Linux is about choice, or so the popular mantra goes, and nothing represents this more than the plethora of desktop environments on offer. Most distros have at least five graphical environments in their repositories, and some offer double-digit numbers of choice. But why? What's the point of all this? Surely it's not a question of having a lot of desktop environments, but of having a single one that works properly. Well, maybe.
That's what we're here to investigate. We're going to look at some of the most popular, and some of the more esoteric desktop choices to find out which one you should be using. But before we go any further, we need to understand what we're looking at.
The phrase desktop environment is notoriously slippery. We're taking the view that a desktop environment is a collection of things: it's the window manager plus a set of utilities. This may come in the form of a pre-assembled package, such as Gnome or KDE, or it may be assembled by the distro maintainer, such as CrunchBang's Openbox or Puppy's JWM.
Of course, even when it comes in a pre-assembled package, it will vary between distributions. KDE, in particular, can seem like a different desktop environment in each distro.
The final thing we have to say before we get started is how we're evaluating them. In short, what should a good desktop environment do? We could get technical here, but really, we don't think the average end user cares that much about technicalities of what happens behind the scenes.
So, we're going to say that a good desktop environment is one that makes computing fun and simple. That's the litmus test we're going to reference when deciding what's good and what's not. That's enough about what we're doing. Bring on the desktops!
Can the once-popular desktop reclaim lost users?
Gnome was once the most popular desktop environment for Linux. It may still be, but it's hard to be confident now. When Gnome 3 launched in April 2011, it changed from a traditional desktop to a new, stripped bare, minimalist environment, and users took to the internet to demand it reverted to its older ways or else they would abandon it. The developers stayed with the new style and some users have certainly left, but not in the droves that critics predicted. In fact, it's now more common to hear people say that they like the new version.
This new style comes courtesy of Gnome Shell, the part of the Gnome which creates the desktop. It's a radical break from previous versions which featured a panel with Menu, Window List and Notifications area, all of which had been common to most Linux desktop environments since they existed.
In explaining their design decisions Gnome says: "The Shell is designed to minimise distraction and interruption and to enable users to focus on the task at hand. A persistent Window List or Dock would interfere with this goal, serving as a constant temptation to switch focus.
The separation of window switching functionality into the overview means that an effective solution to switching is provided when it's desired by the user, but that it's hidden from view when it's not necessary. The omission of a Window List or Dock also reduces the amount of screen space occupied by the Shell, and therefore makes it better suited to devices with smaller screens."
This philosophy lies right at the heart of Gnome 3. It's about simplifying the computing experience down to its bare minimum, and helping the user focus on a single task. This simplification continues through to the Gnome apps, and has been a constant cause of friction. As Gnome 3 matures, developers have simplified the core apps - Nautilus in particular - and removed functionality.