The Linux desktop is leaps and bounds from where it was 10, five, even two years ago. Desktop environments that many declared unusable or dead have seen a renaissance in usability. But that doesn't mean that out of the box, every Linux desktop is ready for every type of user. For each user type there may be many ways to make a desktop more usable. Thankfully, this is Linux — so options are never a problem.
With that in mind, I wanted to highlight my 10 best tips for creating more user-friendly Linux desktops. Not every one of these tips will apply to your particular desktop (be it GNOME, Unity, KDE, XFCE, Deepin Desktop, Cinnamon... the list goes on). But you should find more than one tip that will go a long way toward improving your experience.
1: Install a dock
Certain desktops (such as GNOME 3) really benefit from the addition of a dock. You don't have to go through the process of opening the Dash, locating your app, and launching your app. With the addition of a dock (such as Cairo-Dock), you gain immediate access to those frequently used apps with a single click. If you'd like to stick with the likes of GNOME 3 but miss having the ability to launch apps with a single-click, this is the best route.
2: Learn the keyboard shortcuts
Every Linux desktop offers tons of keyboard shortcuts to make your life easier. Most users are accustomed to taking advantage of keyboard shortcuts when working with the likes of word processing software. But those same users often neglect to take advantage of the even more powerful shortcuts associated with the desktop.
One nice addition to Ubuntu Unity is that by long-pressing the Super key (aka the Windows key), a keyboard shortcut listing will appear in the form of an overlay. Make sure you search for your particular desktop's list of keyboard shortcuts and start using them. You'll be glad you did.
3: Get to know your launchers
Every desktop deals with launchers differently. Some (such as Unity) limit launchers to the Launcher and/or the Dash. Others let you add launchers to the desktop, as well as panels and more. If you're using Ubuntu Unity, and you're trying to find out how to add launchers to the desktop, your search will be in vain. Make sure you understand how to make the best use of launchers on your desktop. Know how to add them, edit them, remove them, move them — everything necessary to make your life easier.
4: Empower your searching
Most Linux desktops make use of some powerful searching tools. These tools quickly collect data from your local drive(s), giving you quick access to applications, files, folders, and more. Some of these searches take it one step further and expand the search into the cloud and other remote sources. Although many have cried foul about Ubuntu Unity's web search being a breach of privacy, the tool is incredibly powerful. Regardless of which side of the privacy fence you occupy, the ability to search multiple locations from a single point makes the Linux desktop a powerful and user-friendly environment. No matter which desktop you use, be sure to learn how to get the most out of the desktop search.
5: Use the built-in package manager
Every Linux distribution uses a package management system. The more modern takes on the Linux desktop use these systems in a fashion more in line with today's mobile-friendly society. In other words — the app store. If you're looking at the Ubuntu Software Center, App Grid, Deepin Software Manager, or even (to a certain extent) Synaptic, you'll find a vast collection of software that can easily be installed. Instead of opening your web browser and searching for an app, always default to the built-in package manager. You'll find plenty of apps that can be installed with a single click.
6: Add extensions to GNOME 3
GNOME 3 is another desktop that offers tons of user-friendly power. One way to flex the muscles of GNOME 3 is by using the available extensions. You'll find extensions that add old-school menus, dash-to-dock (create a dock out of your GNOME dash), window navigators, cover flow, window lists, sensors, show desktop, brightness control, and a lot more. There are more than 50 pages of available extensions to choose from that can help make your GNOME 3 desktop far more user friendly.
7: Use the "start menu"
Every Linux desktop takes on the "start menu" differently. Some (such as KDE) go the traditional route, with a button in the bottom-left corner that opens a full-blown, standard-issue start menu. Others, such as Ubuntu Unity, offer a combo tool that is part start menu, search tool, and panel. Then there are some, such as Enlightenment, that place a start menu anywhere on the desktop (with a single left-click of the mouse). What's important, and what will get you the best-possible Linux desktop experience, is to match up the desktop start menu with your needs. If you are more of a traditional user who doesn't take kindly to chance, you might prefer the likes of KDE.
8: Stop thinking in terms of Windows
9: Know your file manager
Most people coming from Windows or Mac have no idea just how powerful the file manager can be. Linux users get this. Why? Because for years Linux users have enjoyed file managers with amazing power and features. Take, for example, one of my favorite features of the Nautilus File manager: If you right-click a file or folder, you'll see Copy to and Move To entries. Just click either entry and select the target directory to house the file/folder or copy. No need to do copy the file in one folder, move to another folder, and the past the folder. Linux file managers enjoy much more context-sensitivity in right-click menus, and some even offer a vast array of plug-ins you can add for even more features.
10: If you don't like it, change it
One of the greatest strengths of Linux is its adaptability. If you don't like something, you can change it. This doesn't mean you have to open up the code and recompile. But if there's something about the desktop you don't like, in most cases, you can change it. Don't like the way it looks, re-theme it; want to create new keyboard shortcuts, do it; want a completely different desktop from the default, install it. It's a huge shift in the way most PC users think, but Linux is all about flexibility and allowing you to get your work done in the way you want or need to. This may require a bit more of a learning curve than using things out of the box, but it also means you can fine-tune your desktop to look and behave exactly how you want.
Linux is not the ubergeek-centric operating system it once was. In fact, in many ways, Linux is the most user-friendly platform available. Sure it has shortcomings — like every platform. But Linux is still better at doing what you want... how you want it.
What do you think? Is Linux more user-friendly than other platforms? If not, why?
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 jackwallen.com.