at a desktop and know what things do without having to be told. We like desktop eye candy as much as the next Linux users, but by shunning KDE 4 and Gnome 3 we have implicitly signalled that it's not the end of the world if our machines don't look amazing.
What we do want to avoid, though, is outright ugliness, because there's no excuse for bad design.
Mate - 4/5
While we were testing the desktops, we installed Mate onto an Ubuntu 12.04 box, with frightful consequences. It was like stepping back into 2004; all sharp right angles, clunky icons and functional ugliness. That only made us appreciate how far things have come.
When installed as part of Linux Mint Debian edition, Mate takes on the theme of its host distro perfectly, reproducing all the shading and brushed metal effects that it shows when it's running Gnome. This isn't surprising; its window manager has simply been forked from Metacity and renamed Marco, so to all intents and purposes it's the same thing. Visually, the only thing that's changed is the grey gradient in Caja, the new file manager. Everything else - the system tray, the icons, the main menu button - is where it was when you left it two years ago. For an old Gnome user (or an old KDEer), there's no learning curve whatsoever.
Cinnamon - 5/5
As you'd expect from a technology that was forked from Gnome 3, Cinnamon looks very similar. Shown here in its lesser-known Ubuntu habitat, it improves on the native Unity interface by having a system tray, which shows running apps and minimised windows, and keeping the toolbars at the top of the main application window, rather than using one global menu that changes depending on what app is in focus at the time.
Cinnamon also has a main menu in the bottom left of the screen, and while there is a search facility in there, your applications are still grouped in a menu structure, so you can choose for yourself whether to navigate the menus (useful if you can remember what something does but not what it's called) or type its name in the search box (useful only if you know what it's called).
It's also the shiniest of the desktops on test here, with some lovely transparency effects.
Trinity - 3/5
For our money, Trinity isn't as pretty as the others in this Roundup, but that's not where its strengths lie. It's clearly laid out, a new user can switch it on and know what to do instantly, and it doesn't overload your eyes with pointless effects.
Of the five desktops, Trinity presents the user with the most obvious ways of changing the default appearance. As always when you're given loads of themes and config options, there are many more ways of getting it wrong than there are of getting it right, but the default is to have a main application menu in the bottom-left, a system tray and virtual desktops along the bottom, and it all makes perfect sense.
For migrating Windows 7 users scared by the lack of a Start button in Windows 8, this is the most sensible choice of desktop.
Xfce - 4/5
Before Mate became the low-fat alternative desktop for Gnome users, Xfce was the low-fat alternative desktop for Gnome users. The graphical environment is built with GTK 2, which is the same toolkit used by Gnome up until the release of Gnome 3. This has the massive advantage that all those applications that were developed for Gnome work seamlessley in Xfce, with no need to load extra libraries to clog things up.
For the user, everything makes just as much sense as Trinity, with a main application menu, system tray, virtual desktops, applets and a notification area all along the top of the screen. The icons are smaller, so are either harder to identify or are less cluttered, according to taste.
One criticism of the interface is that some of the menus are cluttered with near-duplicate entries, which makes them hard to navigate.
Razor-qt - 3/5
As Xfce is to Gnome, so Razor-qt is to KDE. That is, it uses the same libraries and follows the same behaviour that its heavier relative does, but it's a lot lighter and cleaner, and, by doing less, has less to confuse new users. You can see this KDE heritage in the default blue of the desktop, and in the widgets (Razor-qt uses the same graphical toolkit as KDE does; in this case, Qt).
Unfortunately, the look is a little rough around the edges - perhaps as a consequence of choosing the wrong window manager at install time (you're asked to make a decision between Xfwm and Metacity when you install Razor-qt, without being made aware of the significance of the choice - we chose Metacity). For a better-integrated look, it would make sense to go with KWin - so why give us the option of Metacity in the first place?
The missing manuals are still out there, somewhere
Because they are intended as straightforward rewrites of old projects, Trinity and Mate are able to benefit from a huge amount of existing documentation. Even if you can't find the precise online HOWTO or FAQ that you need, the chances are that someone else will have asked exactly the same question in the many years of active development that Gnome 2 and KDE 3 had and will be able to point you in the right direction.
As always, Google is your friend. Trinity has its own documentation site, at bit.ly/XphGp9, for users and developers, while Mate's, at http://wiki.mate-desktop.org, is more focused at developers. It's pretty sparse, but if you need guidance with, say, Caja, you can search for the problem, substituting 'Caja' for 'Nautilus', and you'll find a solution.
Cinnamon doesn't have much for developers, but that's because Gnome 3 doesn't have much for developers. Users will have more luck, as the Linux Mint and Ubuntu forums are full of friendly people trying to help each other out. Making Cinnamon available on Ubuntu was a canny move, as it means the Ubuntu community has an interest in helping people to use it - and we call benefit.
The projects that are forks or continuations of previous desktops can rely on existing documentation. That can't be said about Razor-qt. It's the project that needs it the most, but the docs that we found were sparse at best.
The older projects have more reading matter, but they need it the least.
Bolt-on functionality to enhance the way you work
One way to expand the configuration options in Cinnamon is with dconf Editor (the Cinnamon equivalent to GConf Editor). This installs with an easy sudo apt-get install dconf-tools dconf Editor is a front-end to the configuration files that control how applications behave. This means that you're only one level removed from hacking the config files by hand, and that is why it isn't included by default.
Cinnamon also has an extensions and applets site on its project website, which is thriving. Xfce has a range of plugins for Thunar, which add more functions to the basic file manager.
While we like Konqueror's all-singing-all-dancing approach, we can also appreciate that not everybody wants to have to wade through features that they don't need, and would rather have a basic set that they can augment themselves. And speaking of KDE, Trinity has a long list of plugins on its site, but the site is in need of some design finesse - no matter, given that Trinity is already packed to the gunwhales with features.
Razor-qt takes a typically sane approach to plugins: right-click on an empty portion of the panel, choose what you want to add, then click Add Plugin. It's a bit fiddly to add a quick launcher, but the fact that they are so integrated with the desktop makes us think there will be a flood of third-party add-ons as soon as the desktop gains some more traction.
None of the candidates shine here, but it's not a high priority.
Which desktops are easiest to mould to your image?
Experienced KDE users won't be surprised to hear that the project that offers the most configuration options is the one most closely related to KDE. The config options start with Trinity before you've even finished the installation, in the shape of the excellent KPersonalizer config tool. This groups the hundreds of options in to a collection of sensible defaults. It gives you the choice of what language the interface will be in (we get a choice of US English and US English, which is entirely pointless - if you want more options, offer your services to the developers!).
You get to choose whether you want the GUI to behave like Mac OS, Windows, Unix or KDE, choose what level of eye candy you want according to the capabilities of your hardware, and pick a theme from a list of six options, including the default KDE style, the dated Keramik and the even more dated XP-alike Redmond theme. KPesonalizer concludes by informing you that all settings can be configured in the Trinity Control Centre.
In contrast, Mate, Cinnamon and Xfce do their best to provide sensible defaults that will work well for most people. There isn't such a heavy emphasis on making your own tweaks, but that's not to say that there's nothing you can do to adapt your working environment.
In Cinnamon, there's the System Tools > System Settings menu, which controls things such as themes, workspace behaviour and desktop effects, but these don't go as far as Trinity's config options.
Razor-qt is the other KDE-influenced desktop in this Roundup, and although it doesn't have much in the way of applications, the icon for its configuration tool is displayed prominently on the toolbar next to the main menu workspace switchers and Firefox button.
As with KDE, you get a fine degree of control over where different desktop areas go and how much space they take up: just right-click and choose Unlock Desktop to move widgets around, then choose Lock Desktop when you're done. As it is, there isn't much point in rearranging the desktop's appearance, but the ability to customise from the ground up bodes well for the future.
Options in Xfce and Mate are more limited, but that's not what they're about: sensible defaults are the order of the day.
Both Trinity and Razor-qt put tweaking at the heart of the user experience.
Features are no good if we can't get it running
Whatever your system, Xfce has been around for so long that there's bound to be a package available for your distribution. The other projects don't have the benefit of that longevity, so are understandably a little trickier to install.
Razor-qt, for instance, saw its first release in 2010, and thus far it has only made it into the default repository of Mageia. All other users will have to add a repository to their package manager, perform a system update and then install from the command line. It's a similar process with Cinnamon, which has been around only since the beginning of 2012.
Adding a repository and installing Mint from the command line is a straightforward task in Ubuntu Fedora and OpenSUSE, but OpenSUSE also gives you the option of a one-click installation (actually it's more like four clicks and a password, but it's still impressively smooth and quick). The last time we looked at Cinnamon, in a review of Cinnamon 1.2 in LXF157, the user was required to manually extract files into specific directories. Well done to the Mint team for your progress in this area!
Likewise, Mate requires that you add a repository, update and then install the matedesktop- environment metapackage, which brings in the latest versions of all the components.
Trinity, in contrast, caused us more problems. It has been almost five years since KDE 4 was released, which means it's almost five years since the first person tried it and wished that they could go back to KDE 3. Packages are available for Debian, Fedora, Ubuntu, Mandriva, Mageia and Slackware, putting it second only to Xfce in terms of distributions supported.
But once we'd gone through the installation procedure on Ubuntu 10.04 Long Term Support (we had to downgrade our installation, as Ubuntu 12.10 is not yet supported) and chosen a display manager, we were given a terse error message "kdeinit not working: check your installation" and dumped into a non-functioning desktop. In the end, we resorted to a live CD version, which is supremely easy, but inconvenient if you're not a fan of Fedora.
Only Xfce seems ready for mass-market adoption - the other projects have work to do.
What struck us most when testing these desktop environments is that the winner, if you'll excuse the cliche, is free software. We were expecting a massive gulf in usability between the newer offerings and the established likes of KDE 4, Gnome 3 and Unity.
We were ready to make allowances and make encouraging noises about it only being early days, but all five of the desktops are so good that this would only be patronising. Each criticism, therefore, should be taken as a compliment. The least accomplished DE here is unquestionably Razor-qt.
It has the fewest functions, but that's hardly a criticism, as the developers' primary aim is to keep it light and simple in a way that KDE 4 is not. In this aim, the team has succeeded massively. With more development, we'd love to see the traditional KDE distros offering this as an alternative option at login time, for KDE users with more modest hardware.
Mate and Xfce get the ultimate accolade in desktop usability: they just work. As Gnome 2 by another name, Mate has a stable codebase to draw on, loads of compatible applications and the polish to slot in seamlessly with your distro - as long as it's Mint.
Xfce has all this, but the fact that it is in the repositories of all the major and some of the minor distros means that it comes out ahead. We applaud the Mate team for their efforts, but for a lightweight, full-featured Gnome alternative we'd still plump for Xfce.
Everyone's a winner
The surprise package has to be Trinity. It's a note-perfect reimplementation of KDE 3, which means that it's full of features, it looks good, it has tons of software and it will run passably well on old hardware.
If you don't think you like KDE, try Trinity and there's a good chance that it will change your mind. Which leaves us with Cinnamon. When we first tried it in LXF157 it felt half-baked, but the last few releases have knocked the rough edges off and provided a seamless fusion of Gnome 3 glitz and Gnome 2 usability. Linux Mint wins again.
Helps you get to the applications without getting in your way.
KDE sceptics will be amazed, not least by the usable default settings.
Full-featured, stable and the best choice for 3D unbelievers.
Occupies a niche that has already been filled, but usable nonetheless.
Bags of potential as a KDE alternative, but not ready for mainstream use.