The Linux Desktop was once a great thing, from a quick, snappy Gnome 2 based desktop to a fully featured KDE environment, to a polished and surprisingly efficient Compiz desktop cube, there was something for everyone. Sadly today it is not so. Here is my take on the latest Desktop Environments.
Firstly Gnome has dumbed their system down with Gnome 3 becoming a mere shadow of what it used to be. Options have gone missing and performance has also degraded significantly. Why did this happen? Because we don't know what we want, the Gnome developers know better!
This led to the forking of Gnome 2 in the form of Mate. I have great hope for Mate in the future but as of now there are just too many little niggles that stop it from working optimally in a day to day environment. That coupled with the fact that many distributions adopted the Mate Window Manager but not the companion applications, instead using Gnome 3, therefore see above.
KDE went through a rough patch but it seems to have pulled things straight and mostly kept things in tact. Sadly though it is by no means a lightweight Desktop. On a powerful system it is wonderful and has many features that out strip Gnome. At least we can say KDE have kept doing what they always do, and people like that.
Now we come to what I think may have been the biggest blow to the Linux Desktop, the demise of Compiz. Back in 2007 I had a Gentoo system with Gnome 2, Beryl ,and the Emerald window decorator. It was as if the mathematician, artist, and the engineer had conceived a child and all stuck together as one big happy family. The experience was unreal and all this would happily and speedily run on a 2.0Ghz Athlon 64 with integrated ATI Graphics. The features far exceeded what Windows Vista or even Mac OSX could do. Plus it was free, as in beer and speech. What more could a Linux nerd ask for, you may ask? In retrospect for it to last would have been what we should have wished for. In retrospect we should have wished it would last. I am not going to lie and say it was perfect, there were bugs here and there. Also, it was not the easiest thing to get running, some command line hacking was normally needed. But we were on the way up, bugs could be fixed things improved, or so we thought. Then it all came un done.
Ubuntu came out with Unity, the worst desktop environment that I have ever had the displeasure of using. I cannot think of one good thing about Unity. Well, lets try, performance, terrible, usability, horrendous, customization potential, non-existent, effects, not even possible. Also, when I say it was the worst desktop environment I have ever used I am including Mac OSX and Windows Vista; for anyone that doesn't know me I believe OSX is the qwerty keyboard of desktop environments, intentionally stupid. On the other hand Unity seems to be constantly changing the keymap and hitting some permutation or combination of modifier keys, while missing half of your keystrokes. You have the option of focus follows mouse but you had better have your windows at the top of the screen or else you will never be able to click on a menu item. The performance for a system that was supposed to be tablet compatible was such a joke that I thought there may be something wrong with my system. As soon as I installed Mate it became strikingly clear that Unity was such a failure and that my aging Athlon 64 wasn't that anemic.
All that I ask is for movement in the right direction from a reasonable starting point. I don't expect a composited Compiz-Fusion desktop to be perfect or use no resources but neither do I expect a simple desktop to be resource hungry and unusable. Until there are 2 to 3 major players, and I can setup a desktop with as many features and as high a usability factor as a Gnome 2, Compiz, Compiz-Fusion, and Emerald desktop; we have failed.
How do you feel about the state of the Linux desktop?
I gave up on the linux desktop a long time ago because I got tired of fighting with drivers and figuring out how to get things working on particular hardware. I used to find that challenge fun but then when it started getting in the way of doing real work I couldn't take it anymore. Fortunately, around the same time I was given my first MacBook Pro by my employer and fell in love. A unix core with an intuitive and easy-to-use GUI was awesome. Then it only got better as Apple made improvements to their software and hardware. Multi-touch is now an indispensable part of my computing. Using a mouse is just silly as I can use multiple fingers and gestures to do most anything. When a company combines the software and the hardware, they are bound to make superior products.
The one downside is the cost. Fortunately I have worked jobs that give me Apple laptops. That said, when I have purchased Apple products I've found that they keep their value much more than HP, Dell, and computers I've built myself. So you pay a premium but get the premium back when you move on.
How is multi-touch and gestures supported in Linux? Anyone use a touchpad?
I want to build a home system soon to run a few services. I'll probably go low power to save on electricity. I'll report back what I find with linux desktops. Should I use Ubuntu and Unity? I hear bad things about ads and silly stuff going on these days.
I agree, that sorting out hardware problems can be a real pain but honestly I find it is much more troublesome on laptops. Also, I generally find after a year or two the problems are mostly taken care of by default. On the desktop I think everything is much smoother. I can't remember the last time I had to perform some special hardware fix on a desktop.
I can't argue that Mac OS is more user friendly and quicker to setup, with one caveat. If you want to do something that Mac OS doesn't offer, you are out of luck. One example for me is focus follows mouse. As soon as I started using a Linux system and found this feature in Gnome I was addicted. It allowed for so many things that I would not have been able to do otherwise. On Windows XP there was a powertoy written by Microsoft to do this. On Mac I believe there is no way to do this. My final major GUI gripe with Mac OS is that the menubar is always at the top of the screen. This means that if I have a window at the bottom right corner of the screen I have to move across most of the screen to get to the menubar. This may have been a good space saving compromise in the days of 1024x768 screen resolutions but we have come a long way since then. It also means that accessing the menubar of a program that does not have focus requires me to click on the window and then go from that location to the top of the screen and then click on the menu item. Mac have at least implemented this consistently and effectively vs unity where periodically if using focus follows mouse you will just switch to the window in between.
The Macbooks are things of beauty and if it weren't extremely hard to run Linux on them and the clicking touch pad I would probably own one.
I really am not sure about the multi touch capabilities of Linux and the desktop environments. I am sure there is some support I think it is probably a question of how well it actually works in practice. I can see to that for some users multi touch and a touch pad would be all you need but for mechanical, civil, and electrical engineers a mouse is necessary. Also, gamers will never be able to attain the same speed on a touch pad. For me the mouse is still the way to go.
I will never use Ubuntu until they get rid of Unity. Building a low power system would be virtually impossible and performance would be a joke. Linux Mint seems to be the new go to. It is available with XFCE and is supposed to still be light weight but I always find the features slightly lacking. I am running Gentoo with Gnome 2 and Compiz and I am very happy. The install was actually completely smooth it blew me away.
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