Sunday, January 12, 2014

Top 5 Linux Desktops: Where Do You Want to Go Today?

by Dietrich Schmitz


No one can disagree, the level of choice one can have for coupling a graphical user interface to Linux to achieve the Linux Desktop metaphor has grown and become quite extensive. (Image right: Fedora 20 Desktop Edition)

By comparison, Apple's OSX and Microsoft's Windows legacy x86 7/8 have little choice to offer, by default.

I've been thinking about whether or not having so much choice is a good thing or not.  Certainly everyone understands that 'choice' is a tenet or, if you will, a cornerstone of Open Source and Linux and breeds variety and stimulates creativity.

But to temper one's thoughts, should it come with a level of restraint lest we find ourselves ultimately floundering with 'too much choice'?  That is an important question and distinction.

If one considers the abstraction 'Linux Desktop', one may not necessarily and reflexively fix their mind on a singular idea of what that is.  No, there are quite a few good choices one can make insofar as which GUI to use.  Might there be a 'down side' to having so much choice?

Newcomers to Apple Macs know the GUI will always be what Apple provides -- one and only one GUI.

Newcomers to Microsoft Windows will have the same expectation.

And now, upcoming Google Chromebook provides uniformity of its own.

These three commercial products are designed not to encourage decoupling the gui from the kernel.  The technophile may try to do so, but by and large, consumers in the larger mass market accept without conscious thought the packaging and presentation as found and just use a given product, because 'it works' for them, by design.

That reduces common-denominators dramatically and allows to a large degree a level of standardization to be fostered.

With Linux, the story is different.  For example, the commercial Distros Red Hat and Ubuntu Linux offer one GUI.  That makes sense as far as the aforementioned is concerned, providing consistency across varying hardware platforms, along with meeting user expectation.  If assumptions can be made on how software behaves then cost of operation will also be lowered appreciably.

On the community side of Linux, we have a garden variety of multiple GUIs, package managers, File Hiearchical Standard variations, because with 'choice' comes the ability to depart from what was previously done.

Each Distro brings with it a variation or 'spin', if you will, on what constitutes a 'better mousetrap'.  The design goals can be modest to major departures from previous attempts.  In some cases, one might not be able to distinguish the difference between Distro A and Distro B.

Distrowatch Top Five

Taking a look at the 'Top 5' Distros listed on Distrowatch today (Image left: taken 1/12/2014 by DTS) we see Mint, Debian, Ubuntu, Mageia and Fedora are in the pack.

These 'players' have moved around a bit but for the most part have been dominant insofar as a Distrowatch measurement gives.  It's not scientific by any means, but, over time one can get a feel for where the modalities are.

So, is it safe to assume these are the top 5 players in the Linux Desktop market?  There is room for debate and if you have played 'horseshoes' in your life, you know that 'close' counts.

We are seeing a 'clustering' around these data points happening for a long period of time.  I don't think we'd be out on a limb to say they represent the most popular Distros in terms of traffic detected.

Then making that assumption, what GUIs appear to be used with each of these?  Let's take each one at a time.

Linux Mint

Linux Mint Lead Developer Clem LeFebvre has much to be proud of.  He has shown that a better mousetrap can be built and the level of thought, fit and finish to his several 'spins' are worthy candidates for any newcomer to Linux.  In fact, I'd probably offer them first to a newcomer than Fedora my mainstay Desktop of choice.  Why?  They just work and nothing needs to be tweaked out of the box.  In its current incarnation, Linux Mint 16 "Petra", users have several GUIs from which to choose: KDE, Xfce, Cinnamon, and MATE.

At one revision, I believe 12, Mint offered an LXDE spin.  How I wish they'd bring that back.  But, Xfce works really well as lightweight GUIs go.

Interestingly, Mint doesn't offer a GNOME spin and no Enlightenment either.  Enlightenment just released version 18.  I feel, Enlightenment is not getting the 'respect' that it deserves and the spins which offer it are few and far between.   Bodhi Linux is a good choice if you'd like a good out of the box experience.


Debian is the staid, pragmatist-favored Distro for reasons of intentional slow development to promote a stable operating environment.  If you want cutting edge technology, it won't be there by default.  The kernel will be at least 12 months old and packages will be likely aged the same.  As for GUIs, and if you want to stay in the present, you'll likely feel like you are living in the past if you opt for Debian's choices.  The website design hasn't changed much for many years, appears spartan, and if I were a new user, I'd be intimidated by it.  It certainly doesn't coddle the user by providing what I call user-friendly 'good guidance'.

It wouldn't cost much to improve its friendliness and that's why I won't ever have a new user first try Debian.  When you are drilled down to picking the isos from a barren directory tree structure, you'll find they offer GNOME, KDE, LXDE and Xfce 'flavored' isos.  Most will fit on a CD with 'overburn' but one or two require a DVD if you opt not to use a larger USB pen drive.


To be fair, Canonical Ltd. has succeeded in making Ubuntu Linux a true 'user-friendly' experience.  From the moment you arrive on their website to downloading, to installing, you will be coddled and that breeds confidence.  As it should be, Ubuntu is made for commercial use and for the general consumer.  It is designed to fit most users' needs with just one GUI, called Unity.

Unity is the bastard child in the Open Source community, promulgated by Canonical Ltd.  But it has resulted in somewhat of a 'wedge' in upstream development standards.  Namely, despite their vocal support for nurturing and being behind Wayland, the follow-on new Display server standard to replace the aging and 'problematic', they did a switch of direction by choosing to write Xmir, a variant containing some of Wayland but mostly rewritten by the Canonical developer team.  As such, much contention has arisen around its development and the long story short is that Unity isn't supported by any other Distro.  It's an island.  It's how Canonical does things.  They are in full control of it.  So be it.  The long-term prognosis for Unity is unclear as more and more Distros hop on board with Wayland-driven technologies.  I would personally offer another spin of Ubuntu such as Kubuntu or Xubuntu before I would recommend Ubuntu.  Both will support Wayland going forward.


Mageia is a community-based fork of commercial Mandriva Linux.  I cannot give you a statistic for it, but I would tend to believe that Mageia in terms of country of origin dominates in Europe since Mandriva was historically developed by a French concern.

Mageia is in the pack for very good reason and one need only go to their website to see the level of professional work and finish is a 'cut above'.  It's the same level of polish as that of Ubuntu, only they offer a comprehensive list of GUIs that include:

  • KDE4 SC 4.10.2,
  • GNOME 3.6,
  • XFCE 4.10,
  • LXDE,
  • Razor-Qt,
  • E17.


Fedora is my Distro of choice.  By default, Fedora 20 Desktop Linux Edition installs GNOME 3.10.x.  In their 'family' of spins one will find GUIs of KDE, Xfce, LXDE, and MATE.



It would appear that Fedora is the only Distro that offers their default Desktop with Gnome.  I would add that this is the first experience I have had with Gnome in a long time where I feel that it has reached a plateau of usability in version 3.10.  It's not perfect and there are issues for the more technically inclined who quickly hit limitations, but for a newcomer and 'Joe Six-pack', I feel that Fedora 20 Desktop Edition is more than 'adequate' to get the job done in Gnome 3.10.

Looking at Mint 16 Petra's other 4 Distros, Mint seems to premier KDE and Cinnamon and MATE provide good Gnome alternatives, while Xfce offers Gtk2/3 support going forward and no Gnome dependencies.

Canonical Ltd. continues to chart their own course doing many things that simply depart from common sense.  Unity being what it is, will still give new users ease of use and the work done to keep to a standard and polished commercial product stands out, nonetheless.

I expect to see continuing big things from Mageia.  While they tend to lumber along, they are dealing with a lot of moving parts so necessarily must be pragmatic and plan their changes carefully executing them in good time.  They are worth waiting for whatever they bring to the next major revision level.

Debian are probably not going to change a lot in terms of their software policy management and so while work continues on the next Debian 8, it will be slow coming.  The Distro spins and website could use a major face lift.  Get out of that '90s Yahoo look.  Is Debian a 'speed bump'?  Yep.

Mint stays firmly entrenched in the top 5 slot numero uno and for good reason.  The reputation and expectation is that one can quickly, easily install any flavor of Mint and hit the ground running.  Just use.  Mint doesn't include Gnome but makes up for it with a set of jewel-like Distros, shiney and ready to go to work for you.

That's it for now.  Let me know what you think.  -- Dietrich

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