Steven Ovadia


The Joy of Linux Desktop Environments

Logging in to a new desktop is as easy as changing your shirt.

I’m endlessly fascinated by Linux, to the extent that I wrote a book about it, Learn Linux in a Month of Lunches. My very favorite thing about Linux is the desktop environment concept. Desktop environments are graphical interfaces for the entire operating system, but where most operating systems, like Windows, OS X, iOS, and Android, have one common interface, Linux users can easily install and user a variety of interfaces without changing their underlying system.

This means all of your files and bookmarks are right where you left them. You can use the same programs. The only difference is how your system looks, which can be dramatically different, depending upon which desktop environments you wish to use.

It’s a tough concept to explain because there aren’t many comparables outside of Linux. If you’re using Windows, you’re pretty much stuck with the Windows interface. The menus are always going to be in the same place and while you can do things, like change your desktop image and your colors and themes, you’re still limited in how you interact with your computer.

We’re so conditioned to accept these interfaces, we actually have trouble understanding a model that gives us a choice. In fact, the desktop environment chapter of my book turned out to be challenging to write, because I was not only explaining some of the different desktop environments, like GNOME and KDE, but I was also explaining what desktop environments are. Luckily, the challenge of explaining them didn’t diminish my love for the concept of them.

I love that I can log-in to different desktop environments, depending upon what I wish to do. I love that my computer doesn’t always have to look the same when I’m working. And I love the flexibility to choose the right desktop environment for the job.

For instance, I have an old ASUS netbook with Ubuntu 14.04 on it. Ubuntu comes with the Unity desktop environment by default. It’s nice but it has a menu bar that takes up a lot of screen real estate and in general can be on the memory-intensive side for such an old machine. So in addition to having Unity on it, I also use i3, a tiling window manager completely devoid of menus. All it does is launch programs and organize my windows in a tile-like grid or in a work space, which is a collection of windows. It’s simple and I get to feel like a hacker from a late 90s movie. When I want or need a full-blown desktop, with icons and menus, I log-in to Unity. But if I just want a plain work experience, which is most of the time, I boot into i3. Choosing my desktop of the moment is as easy as using a menu on my log-in screen.

The sparse i3 tiling window manager
The Unity desktop environment

The only limit to the number of desktop environments you can have is the disk space on your computer. Most distributions come with different desktop environment configurations. Fedora, another Linux distribution, calls them Spins. Others, like Mint, just let you download desktop-specific versions of their distributions. But it’s easy to go ahead and install your own desktop, so even if you pick poorly desktop-wise, you’re never stuck with your choice.

Before the rise of laptops, tablets, and reliable-and-widespread wifi, people worked where their machines were physically located. Working someplace else wasn’t an option. But now people can — and do — work everywhere, depending upon their mood. You can spend the morning in a coffee shop and the afternoon in a library. You create the physical work environment you want. So why not bring that same concept to your computing space?

The ability to easily log-in to different desktop environments is tremendously liberating. It’s like a vacation from your usual computer. Plus, it lets you choose the right desktop environment for the right job. If you’re using older hardware and doing something system-intensive, like editing video, maybe you want to choose a lighter desktop. If you’re writing and don’t want to be distracted, maybe you want something sparse that won’t tempt you to pop open a browser or listen to music.

Desktop environments are a different way of thinking about your computer. Rather than seeing the computing interface as an unchangeable monolith, it becomes something flexible we can change, depending upon mood, circumstance, hardware, or whatever other variables might drive our decisions.

Desktop environments are another nice reminder that our computers work for us, not the other way around.

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