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This'll be my first Linux install, so I've never had to choose between a desktop environment (I come from OS X) -- forgive me if I'm not fully literate on where exactly the OS ends and the desktop manager begins.

My needs are:

  • Customizability (I like my work environment to look and function a particular way) -- especially being able to move and organise windows using keyboard commands and shortcuts.

  • Simplicity: I like as little real estate to be taken up by graphical widgets and toolbars as possible (as I said, I tend to avoid the mouse). If it were up to me, windows would just show content, not even a scrollbar.

  • Performance: I hear Gnome can be slow and bloated. Is this the case?

I will be using the environment as an IDE. I was going to go with Arch at first, but being a Linux newb with not that much time on my hands, it looked pretty daunting. Fedora looks like a good choice too.

  • Side question: just how much does one's choice of windows manager affect which applications one can run?
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5 Answers 5

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I know how you feel; I tried so many different distros before getting a feel for the differences, and I continue to try new ones, usually in a virtual machine or a spare partition.

I don't really find Gnome to be slow and bloated, but I'm not too happy with the direction it's gone recently with the Gnome 3 shell. Gnome is fairly simple compared to KDE, but not nearly as customizable, and it's getting less customizable, it seems.

I find KDE to be overkill, and I've never spent enough time to feel comfortable with it. It has lots of options, widgets, etc, and of course, some people love it for that. KDE may also have the most variety of (native) apps available, but I haven't used it enough to really know.

From your post, i think you should look at XFCE. It's the least bloated of the mostly full-featured environments, without a lot of extras. It will run most of the same things that Gnome runs, as it uses the same GTK toolkit, I think.

However, it's possible to run KDE apps using Gnome, etc, buy you need to also install whatever supporting libraries, etc are required for them. A lot of people don't like to do this, but if you have plenty of disk space, it's probably fine.

Being new, I'd recommend sticking to a mainstream distro like Fedora, Ubuntu, Debian, etc, as 3rd party software is more likely to have an easy install for their programs.

I should add that this is all a matter of opinion more than anything else, unless you add some more criteria that might differentiate the differences more.

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The only two GUI features I can't live without is the OS X-style ability to switch and manage windows using simple keyboard shortcuts, and a pasteboard (plaintext copy history). I feel like a slug without those two. -- And by customizable, does that mean I can have a lean KDE setup without any bloat? As long as I can opt out of features that will slow down performance or take up screen real estate, I'm good. And yeah, it's hard to really understand the differences when I read about them. –  iDontKnowBetter Jul 2 '12 at 2:21
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@fakaff KDE is not "bloat" in the sense that it requires a lot resources but in the sense that it doesn't hide options and possible features from the user. Is really has a lot features, but there are only very few that actually have any impact on the performance. –  API-Beast Jul 2 '12 at 3:41
    
I think they all are capable of most of what you want, but some may take more work than others to learn and implement the features. I personally use Gnome classic with Compiz and dual monitors, and I use the keyboard a lot. There are shortcuts for moving windows between monitors, to various places on one monitor (like top half, left half, middle full screen, etc. There's also keys Expo, etc. And I believe they all have clipboard managers. –  Marty Fried Jul 2 '12 at 4:11

Simplicity to use and configure often don't go hand in hand. Gnome is supposed to be easy to use, but it's pretty big and doesn't have much in the way of customizability. KDE is also big, and more customizable, but the customization options aren't always straightforward. Other alternatives include LXDE and XFCE, which are more lightweight than either Gnome and KDE, as well as not using a desktop environment.

One choice you'll have to make is whether you want to use a desktop environment or a window manager. A basic window manager only manages windows, and many provide additional services such as ways of starting applications and multiple workspaces. A desktop environment adds many more features, generally accessible through icons or other widgets on the screen in panels or docks (clock, network manager, email notifications, removable disk mounting, …), and integrates a session manager. Desktop environments give you more features; with a mere window manager, you have to build your desktop environment piece by piece.

The utmost in configurability comes from window managers that are scriptable in a programming language, such as Sawfish (Scheme) and Awesome (Lua). There are plenty of minimalist window managers, but they are not for the faint of heart.

You'll want to try out various possibilities and look for something that suits you. You can use a program like Xnest or VNC to try out a new environment inside a window that itself is displayed in an environment that you're more comfortable with.

Apart from a few smaller distributions that offer a limited selection of packages, the choice of distribution is irrelevant to the choice of graphical environment.

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Very helpful. Can one switch easily between desktop environments if one wants to test them out, or am I basically married to the one I install with the initial Fedora install. -- Is Linux modular like, say, the Chrome browser, where you can add and remove extensions as you see fit? -- Sawfish and Awesome look like what I'm lookng for; but clearly I'm a bit intimidated being a newb and would rather start with the default Gnome GUI before switching fully. –  iDontKnowBetter Jul 3 '12 at 0:14
    
@fakaff You can switch to a different wm/de at any time. It's just a program that's started when you log in, you can pick a different one each time you log in (you can switch to a different wm during a login session, but not all of them support this). Most distributions are set up so that you can pick a “session type” (or similar wording) when you log in, with one predefined session type for each installed wm. Though for initial experimentation, run Gnome and try out other candidates inside Xnest or the like. –  Gilles Jul 3 '12 at 7:41

Awesome maybe worth looking at as well as it matches all your criteria. It should be available from your package manager. The awesome wiki has a plethora of examples.

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One approach is to simply try each of the desktop environments in which you are interested. If you have sufficient bandwidth, you could download a Live ISO of each one, copy it onto a USB drive, and boot off it. This is probably not the best way to test performance or "bloat", but it will give you a reasonable "feel" for the desktop environment.

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You may find the Linux Desktop Environment-Gnome,KDE,Xfce,MATE,Cinnamon video on YouTube useful.

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While this link may answer the question, it is better to include the essential parts of the answer here and provide the link for reference. Link-only answers can become invalid if the linked page changes. –  Dennis Kaarsemaker Feb 10 '13 at 10:33

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