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Beginners Guide to Linux Desktops

Date: December 19, 2006
Author(s): Rob Williams

So you use Linux, but have you ever used a different desktop environment than the default? Surprisingly, there are too many to even count, but we are taking a look at a few of the most popular and explain advantages of each one.

Introduction, KDE 3.5.5

If you are a Linux enthusiast, chances are good that you already know everything I am about to say. Chances are even better that you tried a variety of desktop environments before settling on one. If you are a newer Linux user though, say, from the Ubuntu or SuSE crowd, it may be that you don’t even know that other options are available. Some distros like SuSE do include more than one environment though, while Ubuntu (or Kubuntu) only include the one. Even with those feature packed distros like SuSE and Sabayon, have you ever tried the other desktops that are probably already there?

You may be asking yourself, “Why would I need a different desktop environment?”. There are multiple reasons for this. First, you may be bored of the one you are using, or wish it was more user friendly. Second, each environment is developed by people with varying goals, so you can expect different functionality with each. There are more reasons, but perhaps one of the biggest ones if that you want a “lighter” environment in terms of CPU and memory usage. This is especially important on older machines or personal servers. Because of this, we will be taking a look at a few of the minimalist environments including Fluxbox and FVWM-Crystal.

One thing to take note of, is that the process of installing a new desktop environment on your distro may be different from how it’s done on another. It may be very simple under one, but a complete headache under another. My distro of choice, Gentoo, makes it quite easy to install new environments as long as it’s considered stable. If your distros software repository doesn’t have the files for a new environment, then you will need to install it manually using the source files from the developers website. Regardless of which route you take, be sure to thoroughly read through your distros documentation or the documentation of the DE you wish to install.

Bear in mind that this is a very simple look at a few desktop environments available. I am merely scratching the surface, but have included the most popular ones. This article is designed for the beginner who is unsure of what’s available, so if you see what you like, read up on how to install it and give it a try!

KDE (K Desktop Environment)

KDE has been around for quite a while and I believe it was the first environment I used back in 2000 using Caldera Linux. KDE is built on top of the Qt toolkit and runs on numerous platforms. It’s much more than just a desktop environment though. There are side projects such as KDevelop and KOffice that help to make it a great desktop for getting your work done out of the box. There are numerous other projects not officially part of the KDE team that specifically create apps for use under it, so you will have a huge selection of apps to choose from.

If you are a Windows user, then KDE is probably the environment that will be most familiar to you. You will have a tray down bottom which features applets and launchers in the same positions as the Windows taskbar does. However, KDE has far more customization than what Windows gives you. Similar to the Windows start menu, there is a K Menu here that displays your recently used files, programs and control panel. In the end, this really is an environment that is welcoming to new Linux users due to it’s ease of use, but has full customization and functionality to please power users.

Once KDE is installed and you log in for the first time, you will be greeted with a prompt that will ask you how you wish to use it. If you are coming from Windows or Mac OS, you can select those options to help the functionality match what you are used to. If you have no preference, then you can stick with the default mode. The functionality differences mainly depend on how you minimize applications… that sort of thing.

Your desktop will look like this after you log in. Blue KDE background and gray-ish gradient K bar.

If you install the full blown KDE installation, you will have a ton of functionality immediately available. As I mentioned, this environment includes many extra applications, just like Windows does. This includes Kontact (Mail Client), Konquerer (Web Browser), Konsole (Customizable terminal), KSnapshot (Screenshot taker), Kopete (Multi-client IM), KDE Control Center and much more.

KDE control center is the one stop shop for all things KDE. Here, you can control anything the environment offers. From an eyecandy perspective, you can easily change the theme, color scheme, icon set, fonts and anything else to better suit you. Beyond that though, you can also change file associations, network settings, samba, peripherals and even the KDM login manager.

It’s not a secret that KDE is a superb environment, but it’s also one of the most accessible. It’s such a complete environment, that its really no surprise that it’s used by default on many distros. Besides, where else can you get Konqi the green dragon? From a customization perspective, I’ve included a screenshot of my personal KDE desktop. The default desktop included with KDE is not exactly the best looking out there, but really anything is possible. I spent 5 minutes customizing mine. With a little TLC, you can really create a desktop that perfectly suits you.

Note: System Info bar in above screenshot is possible with SuperKaramba and theme (will need to edit).

So who should use KDE? Anyone… it’s a desktop that’s designed for everyone and their dog. It’s such a configurable environment, that you can change the look entirely just with the included Control Center tools. As you can imagine, KDE has a huge user base, which results in tons of support. If you are looking for new KDE specific apps to use, you can hit up sites like and peruse a selection there. is another related site that focuses on customizing everything on your machine, including the theme, color scheme, desktop wallpapers, icons, login screen and even the splash screen. There is a world of possibility here on the customization front.

But, there are other popular desktops out there, and we are going to move into the second most popular one next.

GNOME 2.16.2

GNOME and KDE share a few similar goals. It’s a desktop environment designed around the goal to provide an easy to use platform of high quality, with great free software. If you are familiar with GNU, you know that it’s a project designed around free software. GNOME just so happens to be part of this project, so that can tell you right there the goals.

While GNOME shares similar goals as KDE, that’s where the similarities end. The environment as a whole is completely different, and is reminiscent of Mac OS 9 in terms of layout. Whereas in KDE, all of the programs, launchers and applets are crammed into a single bar (which is why it’s so large by default), GNOME splits this into two parts. On the top of the screen you will have your menu, clock and quick launchers. On the bottom, you have your currently used applications and also the desktop switcher. It may seem like an odd setup if you’ve never used GNOME before, but after some usage you will quickly understand how much sense it makes.

GNOME includes a slew of official programs, some of which can be used through other environments just fine. Included here is Gedit (text editor), Evolution (E-mail client), Epiphany (Web browser), Nautilus (File manager) and Totem (Movie player). Whereas KDE is based on the Qt toolkit, GNOME is based on the GTK+ toolkit like many other *nix apps are.

There’s no better time than now to give GNOME a try. Released a few months ago was GNOME 2.16.2 which had quite a few notable updates. The update that most stands out is the cleaner icons. The team did a fantastic job on these and helped the environment feel a lot more modern.

All of that said, once you have GNOME installed you will have a desktop like seen at the top of this page. Although it’s such a full featured DE, bloated is a word that doesn’t come to mind. It’s fast, versatile and reliable. The environment relies a lot on dbus for special functionality though, so you may need to install and set up a proper launcher prior to experiencing all the desktop has to offer.

When you first login to a new GNOME environment, you will notice how incredibly clean it is. The desktop only has a few icons (unless you have files already there) and the theme is simple, but visually appealing. Although GNOME doesn’t offer the level of customization that KDE does out of the box (to my knowledge), there are a lot of settings you will want to toy with in order to make it feel like -your- environment.

The same people who run KDE-Look also run, so you will have a lot of fun with “prettying” up your system. On the application front, GNOMEFiles is a superb site for finding new applications that are based on the GTK+ toolkit.

What type of people should use GNOME as their primary desktop? Same answer as KDE… anyone. Overall, GNOME offers a cleaner looking environment than KDE, with less eye candy but sharply designed themes. GNOME can sometimes turn off newer users because it’s can be less straight-forward then KDE. However, after spending an evening in GNOME and learning some of the keyboard shortcuts, you will be a pro. It truly is a great DE to have installed, and any Linux user out there should give it a go at some point.

Xfce 4

Xfce4 doesn’t get as much usage as the big boys do, but it’s a great environment that you shouldn’t overlook. It’s designed for productivity and to be easy enough for anyone to use. One goal is that it leaves a small memory footprint, so it’s ideal for older machines, or for those people who simply want a super fast environment and don’t require all the additional features that some of the other DE’s provide.

Like GNOME, Xfce is also based on the GTK+ toolkit, so any applications you run through GNOME should work just fine here. Once you use this environment for a few minutes, you will quickly realize how simple it is, in terms of use and what’s included. The control panel offers 17 icons, all which offer some simple customization. In the end, this is designed to be a fast running environment, and it’s the goals of the developers to keep it that way. While it’s a far stretch from being a minimalist environment, it’s somewhere in the middle of the sandwich, where KDE and Fluxbox are the pieces of bread.

In Xfce, your main panel is kept at the bottom of the screen, which includes the time, desktops, some quick launchers and shutdown/lock buttons. The top is where all of your currently opened documents hide. Anything that goes straight to the systray will be found here also.

The settings will always be quickly accessible, unless you choose to remove the icon from the tray. Clicking on here, you will see a slew of icons regarding everything from customization to, umm… customization. That’s pretty much all that’s going on here. Again this is to retain it’s robust speed.

This is not to say this is a boring environment. You have tons of options at your disposal. If you are interested in finding out the basic operation of Xfce, you should check out their flash demos which show you most of what the system is capable of in a few mere minutes.

In regards to a file manager, Xfce uses xffm which is solid, but can be confusing for new users. When version 4.4 becomes final, Thunar will be used instead, which is shaping up to be a great file manager.

If you enjoy a lighter environment and find GNOME and KDE too robust, then Xfce should be on your list of things to try. Thanks to it’s small footprint, it’s fast and can help you be more productive thanks to it’s simple, and common sense interface.

For more hardcore users though, there are even smaller environments to be had. So, let’s finish off this article with a look at some of the other very small environments available.

Fluxbox, E16, FVWM-Crystal

Warning: Hardcore users only! Minimalistic environments are just that. They are designed for a variety of users. First, you may have a super old machine that you want to set up as a file server. Or, you may want the smallest environment possible for performance reasons, or enjoy having a lot more of your screen available for windows at any given time. Lastly, you may be one of those Lunix hax0rs that would feel more more leet by using a more hardcore environment.


The most popular minimalist environment is Fluxbox, which happens to be based on another environment called Blackbox. It’s slim, but still surprisingly customizable with many included themes. The goal is simplicity, but you should be an experienced computer user before making the jump. You can right-click the desktop at any time to open up some programs or edit the configuration.

The bottom of the screen contains the time and active applications and the desktop switcher. For experienced users, Fluxbox is actually pretty easy to customize, as all of the settings are stored in plain text files under your ~/.fluxbox directory. As far as minimalist environments go, Fluxbox is one of the best.


E is another minimalist environment that’s a touch more accessible compared to Fluxbox. There are a couple reasons why this one stands out. First, it is interoperable with GNOME and KDE, so all of your applications in each of those environments will be available here. If you have autostarts set up for either of those, E can be set to use those as well. The desktop as a whole is very clean, with your four available desktops in the bottom left corner, and the app tray in the bottom right. There is a thin bar at the top of the screen which allows you to see all of the available applications open at a time for quick switching.

E allows you to easily maximize your applications to take up the entire screen. Another benefit, although eye candy, is that there are many simple animations all throughout the environment. It’s nothing monumental, but definitely helps for a much cooler experience. So if you want a small environment that’s not a big pain to learn and is fun to use, E is worth a try.


FVWM-Crystal is built on top of FVWM, a basic window manager. Crystal though, adds a lot of functionality and looks great. It’s laid out different than most other DE’s. The top left corner is your main settings menu, while all of the applications are in the bar beside it. Your personal applications can be added here also, or current ones there removed. This is accomplished the same way Fluxbox does things, through basic text files under your home directory.

As you can see in the screenshot, top and center is access to eight different desktops. If you want to move an application to another desktop quickly, all you need to do is drag it’s window to the edge of the screen continually until you hit the desktop you want. Even with a lot of processes running, this is a very fast feature. The bottom of course contains currently opened applications. FVWM-Crystal is a lightweight environment that may take a few hours to completely break into, but it’s one that should be tried if you are after a slimline DE.

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