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A Look Inside Linux series

A series of short topics on how Linux works and how to make it work the way you want it to, which I present during the weekly sessions of the Linux User Net. The target audience is Hams who are new to Linux and want to know more about it, as well as experienced Linux users who can learn more about their chosen operating system. These are my notes for the presentations. (Russ, KC7MM)

12. Linux desktops


One of the true joys of using Linux is being able to choose one's user interface.

With Windows and OSX, Microsoft and Apple make that choice for you – you get exactly what they give you and nothing more. Not so with Linux. There are dozens of Linux desktops available for us to use, and new ones appear regularly. In fact, many Linux distros exist mainly to promulgate a UI that someone has developed. This is made possible by the modular design of Linux and its FOSS licensing terms.

The choice of a user interface is a very personal one. It combines both practical and aesthetic considerations: how it aligns with our computer use, and how it satisfies our visual senses.

Given that, and given the large number of UIs that are available, I don't propose to debate the relative merits of any one versus the others. Rather, I want to spend this time looking at some of the practical aspects of choosing and using Linux desktops. This is based mostly on my own personal experience, so it necessarily will be less that comprehensive. Still, I think it's an exercise that's worth the effort.


One possible source of confusion about graphical user interfaces in Linux is what they are called. As I mentioned last time when discussing the GUI layer of the Linux stack, you'll see them referred to as:

  • Window managers
  • Desktops
  • Desktop environments

As a practical matter, you can just think of them as GUIs that you can install and use, while keeping in mind that they can vary significantly in appearance, operation, and installed software. For this discussion, I'll use the term desktop to refer to all of them.

The Desktop Roundup

Let's take a quick look at classes of Linux desktops.

How they work

One major distinction between desktops is how they work on the screen. There are two major desktop paradigms in use today:

  1. Movable, overlapping windows. This is by far the most common.
  2. Tiled windows. Here, windows are fit into a grid, so that all are fully visible on the screen. This can be useful for users who spend a lot of time working in terminals and text editors – system administrators and programmers, for example.

Another possible distinction is virtual desktops. One great feature of Linux GUIs is the ability to distribute windows over multiple virtual desktops on the screen, switching between them as needed. That reduces clutter and lets you group related applications together. All the most-used desktops have this feature, but it's possible that there are some that don't.

How they are developed

  • Desktop “families”
    • Gnome and widely-used derivatives: Cinnamon, MATE, XFCE, LMDE. Based on GTK.
    • KDE. Based on Qt.
    • Others: Specialty environments such as Enlightenment, window tiling, etc. Can be the reason for starting a new distro.

Choosing and using desktops

In addition to the visual differences between desktops, there are other distinctions between them. Here are some things to consider when choosing a Linux distro.

Desktop characteristics

Here we look at important properties of the desktop.

  1. Resource usage. The amount of memory and CPU time consumed by desktops can vary greatly. It's a good idea to match the installed desktop to the hardware resources available on the host.
  2. Included software. Developers of desktops decide to install certain applications, depending on their design goals. These vary both in the number included and the specific programs that are selected. These fall into two general classes:
    • Utilities for working with the system: file manager, disk manager, software manager, printing, USB image burner, etc.
    • Application programs: browser, mail client, PDF viewer, text editor, office suite. (A Ham-oriented distro will include Amateur Radio apps.)
  3. Visual character. Visually, Linux desktops run the gamut from staid to eye-popping. You get to choose the “user experience” that suits you – not a vendor.
  4. Switchable themes. Not only are we Linux users blessed with a plethora of desktops, but most of them offer various visual themes from which we can select. These can be created by the desktop developers or by users, and encompass a huge range of visual effects. Moreover, these themes are common to the “families” of desktops I mentioned earlier. So, GTK themes work across desktops based on Gnome, and KDE themes work for KDE variants.

Default desktops for distros

Linux distributions install a default desktop. In fact, that can be the defining characteristic of a distro. An example is the variants of Ubuntu: Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Lubuntu. Also Linux Mint Cinnamon edition and XFCE edition.

This can determine your choice of desktop.

Multiple desktops on a single host

It's possible to install any number of desktops on a Linux machine – though there are some quirks.

Although Linux distros install a default desktop, they often have others available in their software repository. Installing one of them will install all the code libraries, configuration files, and programs that make it up.

So, you can install multiple desktops, then select the one you want to use at login time. Simple.

The quirky bit comes from the included software: the utilities and applications. Switching between desktops doesn't necessarily change the system's default application settings. These settings determine which applications are automatically run when certain types of file are opened – a browser for HTML files, for example, or an editor for a text file. There also are defaults for file manager, terminal, and other utilities.

These default applications are set by the original desktop. If you run another desktop, you can find yourself still using those same default utilities and apps, despite the fact that the new desktop comes with its own equivalents. (I ran into this problem once when I installed a distro with a MATE desktop, then tried to switch to XFCE. YMMV.)

Wrapping up

As with so many things, Linux gives us lots to choose from when it comes to desktops. There are dozens of them, and, when installed, they tend to be highly configurable to onne's own personal taste. It's yet another reason to enjoy running Linux.

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linuxusernet/inside_linux/desktops.txt · Last modified: 2022/03/29 17:50 by KC7MM