Open Source

10 ways the Linux desktop improves the user experience

If you've always worked with a Windows or Mac desktop, you may not know what you're missing. Jack Wallen says the Linux desktop offers numerous advantages worth checking out -- from efficient and flexible design to superior update systems.

If you've always worked with a Windows or Mac desktop, you may not know what you're missing. Jack Wallen says the Linux desktop offers numerous advantages worth checking out — from efficient and flexible design to superior update systems.


Many of you out there doubt the user-friendliness, the power, and the flexibility of the Linux desktop. But after 10-plus years of using the Linux desktop, I'm pretty confident I can put those concerns to rest. Not only is the Linux desktop user-friendly, powerful, and flexible, it also improves on the standard desktop metaphor — in many ways.

Here are 10 of the best ways that the Linux desktop improves on the standard. By the time you've finished reading this, your interest should be piqued enough to at least want to try one of the Linux desktops.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: More efficiency

If you work in either the Windows or Mac desktop, you know efficiency was not a key factor in the design. Simplicity yes. Efficiency no. Think about it. When you're working with many windows open in Windows, what do you do? You minimize them until your task bar is filled with minimized windows or you tile your windows until you need a bloodhound to locate the window you want to work with.

In the Linux desktop, you have many ways to help you work more efficiently. You can take advantage of the Pager and place windows that belong to various tasks on their own desktop. You can also use a feature like Fluxbox' window grouping. If you like your windows all on the same desktop but don't like to minimize all the time, you can shade the windows up so that all is showing is the title bar.

2: No more "lock down"

With Windows or OS X, you get what you get and no more. Sure you can install third-party applications in Windows to make a difference, but you will never have the flexibility you get with a Linux desktop. And if you don't like the desktop you are using in Linux, you can use a different one. Because Linux distributions are not locked down to any one window manager or desktop, you can pretty much get exactly what you want. You want full-blown eye candy? You got it. You want the bare minimum? You got it. You want something somewhere in between (or even a combination)? You got it. Linux pretty much blows the latch on the lock down so you can make your desktop be and do anything you want. And you don't have to fear too much configuration or too many options. You can start with the basic desktop and live with that all your computing life, if you choose. But eventually, you're likely to discover how far you can bend the desktop metaphor with Linux. Bend away; it will not break.

3: Easier use of removable media

For the longest time, removable media was the Achilles heel of Linux. How do I use my CD drive? Where is my iPod? No new user wants to have to mount a removable drive to use it. But now, thanks to HAL and/or DBUS, this is no longer an issue. Insert a CD and it's there to use. Plug in your iPod and it should be there in /media ready for you. How does this improve the experience? When you insert a CD or DVD into a Windows machine, unless there is an autorun feature on the disk, you have to go to My Computer and find the disk drive to access the contents of the disk. With Linux, when you insert a disk, an icon will pop up on your desktop with the label of the disk. To get to the contents of that disk, all you have to do is click (or double-click) on that icon to open up a file browser to the contents of that disk. And in most cases, the desktop will automatically open up contents of the disk in the appropriate application. This is the default behavior of most modern desktops shipped with most modern distributions.

4: Eye candy

Have you played with Compiz, KDE 4, or Elive Compiz? That is what desktop eye candy is all about. Microsoft tried to offer eye candy with Vista. It failed. It will try again with Windows 7, but I predict it will fail again. OS X offers more eye candy than Windows, but it is still limited eye candy. Now you're probably asking, "What does this have to do with anyone in the IT industry?" Not much, to be honest. But the majority of users out there are not IT pros. They're less tech-savvy users who do much less work on a PC but would love to have a desktop that they could play with. People, average people, like WOW factor. The average user wants to be impressed with how things look. Otherwise, there would be no market for Apple computers. People like shiny, pretty things, and the Linux desktop offers shiny, pretty things out the wazoo.

5: No more random, over-crowded menus

Every once in a while, I have to write about Vista. Typically, I am installing an application to write about, and Vista just tacks it onto the Start Menu. Before long, that start menu becomes too large to be useful. With Linux, this doesn't happen. In modern KDE or GNOME, when you install an application, the installation process inserts the menu entry in the correct place. If it is a word processor, it will go on the Office menu. If it is a network tool, it will go on the Internet menu. This categorizing of menu entries makes getting to your applications so much easier than the Windows or the OS X method. Sure, you can toss up a desktop shortcut for every application you install — but then you have a desktop full of icons. A desktop with more thought put into the design is much easier to use than one that seems as haphazard as Windows.

6: How much does your desktop "weigh"?

All your resources are belong to us." Vista was huge. Vista devoured your resources. A big reason for that was the desktop. Windows 7 will be better, but how could it not? Having an operating system where the desktop eats up a majority of your resources is counterproductive to being productive. When you need to dedicate your CPU cycles to more important applications — like work — you need a desktop that is not going to fight those applications tooth and nail for your resources. Yes RAM is cheap now. But tossing in more RAM should not be considered a solution. That's simply avoiding the problem. It's the Microsoft way. The Linux way is to optimize applications so they do not require as much RAM. The desktop is a perfect example of this.

7: Compliant desktop

The Linux desktop is the desktop for the people by the people. The Linux desktop asks you want you want to do, it does not tell you what you want to do. One of the true beauties of the Linux desktop is that it works with you. Microsoft's old slogan was "Where do you want to go today?" And Microsoft took you places, but it always took you places its way. Let me give you an example. I don't like icons and panels. I like mouse menus and LOTS of transparency. I like the 3D cube. Getting that out of a Windows desktop would be a nightmare. Pulling that trick on Linux is simple. In fact, I can find a distribution that has that exact desktop by default. Or I can put together my own desktop using various window managers and applets. Is the average user going to do this? Not really. But the average user could do this.

8: Better keyboarding

I like to work as efficiently as I can. That means not constantly having to move back and forth between my keyboard and my mouse. With the Linux desktop, keyboard shortcuts are the norm. I can do nearly everything I need without having to move my fingers off the keyboard. And if there isn't a keyboard shortcut for an action, I can create one. Nearly every Linux desktop has a tool to allow keybindings. You can even bind that insipid Windows key so that it does something useful (besides bringing up the Start menu).

9: Widgets done right

If you've played with KDE 4, you have experienced the widget. This is where the Linux desktop merges with the Apple desktop — only the Apple version was a rip-off of the original Superkaramba. This application places small widgets on the desktop that serve various uses (from news tickers to system information to viewing comic strips). These widgets take very little resources and can be quickly hidden or viewed. Microsoft tried this in Vista with the Google sidebar. It failed miserably. KDE 4 widgets work well and make the user experience much better by having often used or often viewed widgets (or information) readily available at all times.

10:Topnotch update systems

In more modern Linux desktops, updates are obvious and readily available. And they don't always come in huge chunks like the Windows updates. Instead, you'll find more "micro updates" that take care of single bugs or smaller sets of bugs. And these updates come out fast. So when a bug is discovered, it will be squashed quickly. The most recent GNOME desktop has one of the best update systems available, with a system tray notifier that makes it obvious there is an update and makes it simple to either run the update or not. It's the single most user-friendly update tool available.

On board with Linux?

So now you know some of the things that make the Linux desktop more useful. Do they pique your interest? Make you want to give Linux a try if you haven't already? If that's the case, join the discussion and share your experience.

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

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