With the past few releases, Ubuntu has been focusing more and more on their homegrown desktop Unity. Some people love it, but a lot of us don’t. Fortunately, as with all things Linux, there are many alternative options. For those of us who just can’t find a way to unite with Unity, here are 5 great options that you might find you like better.
1. Gnome 3 with Gnome Shell
Let’s get the most obvious choice out of the way first. Historically, Ubuntu has always run the Gnome desktop environment. Gnome was one of the first DEs for Linux, and is still going strong. When they recently released version 3, it was a complete overhaul of both the desktop interface and much of the software behind it. Currently, Ubuntu uses Gnome 3’s backend software with the Unity desktop, but if you want the full Gnome 3 experience you need Gnome Shell.
Gnome shell can be installed through the Ubuntu Software Center, or from the command line with
sudo apt-get install gnome-shell
The other big kid on the block is KDE. It and Gnome have been battling for the Linux desktop for years, each with their own group of avid supporters. As one of the heavyweight contenders, KDE packs a full suite of mature and capable software, a beautiful desktop, and decades of Linux desktop design experience.
All of KDE’s power and flexibility does not come cheap. A full KDE installation is a pretty hefty thing, and for all its fine points, KDE might not be a great option for low end or mobile computers.
KDE can be installed through the Ubuntu Software Center or from the command line with
sudo apt-get install kde-standard
or if you want, download Kubuntu, which comes with KDE as the default DE.
For a long time, XFCE was jokingly known as “Gnome Lite”. It uses similar backend software (such as GTK) and has an overall look and feel similar to the Gnome 2.x series. It’s generally regarded as lighter and faster than Gnome, however most of those comparisons were made prior to Gnome 3. Now the two desktops take such vastly different approaches, and such comparisons would have less meaning.
Still, its resemblance to Gnome 2 is much of the reason why many people (including Linus Torvalds himself) have migrated to XFCE due to dissatisfaction with Gnome 3.
XFCE can be installed through the Ubuntu Software Center or from the command line with
sudo apt-get install xfce4
or download Xubuntu which comes with XFCE.
A lightweight option that’s been growing in popularity lately is LXDE. It’s a desktop environment built around the OpenBox window manager. It includes several small apps and utilities like the PCManFM file manager and a custom panel and terminal.
LXDE is a fairly nice setup, particularly on lower-end machines, but it’s been this author’s experience that LXDE and its related apps always seem to have the feel of being almost done. If you’re the type of user who likes everything to be smoothly polished, feature-complete, and rock-solid – LXDE might not be great for you. If, however, you need something light, fast, and simple – I highly recommend you try it out. It may not be your dream desktop, but it’s almost there.
LXDE can be installed through the Ubuntu Software Center or from the command line with
sudo apt-get install lxde
5. Enlightenment (E17)
Once considered a thing of myth and legend, E17 is now a part of Ubuntu 11.10’s online repositories. Many years of development have gone in to this release, and it’s got loads of features. This is a desktop that aims to do it all – high performance, high productivity, extreme flexibility, and loads of eye candy. Chances are it does not much resemble any desktop environment you’ve used before, so if you decide to take the plunge, be prepared for a little bit of a learning curve.
Once you’ve learned to do things the “enlightened” way, it may be tough to switch back. E17 can be installed through the Ubuntu Software Center or from the command line with
sudo apt-get install e17
Each of these has its own pros and cons. Some people love Gnome 3, some think it’s garbage. Some people use KDE every day, others won’t go near it. The beauty of Linux is that whatever you like, you can have it – for free. If it doesn’t exist, make it. That’s what open source is all about: choice. Hopefully this guide has helped you make yours.