Ubuntu will use GNOME as desktop environment starting with release 17.10 Artful Aardvark. The news is old (even though the original blog post by Mark Shuttleworth was referring to 18.04), but many Unity users are still on the look for the best next alternative.
On my “for fun” computers I have tried, used, freely interchanged many desktop environments, using one until it was not interesting anymore and then switching to the next.
But for my “real work” computers, I have been using Unity consistently since its release.
The reason is that Unity has been the most “predictable” environment when coming to multiple screens, projectors, audio/microphone configurations and all those things that you need to work immediately when the meeting time comes.
Even if Unity will be maintained until 2021 (thanks to 16.04 LTS shipping it), I don’t like the idea of using “a thing of the past”.
It’s time then to evaluate some alternatives!
All the Desktop Environments (DE) evaluated in this post have been used by me for an extended period of time (at least several months each, some several years), either on the personal laptop or on my working machines. I will give my personal impressions of what I like and dislike about them.
Reference installation: Ubuntu GNOME 17.04 (GNOME 3.24.0)
GNOME – What I like
I love the consistency of GNOME. Everything looks and feels polished and the DE conveys a feeling of solidity.
One of the concepts I like the most is how GNOME “advertises” its features from a single screen (in particular, the usage of multiple desktops): everything is available from the activities overview, which makes it easy to search, start new applications, move windows across desktops, create new spaces. The GNOME developers did a really great job in serving all of this in such a user-friendly way through a single overview and a single key press.
One of the most interesting things about GNOME is how the community is producing unique and interesting applications that are making this DE more and more professional and integrated. Some examples are maps, builder, calendar, To Do, music, games, …
GNOME seems to have a great potential to become a stable and features-full environment that can accommodate the requirements of both simple users (chrome + photos + emails) and power users.
GNOME – What I don’t like
I don’t like how GNOME manages the screen space. The top bar is an almost completely empty area that could have served more purposes. Not only most of the space there is wasted, but if your applications have to show notification icons, they would go to yet another bar, to take some more space (see the Skype icon on the bottom left):
The Unity top bar is not that different, but at least (in my case), it gets quite crowded because of the notifications area and the global applications menu.
If you then want to have an overview of which applications are open (without opening the activities), the best available option is the dash-to-dock extension, which will take even more space (because the icons could be on the top bar, unless it is used for global menus):
In general, I appreciate how powerful extensions are, but I don’t like that I have to recur to extensions to create a fully-productive environment.
Reference installation: KDE neon 5.9 (User edition, KDE Plasma 5.9.5, KDE frameworks 5.33.0)
KDE – What I like
My biggest plus, the thing that I like the most in KDE, is the KRunner application. I can do so many things with it: start applications, find files, calculate math results, all in the blink of an eye. Users coming from OSX would associate this with spotlight. To me, this is an important feature that a desktop environment should integrate and KDE has the most powerful alternative among this set of DEs.
Using the desktop is a pleasant experience overall, it’s easy to customize everything and create the environment that can help your productivity.
To increase the interest on this DE, KDE developers have created a set of amazing applications (that can be installed in all the other DEs as well), such as Okular, Krita, Kdenlive…
KDE – What I don’t like
I think that KDE (neon) ships with “could-be-better” defaults. I cannot get used to the default window switcher (ALT+TAB), or I find it strange that I have to manually set a shortcut to maximize windows.
Sure, one advantage of KDE is that you can customize and fine-tune almost everything, but even if this is just a “one-time” task on a fresh installation, I think that more “standard” choices would attract more users (ok, define standard…).
Another thing that really bothers me in KDE are the graphical inconsistencies. Here is one example: after I set the ALT+TAB switcher to my favorite style, the firefox icon is pixelated
Another example is the Desktop menu, where I can see menu entries using 4 different sizes:
On a more serious level, I have had many issues with KDE when managing multiple screens or multiple audio inputs/outputs. Unplugging the external screen would leave me with no video output on the laptop screen (but I think this has been fixed now) or telling KDE to use the HDMI audio output instead of the laptop speakers required changing settings in two different places, in a very convoluted way (I believe this has been greatly improved as well). Even if these issues are not there anymore, thanks to the amazing work of the KDE people, I never had similar problems with Unity, therefore I stopped using KDE on my working laptops.
Pantheon (Elementary OS)
Reference installation: Elementary OS 0.4 Loki (fully upgraded at 30 Apr 2017)
Elementary OS – What I like
Elementary OS has many interesting features, sometimes very small ones, that I really like, but what I appreciate the most about this project is its philosophy, that has also been the object of controversy.
Starting with the tangible DE features, surely the empty workspace itself is an expression of beauty and simplicity:
Switching and managing workspaces is also delivered with beautiful visual effects and animations:
The Files application (pantheon-files) has the amazing column mode (similar to OSX’s finder) which is for me the best available way to browse files with a GUI:
Another seemingly small feature (or design choice) that I find incredibly useful and that shows the commitment of the Elementary OS team in building an environment that makes sense in 201x, is the behavior of CTRL-C and CTRL-V in the pantheon-terminal application. If some text is highlighted, CTRL-C will copy it. If no text is highlighted, CTRL-C will send the usual SIGINT signal to the foreground process. CTRL-V is always paste (in fact, I wonder how many times we need the verbatim insert mode associated with CTRL-V in other terminals). I may agree that there are other shortcuts to achieve copy/paste in a terminal, but uniformity with the behavior of text editors makes the workflow more natural.
About the philosophical aspects, I really appreciate how the Elementary team values rewards for developers that invest their time in building awesome applications or fixing bugs. You can find the elementary project in Bountysource and patreon. I think that this approach might really help in bringing a professional Linux Desktop experience to a wide public. They also encourage people to donate when downloading the OS, which would be fair (in general, donating to open source projects that we use is a fair choice).
Elementary OS starts to have an interesting ecosystem of applications developed specifically for it. Getting into developer mode is also easy and fun: https://developer.elementary.io/.
Elementary OS – What I don’t like
One thing that I miss in Elementary OS is a more powerful app launcher (read “Spotlight alternative”) than the applications menu. For example, the default applications menu will not search through your files.
I also find the non-native applications (e.g., the GNOME ones) look boring and flat:
When using Elementary OS, I also feel constrained with lack of customization. One example of a feature that I would really like to customize, but that I cannot, is the windows switcher. I don’t like the default behavior, as I have to look at different parts of the screen to understand what’s going on:
As a more general feeling, I find Elementary OS to lack a bit of flexibility when power users start to push their requirements at the DE.
- Solus 2017.04.18.0 (fully upgraded at 01 May 2017)
- Ubuntu Budgie 17.04 (fully upgraded at 01 May 2017)
Budgie (Solus) – What I like
When I first tried Solus some months ago, I immediately appreciated the top panel with application icons (similar to GNOME 2). Unfortunately this feature doesn’t appear on Ubuntu Budgie, where the top bar doesn’t include a launcher and an additional dock is used instead.
I think that Solus provides a straightforward user experience (in a very positive way): it doesn’t get in the way, everything seems to be where you need it and getting things done becomes fast. From a developer point of view, the desktop environment of Solus makes a lot of sense.
One of the most peculiar features of Budgie is Raven, a “widget, notification and customization center”:
I appreciate that Raven gives immediate access to a whole set of functions, but things seem to get a bit crowded when opening the “Budgie Setting”:
Budgie (Solus) – What I don’t like
Solus is a new OS, not just a <something>-based distro used to ship a Desktop Environment. Solus is deservedly gaining a lot of attention and progressing fast. If a package is missing, it’s easy to ask the Solus team to provide it and things could get done fast, but still, what is available for Ubuntu may not be available for Solus. Ubuntu Budgie would be an answer to this, but the user experience on the DE seems to be a bit different than on Solus (with my personal preference going for the latter).
Regardless of where your preference goes in terms of DE for Linux, I find it amazing that we can benefit from such variety of choice (and there’s more)! This is one of the perks of open source.
Of the four DEs above and because of Canonical’s recent choice, probably GNOME will get the most user’s attention in the near future. But each one of them has peculiar characteristics that makes it interesting to use.