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So Many Linux Desktops: Which One is Best?

GNOME in a Nutshell

  • August 10, 2009
  • By Bruce Byfield
Bruce Byfield

How do you choose which GNU/Linux desktop to use? No easy answer exists, because the choice is so full of difficulties.

For one thing, if you're migrating from Mac or Windows, you may have trouble getting your head around the idea that you have any choice of desktops, let alone several.

For another, few guides exist, and those you can find online are often outdated. For example, not too many years ago, the consensus was that KDE was easier to use than GNOME and felt more like Windows. Then the KDE 4 series was released. Now, few people would agree that the generality is still true.

In much the same way, comparisons of such elements as the speed of a desktop are next to impossible, because they can vary so greatly with the distribution. In Debian, KDE and Xfce are both extremely quick, while in Kubuntu and Xubuntu (their Ubuntu incarnations) they often seem slower than GNOME.

But the biggest reason that no definitive answer is possible is that the choice of a desktop is highly personal. And no wonder, considering that many of us spend twelve hours a day or more in front of our choice. More than anything else, that's why, when someone new to GNU/Linux asks me what desktop they should use, I answer the same way that I do here, summarizing the general feel and some of the desktop-specific applications, then adding any cultural issues that might affect them.

Regardless of which of the most popular desktops you settle on -- GNOME, KDE, and Xfce -- the choice is too personal to trust to endorsements.

GNOME in a Nutshell

GNOME was started in 1997 because of concerns over KDE licensing. Originally short for GNU Network Object Model Environment, the name no longer stands for anything. Usually, it is pronounced with the first "G" being sounded, making it two syllables.

While GNOME and its priorities have changed several times in the last twelve years, today GNOME is best known for an emphasis on simple, highly usable designs. The principles behind these designs are summarized in the GNOME Human Interface Designs. When followed, these principles usually result in highly organized menus and a limited set of configuration options.

Combined with the high profile activities of the GNOME Foundation, these designs probably explain why GNOME is the desktop of choice of business in North America, and currently a friendly choice for newcomers. However, others find GNOME too restrictive and too quick to dictate to users how they should use their computers.

Not too long ago, GNOME had fewer applications written for it then KDE, but now that no longer seems true, at least so far as basic applications are concerned. Although GNOME often comes with Epiphany, a Mozilla-based browser, and includes office apps like AbiWord and Gnumeric, most users favor Firefox and OpenOffice.org instead.

At the heart of GNOME are the file-browser Nautilus, which includes a simple but adequate CD-burning feature, and Evolution, GNOME's answer to Window's Outlook. Gedit, GNOME's graphical text editor, is also highly prized by some users, especially when it is pimped out with all the plug-ins that are available for it.

However, the place where GNOME excels the most is one that many users never see -- accessibility. Especially in Orca, GNOME has become the premier system for free software users with visual impairments, many of whom say that, without GNOME, they could never afford to use a computer at all.

One of the controversies in GNOME is the use of Mono, a GNU/Linux version of Microsoft's .NET that many people feel is encumbered by patents that might theoretically be used to damage free software. In most distributions, however, you can use delete applications built with Mono such as Tomboy, F-Spot, and Banshee and replace them with alternatives.

Another uncertainty about GNOME is that, in a less than a year, it is scheduled to roll out GNOME 3.0, a major rewrite of the desktop. So far, little has been published about exactly what the rewrite will look like, but some users worry that it will be a radical rewrite that will lose the user-friendliness of the current releases.

Distributions that use GNOME as a default include Debian, Ubuntu, and Fedora. New users should find any of them easy to learn and reasonably quick considering all the features included.

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