What's the best Linux desktop environment?

Examining the usability of Gnome and Unity

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?