Five Linux desktops that aren't Unity or GNOME 3

Now that Linux creator Linus Torvalds has officially dumped GNOME, it's time for a fresh look at the alternatives.

Between Unity and GNOME 3, there seems to be no end to the controversy surrounding Linux desktop environments this year.

Unity, of course, has been raising some eyebrows ever since it debuted in Ubuntu 10.10's Netbook Edition last fall, but the debates really took off when it became standard in Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal earlier this year.

GNOME 3, however, has turned out to be just as controversial, and if any evidence were required, none other than the father of Linux himself--Linus Torvalds--recently provided it by condemning the desktop environment and switching to Xfce instead.

'The Unholy Mess That Is GNOME 3'

"I have yet to meet anybody who likes the unholy mess that is gnome-3," wrote Torvalds late last month on Google+.

"Why can't I have shortcuts on my desktop? Why can't I have the expose functionality? Wobbly windows? Why does anybody sane think that it's a good idea to have that 'go to the crazy activities' menu mode?" Torvalds added. "I used to be upset when gnome developers decided it was 'too complicated' for the user to remap some mouse buttons. In gnome3, the developers have apparently decided that it's 'too complicated' to actually do real work on your desktop, and have decided to make it really annoying to do."

Torvalds' reaction to what he views as the "head up the arse" behavior in GNOME 3? "I'm using Xfce," he said. "I think it's a step down from gnome2, but it's a huge step up from gnome3."

Both Unity and GNOME 3 have their fans, to be sure. But one of the best features of the free and open source Linux operating system is that there's almost infinite customization possible, so you can make it pretty much whatever you want it to be.

If you're looking for an alternative to one of these less-than-universally-loved desktops, here are a few key contenders to consider. Many, it should be noted, don't just rival but often surpass what's offered by Windows and Mac OSX.

Five Alternatives to Consider

1. KDE

I'll start off with KDE, which historically has been the most obvious and longstanding alternative.

If you run Kubuntu instead of the standard desktop Ubuntu, in fact, KDE is what you're already used to. KDE is also similar in many ways to Microsoft Windows, so if you've spent much time on a Microsoft system, KDE will probably feel familiar to you as well.

KDE and GNOME differ primarily in the way they present things on the desktop. Traditionally, GNOME's desktop has been associated with simplicity while KDE's has offered more options.

With a highly polished look, some believe KDE is the most visually attractive of all the Linux desktops. Besides Kubuntu, OpenSUSE, Mandriva and PCLinuxOS are all among the distributions that include KDE by default.

2. Xfce

Yes, it appears the low-resources Xfce desktop is now the choice of Linus Torvalds himself. Not that it's any wonder, of course. In fact, Xfce is a great lightweight desktop that's used by default in Xubuntu, the Ubuntu variant designed for low-specification computers.

Xfce focuses on using minimal resources while offering very quick speeds. Xfce is also modular, standards-compliant and reusable, allowing users to pick and choose from a number of separately packaged components.

3. Enlightenment

It may be somewhat less well-known than KDE and Xfce, but Enlightenment offers an excellent alternative. Sometimes known also as E, Enlightenment serves as the basis for the Bodhi Linux distribution but can also serve as a window manager within GNOME or KDE. The software can be used on anything from mobile phones all the way up to powerful, multi-core desktops.


A small footprint is generally a desirable quality in a Linux desktop, and on that front LXDE is a leading contender.

Short for Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment, LXDE demands very few resources and so is an excellent choice for older computers, in particular. That's not to say it's overly bare-bones, however; rather, it features an attractive interface, multilanguage support, standard keyboard shortcuts and additional features like tabbed file browsing.

LXDE is featured by default in the Lubuntu variant of Ubuntu as well as Knoppix.

5. Fluxbox

Last but not least, Fluxbox is an X window manager that's full-featured but very light on resources and easy to handle. Fluxbox is not as feature-rich as GNOME or KDE, but it's considerably friendlier for low-spec computing uses.

Linux users who are not happy with their favorite distribution's choice of a desktop environment can always switch distributions, of course. I often recommend Linux Mint for those who want to do that.

It's typically not necessary to go that far, however. In most cases, you can keep the Linux distribution you've been using and just add on a different desktop.

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Katherine Noyes

PC World (US online)
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