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Five topnotch replacements for GNOME 3 or Ubuntu Unity

Not a big fan of GNOME 3 or Unity? Jack Wallen offers a list of some solid alternative desktops.

You've heard the talk, the complaints, and the scathing reviews. Both GNOME 3 and Ubuntu Unity have been met with a hailstorm of bad publicity -- so much so that people are turning away from adopting Linux -- at least Linux that uses either of these two desktops. So if you want to switch to Linux but you don't want to use either of these desktops, what can you do? Well, I'll give you five what-to-do's that will ease the troubled Linux desktop selection.

1: XFCE

XFCE (Figure A) is one of the most popular alternative desktops. The newer releases offer everything any desktop user will need and more. Yet even with all the features it offers (including a compositor), it remains incredibly lightweight, fast, and reliable. In fact, I would venture to say that XFCE is, by far, one of the most reliable and snappiest of all the full-featured desktops I have used to date.

If you use the Ubuntu distribution, you can easily install XFCE with the command sudo apt-get install xubuntu-desktop. Or if you want to go with a cleaner XFCE install, just download and install the Xubuntu distribution.

Figure A

2: Enlightenment

Of all the desktops I have used, I have to say that Enlightenment (Figure B) is one of the coolest. There are two versions: E16 and E17. E16 is the older, out-of-date version, and E17 is the newer release, which you should use. E17 can be turned into one heck of a beautiful desktop and can also be used with the new Ecomorph plugin to give it a Compiz-like compositor. I will warn you: Don't even try to install E17 from scratch, as this is a challenge that could easily have you pulling out your hair. Instead, download and install one of the distributions (such as Elive or Bodhi Linux) dedicated to bringing Enlightenment to the desktop.

Figure B

3: Fluxbox

Let's go minimal, shall we? Fluxbox (Figure C)is that desktop you use when you are either faced with having to manage slower, older hardware or you simply want the most minimal desktop you can find. Now with that minimalism comes some incredible speed. You put Fluxbox on a modern PC, and that machine will fly off your desk.

Of course, along with this minimalism comes a lack of integration. You won't find nearly the feature set in Fluxbox that you will find in the other desktops listed here. But that doesn't mean Fluxbox isn't worth trying out. Typically speaking, Fluxbox can be found in your distributions repositories, so there's no need to search for a distribution dedicated to Fluxbox.

Figure C

4: FVWM

I include FVWM (Figure D) here only for nostalgia. Yes, FXWM is still in active development. And yes, there is still support (in one form or another) for this old-school window manager. But you won't find many people who really WANT to use this throwback to the early 90s era of desktop computing. That doesn't mean you should rule it out as an alternative, especially on desktops where reliability and power are the primary requirements. If you're looking at a scientific desktop where the user really cares only about reliability and doesn't care that the desktop looks more like it was born just shy of Wargames, FVWM is the one. And I will admit, FVWM was the first Linux desktop I ever used, so there is a bit of sentimentality there.

Figure D

5: KDE

Finally, there is the powerhouse KDE (Figure E). When 4.0 came around, the user base had some serious issues with this desktop. But by the time KDE 4.5 rolled out, KDE had developed some serious stability, and many of the newer features actually made complete sense. Desktop Activities is one of my favorite features on any desktop so far. Although KDE is certainly not considered an alternative Linux desktop, it is certainly an alternative to the new "desktop metaphor" introduced by GNOME 3 and Ubuntu Unity.

Figure E

Take your pick

There are plenty more options than the five listed above. But these desktop offer the widest range of function and form, as well as show off the Linux desktop at both ends of the spectrum. So whether you want a minimalist desktop or a full-blown desktop extravaganza, you can have it on Linux -- and still avoid both GNOME 3 and Ubuntu Unity.

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.

23 comments
hkphooey
hkphooey

I have just found this and installed it on a laptop which has struggled with Gnome 3, Gnome fallback, Unity, KDE, and XCFE. Now I can use it again! Fantastic stuff. I'm so happy I felt I had to spread the word. Worth a separate article? http://mate-desktop.org/

blackweaver
blackweaver

i find it really surprising that fvwm would be listed and lxde isn't; oh well Jack did say nostalgia's sake though i'd rather go with LXDE or Icewm or even Jwm/ROX (though that sometimes sets my teeth on edge)

cernik
cernik

I just installed GNOME2 under UBUNTU 11.10_beta. No problems! Even EVOLUTION was preinstalled.

Brainstorms
Brainstorms

I'm surprised you didn't list this (obvious) one... Just because GNOME isn't "new" doesn't mean that it's not "topnotch". It's just not new -- which has its own advantages. I'm still using GNOME 2 on Ubuntu 11.04 -- and intend to keep doing so until/unless Unity gets its act together. Also, you might mention that Bodhi Linux is based on Ubuntu, so if you like Ubuntu, migrating to Bodhi to try out Enlightenment is fairly smooth -- a lot will be familiar to you, and your existing apps, etc. can generally port over without issues. (It's a great way to introduce yourself to Enlightenment.)

bornbyforce
bornbyforce

Honestly, I respect the work put on these. KDE is definitely out for me as is everything Nokia has any connection to. But with others I have tried some with mixed results. Honestly I liked xfce but there is something nobody tells you. There are lots of things missing even with XFCE. It is not feature rich at all. I do understand that it is not meant to be. But as a replacement for Gnome that I used for years it hurts. The alternative I am really waiting for is a really serious fork of Gnome 2. Everybody seems to be forgetting why all these features in these programs were developed in the first place: because people needed them. And now developers who have inherited these projects from old generation of developers just want to make a name for themselves or something like that by throwing away all the valuable things that have been done before them. One other thing I want to add is about this being "light weight". It is good to have light weight options. For your old computers, for trying things out, for a machine streamlined for some very specific task and... but I don't see why I should throw away features to have a light weight GUI while my hardware is becoming increasingly more powerful everyday. What is the point of having multiple cores of CPU and dozens of GPU with massive amount of RAM sitting in there doing nothing?

pgit
pgit

I started out with IceWM and blackbox back in the day. I still use Ice on very old, limited hardware, though less so as the old stuff physically fails. The one greatest thing about Ice, that I cannot understand why it's not an option on every DE, is the menus "stick." Rather than having to control the mouse position extremely carefully in order to get to the proper place on some sub-sub menu on the launcher, when you click on a menu folder with apps and sub folders in it, that menu remains open regardless of where the cursor goes. If you click out in open space the menu goes away, but otherwise it waits for you to click further, either to launch an app or open another sub folder. This is immensely helpful, like I say I can't understand why it's not an option in the likes of KDE. Every other environment, menus are flashing as they open and close as the mouse moves 2 pixels and lands off the menu or sub folder you want to select. This is worsened with higher resolution. It's almost worth using Ice on a high end system that could easily handle a bloated KDE setup, if you really don't need the added tools, extra desktop functionality and eye candy, i.e. you really just want to run a few apps. That sticky menu deal lets you set the resolution as high as the hardware will go and not have a game of flashing menus when you go to launch something.

bertrem
bertrem

I'm using Openbox with Cairo and it make a very light desktop. It use composition but is a lot lighter than Compiz. But you have to learn howto configure openbox and cairo. It has a small learning curve, but the results are so nice! I will never go back to Gnome/KDE/XFCE...

gombost
gombost

I use xmonad (a modern tiling WM) and it gives the most productive desktop experience I've ever had. It needs some time investment to configure it(but not more than setting up all the fancy eyecandy in any desktop environments). For "lazy" users I usually recommend Openbox + XFCE/LXDE.

dunno123
dunno123

LXDE is fully featured, stable, flexible, simple, highly configurable, elegant, and over and above everything is way snappier than Gnome2, Xfce, let alone slow motion KDE4. And in the field of special effects, none match its formidable prowess: whenever you click something, the desired result just happens immediately, even in older or underpowered machines.

a.portman
a.portman

I tried Bodhi Linux recently. Yes it is cool. If you are an eye candy person, you can spend a week making the coolest desktop ever. But, what if you want to do more than post a screen shot of the coolest desktop ever, like use the computer for something? Right after Bodhi installed I updated it. Goodbye all default Enlightenment settings. Goodbye Mac like chooser. No problem, I'll customize it back. Ah no. Enlightenment is the embodiment of how to keep Linux on the fringe. Pages and pages of cryptic speak, needing to custom compile, re compile, load parts and parts and some more parts, oh, and if you have to ask how to make it work, "SCREW YOU, YOU WEAKIE, Why don't you go back to you Microsoft trash." An ounce of user friendliness could make it a killer desktop, customizable from highly functional to over the top, I just don't have the 60 or so hours to make a desktop shortcut.

jkameleon
jkameleon

Are you trying to say previous versions are even worse stabilitywise? My Kubuntu box is currently almost as crashable as Windows 3.11 .

Samuel C.
Samuel C.

I am New with LXDE and lubuntu lxde for Ubuntu and I am liking them - Also Gmome 3 on Fedora 15 works fine on 1gig Asus 904HD where I installed LXDE too? If you think I am wrong or any other Ideas, This is a Good Forum.

JeffHoogland91
JeffHoogland91

Enlightenment can be a tiling window manager :) In fact, I am using it as such right now. ~Jeff

meandnotme
meandnotme

Regarding Bodhi its strange that you had problems to "use the computer for something". Bodhi is quite stable and has Synaptic from where its possible to install any of the thousands packages, the same way any Ubuntu user do. It has also its own repositories, with more updated application versions than those common to the latest Ubunto LTS. For beginner users, installing applications in Bodhi its still easier: surf to its web software page, choose what you want and install with one click. Loosing your customizations due to updates is very, very uncommon. Bodhi comes with various set of themes and profiles to be chosen during install that can also be changed any time after installation. If you still want to further personalize, have a look at the "quick start guide". In 5 minutes you'll be able to start your coolest desktop ever. Then, if you prefer, save your work at "profiles", just in case, and you'll never loose it again. Bodhi is a distro ready to be used out of the box. The user support in the Forums is reported to be of the most effective and friendly seen in Linux. As said in the article, you'll only have to compile Enlightenment in case you want to use it at other distros. "Pages and pages of cryptic speak, needing to custom compile, re compile, ..." ... all this its misleading information of yours.

JeffHoogland91
JeffHoogland91

We have piles of users using Bodhi daily. No one has complained about losing all system settings after a clean install+update. That being said, odds are it is a simple fix for the issue. We can only help those that help themselves though. Take a look at our forums, almost every question has a response within 24 hours (normally much less than this). Where on earth did you get treated with such hostility? I know it wasn't on the Bodhi Forums and while I don't personally moderate the E user's list I've never seen someone out and out attacked on it like you describe. Cheers, ~Jeff Hoogland

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

Not that "works for me" is proof that it works for everyone but KDE4 has been solid under Debian on my two desktop rigs. I think it's fair to include on the list even of some distributions can managed to ship a working install.

bbruck
bbruck

I've been experimenting with different distros and desktops for my old Asus 900 netbook. I settled on Mint LXDE simply because it worked with the least amount of glitches (actually no glitches that I can think of). Certain things just didn't work with XFCE and the other desktops and KDE was too much of a hog for my little under powered machine.

shryko
shryko

The whole point of this was for those who don't like the way that GNOME 3 and Unity are going, and prefer to go with a different one. I think LXDE is more "business" oriented, without a lot of eye candy, but plenty of graphical polish. It's like XFCE in that regard. Really, one or the other, they're both really good (and to me, they're the only contenders for what I'll use when my KDE 3 system needs an upgrade/replacement).

seanferd
seanferd

Jack isn't going to list every single desktop/window manager/compositor available. That's why there is a comment section. Good on you for mentioning LXDE.

John Larimer
John Larimer

So what version of Bodhi are you using? I tried Bodhi 1.0 because Enlightenment really intrigued me. I loved interface and the minimalist approach but unfortunately it just wasn't stable enough for me to continue using. I plan to try again after a few more releases have been made. The latest release I saw was 1.1 and that just wasn't enough distance for me.

jkameleon
jkameleon

Alas, it does not install on RAID partition. I was thinking about switching to SUSE, but I don't think it's worth the trouble. I suspect Nvidia drivers.

John Larimer
John Larimer

That is very true and if i could remember at this point exactly what the issues were I would list them. Unfortunately I don't. I ran Bodhi in a multi-boot scenario at work along with Ubuntu (my main OS) and Windows 7 (which I almost never use) and at the time I didn't have the luxury of filing bug reports and fighting through getting them resolved. What I saw had a lot of promise and I plan on trying it again but some mission critical things just did not perform as needed. Based on that memory I figure VMWare Workstation 7 was one of the applications with issues. Whether it was performance or crashes I can't say.

JeffHoogland91
JeffHoogland91

I always love when people say "not stable enough" and then neglect to list any issues they have. In the world of FOSS a bug report goes a long way. ~Jeff

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