I have spent the last few years jumping between various Linux distributions and desktop environments, searching for the ideal balance between resource efficiency (CPU and RAM) and eye candy.
For those new to Linux, a desktop environment is a set of programs/tools that sits on top of the base Linux kernel (e.g. Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora, Red Hat). Some desktop environments are:
- LXDE / LXQT
For a long time I was a Debian user with the XFCE desktop environment. But then XFCE 1.12 brought with it a number of bugs in Thunar (the file manager). XFCE 1.12 was released on the 28th February 2015. As of the date of this article (May 2016) those bugs still haven’t been fixed. That’s almost 1.5 years without a resolution! These aren’t obscure hard-to-reproduce bugs either. This is total Thunar failure (with possible file corruption) when renaming or moving files. This is just not acceptable in a major desktop environment. It was these specific Thunar bugs that pushed me away from XFCE, and coincidentally, also away from Debian.
My next stop was Xubuntu, hoping that a major distribution, based on Ubuntu, and with a theoretically more active development team, would have a fix for the Thunar issues. They didn’t. That was Xubuntu 15.04 and 15.10. The issues still exist right now in the 16.04 LTS. An LTS is supposed to be completely stable. WTF Xubuntu and XFCE teams!!
I worked on Elementary OS Freya 0.3.2 for a while, and honestly that was really nice to use. But to be honest, I kind of feel dirty working on a Ubuntu base. Canononical lost a lot of trust with the Linux community when they included online searches in their Ubuntu desktop search results. And even though there was an option to disable it, that option was ON by default. Many users are on Linux because they value their privacy. Canononical gave a big slap in the face to the privacy of the Linux community when they did that. The saying “trust is hard won, and easily lost” is relevant here, and I still don’t trust Canononical.
Next stop was Linux Mint Cinnamon. Again, a nicely polished desktop environment, but with that dirty feeling Ubuntu base. I also don’t like green… yes, I know everything can be customised in Linux, but I just couldn’t escape the green entirely.
Many moons ago I was a Gnome 2 user, well before the current Gnome 3 user interface changes happened. That was a fantastic desktop environment to work in. Nice enough to be pleasant on the eye, and light enough to be fast. So I was pleased to find MATE, and I tried both Linux Mint MATE and Debian with MATE. But it just never felt polished.
Recently, I decided to give Gnome 3 a chance. And to be honest, it has well and truly grown on me. The absence of a conventional menu isn’t a problem, and I actually find it easier to hit the super key and type the name of the program I want to launch. I also setup keyboard shortcuts for common applications, such as super+T for terminal, super+w for web/firefox, super+e for email/evolution, and others. I’ve found that the increased eye candy of Gnome 3 has actually made me MORE of a keyboard user.
To begin with, I tried Ubuntu Gnome, simply because I’m familiar with the whole Debian/Ubuntu base. But again, Ubuntu has proven to be inadequate. Most notably (and admittedly not the fault of Canononical), MonoDevelop ASP.NET doesn’t work on the 16.04 LTS. There is a workaround, but it’s an LTS, and these things should just work.
So the broken Monodevelop pushed me off Ubuntu and over to Fedora, where there is all sorts of Gnome goodness. Fedora has proven to be a rock solid platform, with not a single issue. In comparison, Ubuntu (various flavours of the 16.04 LTS) has crashed repeatedly for me. Fedora 23? Not once. Go Fedora!
And that’s where we stand today: typing this post on Fedora 23, inside the Gnome 3 desktop environment. But… Yes, there is always a but! Gnome 3 is nice. It’s nice to look at, it seems to run reasonably well on my 6 year old laptop. But - the chrome (the visual elements of the desktop environment, windows, menus, toolbars) just takes up WAY too much space. Gnome developers have blogged about this, stating that Gnome 3 uses less chrome than it did when it was Gnome 2, but that’s totally irrelevant, and the example used was only one application, Nautilus. When you’re on a 13” laptop screen, running 1366x768, you need all the space you can get. I have the Gnome pixel saver extension enabled, but while it is good, not all applications honour it, which just leads to a feeling of inconsistency in your desktop environment.
Because of all of this drama, I have been constantly reviewing various Linux distributions and desktop environments. Using VirtualBox, I can run any operating system inside a virtual machine. This is great, because it lets me experiment with (sometimes unstable) operating systems without affecting my main work machine and my productivity.
For some time now I have kept coming back to the LXDE/LXQT desktop environment. This desktop environment can be installed on almost any Linux base (e.g. Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora, etc), but the 2 options I have liked most have been 1) a custom install of Debian Stretch with LXDE and 2) the Lubuntu distribution.
Here is a comparison of the various distributions and desktop environments, and the amount of RAM they each consume:
|Distribution||Desktop Environment||Based Off||Kernel Version||RAM (MB)|
|Ubuntu Gnome 16.04||Gnome 3||Ubuntu 16.04||4.4.0-21-generic||726|
|Debian Gnome||Gnome 3||Debian Stretch||4.5.0-2-amd64||646|
|Fedora 24 Beta||Gnome 3||Fedora 24||4.5.2-302.fc24.x86_64||622|
|Elementary OS 0.3.2||Pantheon||Ubuntu 14.04||3.19.0-59-generic||604|
|Ubuntu Unity 16.04||Unity 7||Ubuntu 16.04||4.4.0-22-generic||597|
|Debian XFCE||XFCE 1.12||Debian Jessie||22.214.171.124-amd64||322|
|Ubuntu Mate 16.04||Mate||Ubuntu 16.04||4.4.0-21-generic||321|
|Lubuntu 16.04||LXDE||Ubuntu 16.04||4.4.0-22-generic||222|
|Sparkylinux Minimal||Openbox||Debian Stretch||4.5.0-1-amd64||179|
|Debian LXDE||LXDE||Debian Stretch||4.5.0-2-amd64||170|
|Debian Custom Openbox||Openbox||Debian Stretch||4.5.0-2-amd64||67|
|Debian CLI only||None||Debian Stretch||4.5.0-2-amd64||27|
Which Linux desktop environment is the best?? is a question that can only be answered subjectively. Some people value the lightest (minimal RAM) environment regardless of how it looks, some people want their desktop environment to look as fancy as it can regardless of how it slows down their computer.
While I am currently using Gnome 3, I think an excellent balance of eye-candy and resource usage is the LXDE or LXQT desktop environment.
Either way, the fact that we have the ability to run Linux entirely for free, with a whole suite of free (and secure) applications available to us, is amazing, regardless of how much RAM it costs us.