Other Ubuntu Interfaces - Desktop Ubuntu - Ubuntu Unleashed 2017 Edition (2017)

Ubuntu Unleashed 2017 Edition (2017)

Part II: Desktop Ubuntu

Chapter 7. Other Ubuntu Interfaces

In This Chapter

Image Desktop Environment

Image KDE and Kubuntu

Image Xfce and Xubuntu

Image LXDE and Lubuntu

Image GNOME 3 and Ubuntu GNOME

Image MATE and Ubuntu MATE

Image Ubuntu Kylin

Image References

When you install Ubuntu, by default you use the Unity graphical user interface (GUI). This is sometimes called a desktop, but this term is gradually becoming obsolete as the interface is being used on more and more types of devices. Unity is discussed in Chapter 3, “Working with Unity,” and has specific strengths that appeal to many users. However, some of us have unique requirements or just like to tinker. This chapter discusses some of the alternatives to Unity, their strengths and weaknesses, and how to install them. This is not a complete listing of all the options available, but rather a brief survey of some of the more popular options to consider as you get your feet wet in the realm of Linux desktop software.

Unity is Not the Only Option

When you install Ubuntu, you also install the Unity interface. However, this is neither your only option nor are you limited to only one interface or desktop environment installed at a time. Each of the options we discuss in this chapter may be installed alongside Unity in standard Ubuntu, and you are allowed to choose which one to use each time you log in and which one to use by default. This makes testing a new option less risky because switching back to what you already know is simple.

Because Unity is one of the first GUIs to strive to be usable across devices, most of the others that are available still use the term “desktop.” This makes it worthwhile to include a brief introduction to why, especially as many of the details cross over and apply to Unity.

Desktop Environment

Traditionally, a GUI for computers has used a desktop metaphor; specifically, the interface uses the idea of a physical office desk as a metaphor to make interacting with the computer simple to comprehend. As in a real-world office, a computer desktop environment uses files to store documents that contain information that is necessary for office tasks to be done. Computer systems take the metaphor further by adding applications, programs that enable users to create, manipulate, and delete those documents as needed, much as might be done in the real world, but with greater efficiency and often with greater power.

A computer desktop includes a windowing system, another metaphoric way to deal with information that makes conceptualizing the complexity occurring behind the scenes in the digital realm easier. Files, folders (or directories), and applications open in a graphic display that may be moved around the user’s desktop just as paper documents and file folders may be moved to different locations on a physical desktop for convenience and efficiency. This windowing system includes the graphical bits (called widgets) needed to draw the windows on the screen and all the program code needed to perform the actions desired behind the scenes while displaying those actions using the pretty metaphor. For example, moving a document from one folder to another on a desktop involves little more than a mouse click followed by a drag and drop. Behind the scenes, the desktop environment is listening to the window manager’s instructions to move a file from one directory to another and then telling the window manager to draw the event on the screen as it is accomplished.

The Ubuntu software repositories include all the popular desktop environments available for Linux and make installing and trying them out easy to do. It is also possible for an adventurous person to find other desktop environments that will work on Ubuntu and download and install them. We don’t cover that process here.

It is also possible to use one desktop environment while substituting a different window manager into that environment instead of using the one that comes with the desktop environment by default. For example, the standard GNOME window manager is called Metacity. It is stable and works quite well. However, Ubuntu uses a different window manager called Compiz. To make matters more interesting, you can replace either of those with other window managers such as Enlightenment (Figure 7.1), which does things in a unique and interesting manner.


FIGURE 7.1 Enlightenment is a unique and interesting desktop environment option.

This chapter focuses on complete desktop environments using the default window manager. In addition, because this is an Ubuntu-focused book, it focuses on Ubuntu-refined versions of environments such as KDE and Xfce rather than their default versions, although the default versions are also available in the Ubuntu repositories if you want to seek them out.

KDE and Kubuntu

The KDE project began back in 1996 with the goal of creating a quality desktop environment for the Linux desktop that was free, worked well, and which was well integrated, meaning that programs and interfaces would have a consistent look and feel where all the parts fit together seamlessly, rather than looking like a jumbled compilation of a bunch of assorted bits.

The project has always been focused on end users rather than creating a simple GUI for the systems administrator. This is an important point because since the beginning, the intent has been to make any computer user comfortable and able to do what they want to do without necessarily requiring a full grasp of what is happening behind the scenes. This focus continues today and is shared by other desktop environments, notably GNOME, which was started in 1997 by people once involved in the KDE project who left after a dispute over software licensing.

The cause of that dispute no longer exists as the licenses today are equivalently free, but the projects diverged a bit in their focus: GNOME offers a desktop of zenlike simplicity with simple and elegant defaults and use whereas KDE presents more flash and configuration options. Honestly, they are each great desktop environments that are well integrated with a high degree of professionalism and quality and are easily the top two in the Linux world—if you have never used either, try them both and see which you prefer.

Kubuntu is a project that started in the Ubuntu community very early on with the simple goal of enabling users to install and use KDE in Ubuntu. To make this even easier for people who already know they prefer KDE over GNOME, you can download an install disk for Kubuntu, which is Ubuntu minus GNOME plus KDE plus a few Kubuntu-specific enhancements. You may also install Kubuntu in standard Ubuntu and alongside GNOME by installing the kubuntu-desktop package from the Ubuntu software repositories.

Kubuntu (Figure 7.2) uses a different set of default programs for most tasks: web browsing, email, and so on. Most were written specifically for the KDE desktop environment, making KDE one of the most closely integrated and consistent Linux desktops available.


FIGURE 7.2 The Kubuntu desktop.

Xfce and Xubuntu

Xfce is a lighter desktop environment that requires less memory and processing power than either GNOME or KDE and is therefore often suggested for use on older machines. It does not deserve to be relegated to that role because it also works great on current hardware and is often a quality choice for a different reason. Xfce has been developed using the traditional UNIX philosophy of software: Do one thing, do it well, and play well with others.

Each part of the Xfce desktop environment is modular; you may add or remove bits at will, substitute other programs that perform the same function, and everything created by or included in Xfce is expected to work according to simple standards that allow other programs to interact with it easily.

On one hand, this sometimes means that people look at Xfce and think it isn’t as seamlessly integrated and smooth as the two main desktop environments. On the other hand, it means that if you prefer the GNOME file manager (Nautilus) over the one included with Xfce (Thunar), then just install Nautilus and use it, either side by side with Thunar or remove Thunar completely. This is a huge part of what makes Xfce so lightweight that it has very few dependency requirements and is highly flexible.

Originally, Xubuntu (Figure 7.3) was designed to create a lighter weight version of Ubuntu that would run well on older hardware because of the lighter code dependencies of Xfce. Over time, some people discovered they liked the desktop environment for other reasons, and the older hardware use case became less of a focus. It was the modularity of Xfce combined with a smoothness of operation that won people over, and the distribution began to take some of the favored bits from Ubuntu’s customized version of GNOME and added them to Xfce to replace some of its defaults. What we have today is a nice amalgamation of Ubuntu GNOME bits, Xfce bits, and a few other things not included by default in either.


FIGURE 7.3 The Xubuntu desktop.

Xubuntu still uses less memory and fewer CPU cycles than a standard Ubuntu or Kubuntu install; however, thinking of it only in those terms doesn’t do it justice. To install Xubuntu with the Xfce desktop environment, install the xubuntu-desktop package.

LXDE and Lubuntu

Lubuntu is based on LXDE, an extremely fast desktop environment that uses less memory and fewer CPU cycles than any of the others discussed. It is being developed specifically with lower-powered computers such as netbooks in mind, but that isn’t the sole use case. For example, Knoppix, which is a Linux distribution that runs from a live, bootable CD or DVD, now uses LXDE. Knoppix is a long-time favorite of sysadmins for emergency repairs of unbootable systems and for its portability. It recently switched from KDE to LXDE to benefit from this lightness because running an operating system from a CD or DVD is generally much slower than when it is installed on a hard drive.

As the focus in Xubuntu turned from speed and lightness to enjoying the flexibility of Xfce, a gap was created. Users and developers interested in less-expensive hardware, such as mobile Internet devices and ARM or MIPS processor-based computers, wanted to find a way to run a distribution of Linux that shared the community of Ubuntu, a beautiful and useful desktop, and that did not get bogged down on slower machines. LXDE is quite new, and its development philosophy fits quite well with the hopes and dreams of these users, so it seems a perfect fit.

The Lubuntu (see Figure 7.4) distribution is still very new. The developers are working within the Ubuntu community and making consistent progress, and if you are inclined, they are also appealing for interested people to join the development team and help out. Install lubuntu-desktop from the Ubuntu repositories to check it out.


FIGURE 7.4 The Lubuntu desktop is quite attractive.

GNOME3 and Ubuntu GNOME

Starting with Ubuntu 4.10, the default desktop for Ubuntu has been based on GNOME. Until a couple years ago, it was close to a standard GNOME desktop with only a few customizations. After development began on GNOME 3, the desktop took a turn that did not suit the needs or desires of Ubuntu quite as well. This was when development began on Unity, as described in Chapter 3, “Working with Unity.”

GNOME 3 is available in Ubuntu for those who prefer it over Unity. As development and support are ending for the classic GNOME 2 environment, it is no longer recommended.

GNOME 3 is somewhat similar to Unity in that both are trying to push the Linux desktop into new territory. They both discard older metaphors and require a bit of adjusting for the user. The goal of GNOME 3 is to create an elegant desktop that is easy to use, uncluttered, and consistent (Figure 7.5). If you just want to try GNOME 3, install gnome-shell from the Ubuntu software repositories. Most of the programs are the same as are used in Unity, which is based on GNOME 3, but with a different user interface.


FIGURE 7.5 The GNOME 3 desktop.

A project called Ubuntu GNOME has been approved, and Ubuntu community members have already begun development. It provides a way to use GNOME similar to how Kubuntu provides a way to use KDE. You can download an install disk for Ubuntu GNOME, which is Ubuntu minus Unity plus GNOME. You may also install Ubuntu GNOME alongside standard Ubuntu by installing the ubuntu-gnome-desktop package from the Ubuntu software repositories.

MATE and Ubuntu MATE

Remember in the last section where we said that GNOME 2 was no longer supported and therefore not recommended? That is true, however, the code was forked into MATE. Basically, MATE is a continuation of GNOME 2. MATE has the features, look, and feel of the older version of GNOME, the same code foundation, but with continued development (Figure 7.6).


FIGURE 7.6 The MATE desktop.

GNOME 3 is somewhat similar to Unity in that both are trying to push the Linux desktop into new territory. They both discard older metaphors and require a bit of adjusting for the user. The goal of GNOME 3 is to create an elegant desktop that is easy to use, uncluttered, and consistent (Figure 7.5). If you just want to try GNOME 3, install gnome-shell from the Ubuntu software repositories. Most of the programs are the same as are used in Unity, which is based on GNOME 3, but with a different user interface.

Ubuntu Kylin

Ubuntu Kylin is Ubuntu, localized for China. It starts out the same as standard Ubuntu and is modified with Chinese-language, calendar, and cultural customizations for the world’s largest market. As it is in a different language than this book, we are only giving it a cursory mention. However, if you are a Chinese speaker, you will probably find this interesting and worth a look.


Image http://blogs.gnome.org/metacity/2007/12/23/start-reading-here/—Metacity does not have an official home page, as this post on the official Metacity blog explains.

Image www.compiz.org/—The official site of Compiz.

Image www.enlightenment.org/—The official site of Enlightenment.

Image www.kde.org/—The official site for the KDE desktop.

Image www.kubuntu.org/—The official Kubuntu site.

Image www.xfce.org/—The official site for the Xfce desktop.

Image www.xubuntu.org/—The official Xubuntu site.

Image www.lxde.org/—The official site for the LXDE desktop.

Image http://lubuntu.net/—The official Lubuntu site.

Image www.gnome.org/—The official site for the GNOME desktop.

Image http://ubuntugnome.org/—The official Ubuntu GNOME site.

Image https://ubuntu-mate.org—The official Ubuntu MATE site.

Image https://wiki.ubuntu.com/UbuntuKylin—The English language resource for Ubuntu Kylin.

Image http://www.ubuntu.com/project/about-ubuntu/derivatives—The official Ubuntu list of recognized derivatives.

Image www.knoppix.net/—The site for the live CD/DVD Linux distribution, Knoppix.

Image http://xwinman.org/—A nice discussion of many of the different window managers and desktop environments available for Linux and UNIX systems. Much of the discussion on this site is dated, but the links are generally valid and useful, and the site gives a good overview of the many options available.

Image http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desktop_environment—A detailed definition of a desktop environment, how they work, why they exist, and so on.

Image http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_X_Window_System_desktop_environments—An amazing list of available desktop environments complete with a comparison of features.