What's the best Linux desktop environment?

18th Dec 2011 | 08:00

What's the best Linux desktop environment?

Examining the usability of Gnome and Unity

Best Linux desktop environment: Overview

These are interesting times for the Linux desktop. The often-overlooked area of the Linux ecosystem is now the centre of attention and, while some users have welcomed the changes, others have reacted in true community style: ranting and raging, threatening to abandon ship or, when all else fails, demanding a fork.

It's an all-too-familiar sight for those who were around when KDE shocked users with it's 4.0 release. It was a similar story with the release of Gnome 3.0, but with an interesting twist – Ubuntu, the most popular Gnome distribution, rolled out its own home-grown interface on top of Gnome.

Ubuntu's Unity is as radical as Gnome 3. Users who were looking for a place of refuge from either camp are crying foul. But, as many have discovered, switching desktops isn't as easy as it used to be.

Switching from the Deb world of Ubuntu to the RPM land of Fedora, or vice versa, can be just as tedious as getting used to the nuances of a new desktop. This is perhaps why many users have migrated to other distributions, such as Linux Mint and the newly-forked Mageia, both of which have decided – at least for now – to stick with the users' favourite desktop environment.

While the developers behind each new desktop environment have put a lot of effort into their bold iterations, and justified the changes by citing both visible enhancements for the users and improvements for the app developers tinkering with the new code at the back-end, the response from users has been mostly negative.

In the few months since the release of Gnome 3 and Unity, dissatisfied users have been more vocal than satisfied ones. While none of the environments have taken their product 'back to formula', they have paid close attention to all the criticism, and are now ready with more polished releases. There's a lot more at stake now for everyone involved.

Unlike the initial Gnome 3 release, the latest offering comes close to the release cycle of several major Gnome-based distributions. Meanwhile, with Ubuntu 11.10 stripping all signs of classic Gnome, it too runs the risk of upsetting even more users. And all this while KDE has been chugging away nicely – 4.7 brushed aside all the negative baggage and is more polished and stable than ever.

Have the desktop environments learned from the feedback? Is your desktop environment ready for you?

Best Linux desktop environment:Gnome 3.2

Gnome shell

After trawling through its 2.x series for more than eight years, Gnome introduced the radically different 3.0 which completely revamped the desktop and introduced new paradigms to bolster usability.

Gnome pitched Gnome Shell, an integral part of the new desktop, as a visually-oriented interface that would make navigating windows easier, and quickly get you to your favourite apps and documents. On release, though, long-time Gnome users were dumbstruck by its unconventional approach – it completely tossed out the workflow which they had come to rely on.

Following the release, and its subsequent inclusion in Fedora 15, Gnome developers tried to justify the changes. It wasn't enough to convince Linus Torvalds. He described Gnome 3 as an "unholy mess" and announced his departure to Xfce.

Six months down the line, we have Gnome 3.2. In addition to some new features, this release also fixes some of the most annoying bugs that often popped up in various mailing lists, forums and reviews. The highlight is its tighter integration with online services.

The new Gnome Online Accounts, which show up in system settings and the user menu, let you sign in to your online accounts and turn services you wish to share data from into offline apps. So signing in and enabling Chat configures the Empathy IM client. Similarly, you can sync your online mail, contacts, and calendar with the Evolution PIM.

At the moment, you can add only Twitter and Google accounts, but when the feature was announced it was suggested it would support several other online services, such as Flickr and Facebook.

To bring web services such as Google+, Identi.ca and Twitter closer to the desktop, Gnome 3.2 has equipped its default Epiphany browser to save them as web apps. Just navigate to the service and go to File > Save As Web Application in Epiphany. The service can then be launched from the Overview mode, or pinned to the dash.

Web services now run as apps, which means they run within an instance of the browser but without the browser's GUI elements. If one instance crashes it won't affect the others, and if you click on a link within a web app, it opens in a separate full-fledged browser window.

Gnome 3.2 also has two new apps that take advantage of Online Accounts. Gnome Contacts enables you to search for and edit contacts, whether they're stored locally or within one of the configured online services. Similarly, Gnome Documents will help you find documents of all types from within your file-system or an online docs repository, such as Google Docs.

Another handy feature is Sushi, the new Nautilus file previewer. It can be called on-demand to preview all types of files. However, Gnome Documents and Sushi aren't available on the official Gnome 3.2 live CD.

There are lots of other enhancements, some more visible than others, and most of have been worked on by students at Google's Summer of Code.

How usable is usable?

Gnome 3 fallback

When Gnome 3 was launched in April, enhanced usability was touted as the main reason for the dramatic changes. Since usability is a personal experience, we invited a bunch of people, from newbies to power users, to share their experiences with 3.2.

Newbies said that the first thing that struck them was the lack of any desktop icons and the minimal amount of text; and almost everyone was foxed by the lack of Minimise and Maximise buttons. Joseph Guarino, CEO of Boston-based IT solution company Evolutionary IT, and a long-time Gnome user in a corporate environment, said he was also "perplexed and annoyed" by the missing buttons.

The Gnome developers argue that the buttons have no place in the new layout and point out that if a user wants to see a particular window, they can just head to the Activities overview.

At first, almost everyone moaned about the lack of any desktop icons, and the fact that you couldn't right-click on the desktop. Unsurprisingly, those who hadn't used Gnome 3.0 were also confused to find they couldn't create desktop shortcuts or folders.

Gnome shell touch

Many users didn't like the default Activities overview of all the open windows, and this was particularly true of those who went there to launch apps. Most users stick to a few regularly-used apps, and after a while they figured out how to pin them on the Dash. This is also how most power users work with the desktop.

Ben Werdmuller, CTO of latakoo, said: "I'm a visual person and really hate dropping down to the command line. But I'm also a web developer, and my Gnome desktop is optimised to get me to the servers I need to get to, as quickly as possible. I've set up a bunch of shortcuts to various control panels. Aside from that, my shortcuts to NetBeans and Chromium are pretty much all I need."

Those with a Google account appreciated the Online Accounts feature and its integration with Empathy and Evolution Calendar, and the new Contacts and Docs feature. None of them noticed Save As Web Application, but did make use of it once they were shown how.

Most users didn't notice Recently Used directories in Nautilus, but power users appreciated being able to bring deeply nested directories in another filesystem onto the same page as higher-level directories on the local filesystem.

Touchscreen laptop users liked the large icons and well-spaced menu entries, and didn't really mind the missing Minimise and Maximise icons which would have interfered with the Close button.

Experienced Gnome users headed straight for the Accessibility icon in the System Status area and enabled the on-screen keyboard on the touchscreen laptop. The on-screen keyboard in Gnome 3.2 looks much better; it's quite responsive and pops up whenever a text field is selected – whether in a text editor, the terminal, a browser or even in the Overview when searching for an app – and auto-hides when it isn't required.

Everyone made a favourable note of the notifications, be it from the system or a message from someone in IRC. They also liked the options when connecting a removable device.

Some couldn't figure out how to unmount devices until they headed to the Activities menu, which brought up a tray at the bottom of the screen.

Step-by-step: Adding a website as a web application

1. Navigate to the site

web app 1

Launch Epiphany and head to the website you want to create the app for. Remember to save your login details because the apps share the browser's cache and settings.

2. Save the web app

web app 2

Log in and click on File > Save As Web Application in Epiphany. This will use the top left of the website for its icon, and pick up a name for the app, which you can edit.

3. Launch from Activities

web app 3

When it's been created, the web app shows up as a regular app and can be launched from Activities > Others. Like any other app, you can also pin it to the Dash.

Best Linux desktop environment: Ubuntu Unity

11.10

Ubuntu unity

Ubuntu ruffled quite a few feathers when it decided to promote its netbook Unity interface to the desktop, replacing Gnome 3 Shell. Even users who liked Unity on a netbook didn't think it was appropriate for the desktop, and Ubuntu was criticised both for fragmenting the Gnome ecosystem and releasing a radical interface that promised more than it delivered.

In a keynote speech at OSCON in 2008, Ubuntu's Mark Shuttleworth laid out his intentions to take on Apple in terms of the quality of the desktop experience. "I think the great task in front of us in the next two years is to lift the experience of the Linux desktop from something stable and usable and not pretty to something that's art," he said.

After the 11.04 release, many experts believed that Ubuntu invested a lot of time rebuilding an interface that didn't need fixing in the first place.

Time for redemption

Asking for the community to pitch in to help improve Ubuntu, Jono Bacon acknowledged that Unity 11.04 was rough around the edges. He also stressed the importance of quality in the Unity experience and re-iterated Shuttleworth's "fit and finish" goal for Unity in 11.10.

The list of improvements start before you log in, with GDM making way for the LightDM login manager. There are many improvements in the Launcher, including better app integration.

Ubuntu has also replaced the traditional Places function with Scopes and Lenses, which give users access to lots of filtering options on their searches, such as file type, date modified, etc.

Acting on user feedback, there's also new Alt+Tab functionality that will work across multiple desktops, and a new Power menu that lets users access various settings straight from the Unity panel.

Unity was under heavy development while we were compiling this feature, but despite the fact that Ubuntu 11.10 was only up to its beta 2 release, there were marked differences in the Unity interface.

All our testers noted similarities between Gnome Shell and Unity and their radical departure from the Gnome 2.x series. Some found it easier to get started with Unity – the Launcher with a few common apps is visible when the desktop loads. To launch additional applications, they headed to the Dash Home Launcher, which has shortcuts to categories of apps such as Media and Internet.

Those not familiar with the app names in Linux-land, found the Activities shortcuts, such as View Photos, Check Email and Listen to Music, very helpful. As they started exploring, frequent clicks to the More Apps shortcut turned off users who were unfamiliar with the names of the distro's apps. That was until they discovered the Filter Results option, which breaks down the huge list into separate, more familiar categories.

Unity 2d

Surprisingly, many found Gnome's approach more practical as they had no option but to head straight to Activities. Unity's Dash Home tooltip was described as confusing and didn't describe what they'd find inside. In Unity, they also had to Filter Results to get app categories, whereas in Gnome they're already visible.

Users who knew the name of the app simply typed it into the search box much like in Gnome. But those on the touchscreen laptop found it rather inconvenient to switch from one input interface to another, and preferred to navigate to the apps via touch.

After settling in, though, most users' workflow wasn't very different, as they just pinned the most frequently used apps to the Launcher.

The one feature all users moaned about was the on-screen keyboard. Unlike in Gnome, once enabled in Unity it's displayed permanently and hoards limited desktop real estate, which is why many decided to turn it off, even on the touchscreen laptop.

A feature everyone liked, though, was the Zeitgeist-powered search bar in the Dash, which looks for all types of files besides applications.

Thanks to the close integration between Unity and the other bits of Ubuntu, regular desktop users were blown away by the ability to automatically install apps from the software centre. One user, who had a nightmarish experience installing Skype on Windows 7, couldn't believe his eyes when Ubuntu installed it for him in one click.

The search in Gnome Shell only gives options to look for terms that don't match any file or application on the system, on Wikipedia and Google. For those who regularly use those websites that's very handy, but they'd happily trade it for Ubuntu's app integration.

Users also liked the right-click context menu on Unity's Launcher icons. For example, Chromium gives options to open new windows in incognito mode or with a temporary profile, as well as to open a new instance or to pin the app in the Launcher. Gnome Shell, on the other hand, only offers options to do the latter two.

Unity is also better equipped to handle open apps. As an example of Gnome Shell's apparent lack of usability, Torvalds wrote that when he clicked an icon for an app, such as the terminal, it brought only the existing terminal to the forefront. Most of our testers were annoyed by this as well. Clicking on the icon in Unity launches a new instance of the app.

The third most visible advantage of Unity over Gnome Shell is the behaviour of the Alt+Tab window switcher. If you have multiple windows for a particular app, under Unity you can cycle through all of them seamlessly. However, in Gnome Shell, testers were irritated they had to use the mouse to choose windows grouped under a particular app.

Many noticed the new Power button in the top right-corner and used it to install updates and apps to use attached devices, such as webcams. Power users liked the fact that they could easily point to any apps that they wanted to launch at startup.

But there are those who still aren't impressed by Unity. Werdmuller said: "Whereas there's been so much innovation on the Linux desktop, this feels a copy of what's happened in the commercial world – and inevitably, it's less useful than the interfaces it takes inspiration from. For me, the selling point of Linux is still its different approach!"

Step-by-step: Installing Gnome 3 in Ubuntu

1. Install from repo

Gnome 1

Since Ubuntu 11.10 is based on Gnome 3, there's no need for a PPA to install Gnome Shell. Just pull gnome-shell from the Ubuntu Software Centre and you're all set.

2. Get fallback mode

Gnome 2

Search for and install the gnome-panel package. Now the login manager will have additional options to let you log in to the Classic mode.

3. Tweak Gnome

Gnome 3

If you aren't satisfied with Gnome Shell's config options and want to further customise your desktop, grab gnometweak- tool from the Ubuntu repos.

Best Linux desktop environment: KDE 4.7

KDE

Meanwhile, KDE has been chugging along nicely. It's come a long way since its 4.0 release caused a user revolt similar to the one we're witnessing now with Gnome Shell and Unity.

Over three years and seven point releases later, KDE 4.7 has the best mix of cutting edge software and the stability that users are missing with the latest releases of Gnome Shell and Unity.

For those who stuck with KDE 4.x as it stumbled onto the Linux desktop in 2008, it proved itself long ago. But its latest release has more than enough features, not only to satisfy existing users, but also to shelter those looking for refuge.

Something for everyone

KDE settings

As with every KDE release, 4.7 has a lot of visual polish that extends beyond its themes and icons to key areas of the desktop, such as the notification areas. The release also incorporates new design methods to accommodate users on touchscreen and mobile devices.

As part of that strategy, the KWin window manager has received a lot of developers' love. The revolutionary addition in KDE 4.0 was Plasma Activities, which foxed more users than it amazed. But the developers have been chiselling away the rough edges and it's ready to hit the limelight again, which is why it has a much more prominent place on the desktop in the new release.

In terms of apps, Kontact, KDE's PIM, rejoins the official baggage of KDE software after all its components were migrated to the Akonadi storage back-end, which was another core feature of the 4.0 release.

And there's a lot more to come. For starters, there's the new Telepathy 0.1.0 release that will integrate instant messaging into the KDE desktop. Though functional for a couple of IM services, such as GTalk and Facebook Chat, along with widgets to manage your online status, it's still under active development and isn't bundled along with SC 4.7.

Also expect to see KDE on a whole range of devices soon. This was a major talking point at this year's Desktop Summit, along with the activity-centric Plasma Active interface designed especially for tablets, that's currently under development.

The overall response from our testers was that KDE felt familiar. Whether it was the layout of the desktop or the Kickoff app launcher, users of other desktop environments as well as other OSes all felt at home with it. No one batted an eyelid at the desktop and almost instinctively headed to Kickoff.

We were amazed by the level of comfort the users experienced with KDE. Even new users were navigating the desktop as though they'd been using it for years.

Guarino has had a similar experience: "For me and for my customers, KDE 4 is currently first choice. Its well thought-out interfaces allow a user to feel at home with little effort. Users of Windows and OS X have also commented on its polish and ease of use. Business users feel at home in the common desktop metaphor that KDE so beautifully creates. This, coupled with its well-integrated applications, means KDE wows almost every business user I present it to."

Experienced KDE users made note of the breadcrumbs in the Kickoff app launcher, especially when they had to make their way back from a deeply-nested menu.

The first thing they noticed after using the desktop for a while was KWin's improved performance, effortlessly juggling between several windows and apps. For others, the fact that you can experience KDE's graphical richness without a graphics card was really humbling. Some users even thought KDE's interface was more polished than either Gnome 3 or Unity.

Power users were also amazed by the indexing capabilities and diversity of KRunner. It would be unfair to call it a simple application launcher, and many used it for executing simple Bash commands, such as moving files. Newbies generally stayed away from launching apps via Alt+F2 on other desktops, but weren't afraid of the keyboard thanks to KRunner's accuracy and speed.

One for all

KDE icons

KDE also ran flawlessly on the touchscreen laptop. Some users had trouble finding KDE's virtual keyboard, which isn't listed in the Accessibility settings as it is in the other environments. Others found it via Search in the Kickoff menu.

Once launched, it behaves like the always-visible virtual keyboard in Unity. Users liked the fact that it's easily resizeable and quite configurable and that the Maximise and Minimise window buttons were adequately spaced and far enough from Close to avoid accidents.

Of the three desktop environments on test, only KDE ships with different interfaces for regular screens and netbooks and doesn't force the user to stick to either. Some users even preferred the netbook workspace on a laptop.

The only "gotcha" moment was with Activities. Despite its prominence on the desktop, few could intuitively understand its usage. However, once explained, those that required different environments were blown away by what it promised, and quickly assimilated it to enhance their workflow.

Many users liked the improvements to the Dolphin file manager, which now allows you to rate and tag files, although they didn't discover it until they right-clicked on the files to check their properties. After meticulously tagging and rating files, they were aghast that they couldn't use this information to search for them.

One major improvement of this KDE release is the improved integration of GTK apps with Plasma Workspaces. This was apparent when users installed and used the Cheese webcam app without realising that they were using a Gnome application in KDE.

Experienced users tested the integration with a few other Gnome applications, all of which blended seamlessly with the KDE desktop.

Step-by-step: Using the Plasma Desktop Activities

1. Add virtual desktops

plasma 1

Head to Applications > Configure Desktop > Workspace Behavior. Increase the number of virtual desktops and click on Different Widgets For Each Desktop.

2. Create the Activity

plasma 2

Go to Activity > Create Activity. You can base your Activity on a template, such as Desktop Icons. Click the Wrench icon to edit the name and icon of the Activity.

3. Customise the Activity

plasma 3

That's it! Now it's time to customise its behaviour. You can add widgets by going to Activities > Add Widgets, and you can also change the wallpaper.

Best Linux desktop environment: Verdict

KDE netbook

It soon became clear during testing that different people have different expectations for a desktop, which is why they used them differently. We're not usability experts and the only measure of gauging comfort level was our groan-ometer.

While there was something to like about all of the desktops, KDE 4.7 drew the lowest number of groans. A major factor in KDE's success is its familiar interface. We're pretty sure if we'd put Gnome 2.x in the mix no one would have had any complaints. But, to be fair, KDE scored pretty highly, even after discounting the familiarity factor.

We also focused on testing the usability of the two new Gnome-based environments. All participants agreed that both are as similar to each other as they are different from Gnome 2.x. The results in this case were influenced by factors such as the form-factor of the device it was being run on, and how the desktop was being used.

In general, Gnome Shell 3.2 shines brightest on touchscreen devices with its large icons and polished on-screen keyboard. However, Ubuntu's Unity outguns it on every other platform.

According to our tests, out of the box, Gnome Shell 3.2 is best suited to users who run only a couple of apps and don't want to tweak their system too much. Users who like to pimp up their installs can currently do so, but might be better waiting until Gnome finishes work on SweetTooth, its framework for easier installation of Shell extensions.

A surprising result was that several experienced users decided to switch to Gnome 3.2's fallback mode, which looks quite different from the new Shell and more like the older Gnome 2.x release. There were even suggestions that the fallback mode should be the default to ease users into the new paradigms.

This is in sharp contrast to Unity's fallback mode, Unity 2D. Its developers are working hard to ensure that it resembles the full-blown Unity interface even on low-spec devices. This would explain why after testing Unity 2D, no one went back to it.

When all's said and done, though, every one of our testers was floored by KDE 4.7 across all devices. Only the most basic users noticed that instant messaging and other online services weren't integrated. There was a lot of praise for Activities, which was described as the natural extension to virtual workspaces on the Linux desktop.

Ultimately, though, your choice of desktop environment depends on how you want to use it. Since most popular distributions now support all three, you should really try all of them to see what fits your workflow.

If our tests are any indication, though, KDE 4.7 is the desktop environment to beat, with Unity 11.10 a close second and Gnome Shell 3.2 bringing up the rear.

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First published in Linux Format Issue 152

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