Tag Archives: Desktop Environments

An Overview Of Ubuntu Desktop Environments


With the release of Ubuntu Oneiric Ocelot 11.10, Unity and its less resource intensive version, Unity 2D, have become the default desktop environments for Ubuntu. Most probably, your first thought upon seeing either one of them in action was: ”That’s cool!… now how do I get rid of it?”

While it is true that Unity is pretty, it is hardly functional in the way gnome 2 (the previous Ubuntu desktop environment) was. The vertical launch thing on the side isn’t a real substitute for the good ol’ bottom and top bar configuration many of us have grown to know and love.

Don’t get me wrong, the switch to Unity is fantastic for the mac-type crowd – the non-tech part of the user population that wants a pretty OS that they can use to check email and facebook in, occasionally do something in Office, and to generally just have a system that works and doesn’t ask too many questions. And I have to admit the new design has its good sides and is way more visually appealing than gnome 2 is. However, power users typically have more demands than that and they value power and function before design and visuals.

Luckily, Ubuntu makes it incredibly easy to install alternative desktop environments. You just run a single command (found at the end of each DE description further down in the text). When you install it, you log out, select the cog icon next to your user name and select the new DE you would like to use. That’s it. Not even a reboot needed. With that said, I present you with 4 alternative desktop environments for Ubuntu:

1.) KDE 4 Plasma Desktop


This one has an interesting history. When it first came out in 2008, massive amounts of hate were thrown its way by the Linux community. The current version back then, KDE 3, was an established polished product, and the new KDE 4.0 was a half-baked unstable beta. However, in the meantime, it has grown to be a solid DE. By default, it has a very windows-y UI, with a traditional bar on the bottom of the screen. Its main feature are containments. Think of them something like widgets or rainmeter plugins. KDE 4 is also an eye-candy dispenser, with rotating desktop cubes and exploding windows (actually), all powered by KWin.

However, having tons of features comes at a price: it is the “heaviest” desktop environment of the ones described here.

To install in Ubuntu, run:

sudo apt-get install kubuntu-desktop

2.) LXDE


If you have an old computer, you will most grateful LXDE exists. It makes a point of being extremely fast and resource efficient, however it is not very customizable or incredibly pretty. It just does its job and does it well. I like it and use it on my old-ish core 2 duo desktop computer. No flying cubes, but whatever you click simply happens in a flash.

To install in Ubuntu, run:

sudo apt-get install lubuntu-desktop

3.) Xfce


A bit heavier DE than LXDE, but a lot more configurable. Should run on everything and anything as far as computers are concerned. It has some some default effects, most of them along the lines of making the terminal semi-transparent. However its strength is combining the best of two worlds, being lightweight like LXDE, but at the same time, being a modern, comfortable to work with desktop environment.

To install in Ubuntu, run:

sudo apt-get install xubuntu-desktop

4.) Gnome 3 / Gnome Shell

Gnome 3

Yep, I kept this one till the end. So, the reason why we have Unity by default now is because gnome 3 was a horrible mess early in its development. It was so bad it prompted Linus Torvalds to call it crap and promptly switch to Xfce (however he did something similar when KDE 4 came out and he switched to Gnome 2). However…

Gnome 3 didn’t turn out to be all that bad. I’d even say that it is the Unity desktop the way it was supposed to be, well designed and yet a good platform to get some work done. I should just warn you of one thing: you should get used to ctrl+alt+arrow to switch workspaces, the meta key to show windows, and other keyboard shortcuts, because it will speed up your work exponentially. If you try using your mouse you will soon grow to loathe gnome 3 because of a lack of things like minimize and maximize buttons, or a clearcut bar with open programs. But using the keyboard and the built-in launcher is surprisingly comfortable and efficient, especially with multiple desktops (whose number gnome 3 manages dynamically – a cool feature you get used to very quickly). As an added plus, it is less sluggish than Unity. As an added minus, it is quite difficult to customize beyond the essential stuff.

To install in Ubuntu, run:

sudo apt-get install gnome-shell

So, which desktop environment do you use? What are your views on the ones outlined here? Please share in the comment section below.