Do You Prefer Modern Or Traditional Linux Desktop Environments?

Somebody I have been conversing with for a while now asked me a very interesting question the other day and rather than answer it directly I thought it would be good to gauge the opinions of the Everyday Linux User readers.

Recently I have written a few articles about Debian and one of those articles suggested ways to improve some peripheral things about it such as the website and the installer.

I have become an advocate of GNOME recently and as such I have obviously mentioned this.

One of the comments that I received stated that because I liked GNOME I am therefore one of those people that needs things dumbed down.

This got me thinking. Is making something easier to use necessarily the same as dumbing down and indeed is there anything wrong with dumbing down if that makes something easier to use?

Whenever you look at technical videos online (and they don’t have to be about Linux) you will quite often see Unity being used as the desktop environment.

Chris from the Linux Action Show uses Arch but quite often when you see demonstrations from one of their videos you will again see Unity being used.

The point is, do they use Unity because they need something dumbed down or do they use it because it is actually convenient and easy to use when you really just need to get a job done?

I think the beauty of desktop environments such as Unity, GNOME and for non-Linux users OSX and Windows 8.1 is that they are very intuitive and easy to use and they keep out of your way.

The keyboard shortcuts are definitely a good thing and the ability to search for applications, documents, audio files and videos with just a few key clicks is just great.

I think that the people who don’t like the Unity and GNOME style interface fall into one of two categories.

The first category would be the people who like things to be the way they have always been. These people would appreciate Cinnamon, KDE and MATE.

The second category would say that the reason they don’t like Unity and GNOME is that the developers have assumed the users want the desktop to work in a particular way but there is no way to change it if the user wants it to work in an alternative way.

To be honest I am not adverse to tinkering with a desktop environment and so I really like XFCE, LXDE and more recently Enlightenment. When it comes down to it though if I really need to get something done in a hurry I would turn to a machine with GNOME or Unity on it first.

So what kind of Linux desktop environments do you prefer?

Do you prefer the modern desktop environments with maybe less flexibility but perhaps better desktop integration and slightly more intuitive or do you like things more traditional with menus and panels? Maybe you don’t care so long as you can make it the way you want it. Let me know in the comments below.

Thankyou for reading


  1. Gnome is fantastic, but Evolution sucks… I use TB with 6 different account (2 gmail, MSExchange, and some others) with calendar and tasks, in Evolution I did managed to use 1…
    Mate is ok but panels are difficult to move around… and they have so many programs I don't use…
    Unity – one needs i7 to run…
    KDE too complicated but beautiful 😉
    LXDE too simplistic…
    Enlightment – if it stops crushing, and developers decide what the system is for…
    I am stuck with XFCE which is getting better and better…

    Thank you for very good argument.
    Best regards

  2. To be honest I'm a fan of both. I use GNOME Shell on my higher powered computers and MATE/Xfce/LXDE on the older ones I have lying around. Both work well for me, although at the moment I prefer GNOME thanks to it's superior multi monitor support and relative abundance of themes (as opposed to Cinnamon).

    A nice middle ground is Plasma 5, although it's a little rough around the edges right now.

  3. Personally, making something easier to use doesn't equal dumbing down – unless functionality is hidden.

    A good example is Windows vs MacOSX – windows provides near-linux level control and functionality – if not better.
    No functionality has ever been really removed from windows, yet it has been made much easier to use.
    MacOSX isn't marketed for tech-heads, it's marketed for people that want it to "just work", and it has much less in functionality and options – it has been dumbed down somewhat – the result is there are things windows can do, that OSX cannot.

    As far as Linux goes, unity is dumbed down, for simple user-scenarios of having six or seven applications they want to run (office, chrome, etc). a little V-tech dock is fine.

    Me? I use a custom debian with Awsome tiling WM ( – because I'm a developer, with six monitors, often working on twelve things in 24 windows, while playing minecraft. I physically cannot make Gnome work for me (certainly not unity or MacOSX).
    I can however, just barely scrape by on windows.
    I'm not saying i'm some magical computer god – I'm saying with the sheer complexity of my workload, I cannot even use something 'dumbed down', because it's counter-intuitive to my technical aspects.

    My final point is this:
    Most users aren't me, most users cope find with one monitor, on MacOSX/Unity (and I see those as equals). Most users don't need to cope with impressive taskloads, or even ever using a terminal….
    But most Linux users ARENT most users, and there in lies the problem – the year of Linux will not come from some mythical "everyday users on everyday computers". If it ever comes, it will come from "everyday tech-heads, doing abnormal work". In that regard, in my opinion, Linux needs to be smarted-up, not dumbed-down.

    But there's no reason not to leave the happyland Unity desktop there, it's good if I need to install something for my grandmother or mother to use.

  4. To give you an opinion on the Gnome interface…
    To me, Gnome has changed the work-flow so much that it no longer caters to how I work. When I work, I open about 15 different windows. If I'm programming, I have codeblocks, meld, a terminal, google chrome and usually a couple of text documents (scite). I will flip back and forth between them by clicking the taskbar. I don't have to flip though (alt-tab). Gnome has made too many assumptions about my desktop and work-flow. They think that removing the minimize/maximize buttons and taskbar allows me to stay focused. Well this is total BS and doesn't work for me AT ALL. I have my dual screens side by side, but they have theirs set up in a vertical way. So flipping through screens (when I need to) doesn't logically make any sense. Opening common programs in Cinnamon is as easy as clicking on the ones I've placed in my taskbar. There is no such option for this in Gnome.
    Basically what they've done is said, we know more than you do. So we've gone ahead and removed everything that you thought was important. We came up with a new way to do things, and you no longer have any choice. If you want to have any functionality back, you have to install addons.
    If Gnome 3 was built for a tablet, it would be brilliant. I would only ever run one "app" at a time on a tablet. But my computer desk is where I do most of my work. I need many open windows, banking windows, work windows, programming windows, file manager windows. Web browser windows and probably a game or two when I need a mental break from everything or a music app like VLC. Gnome doesn't know me.

  5. @ John Bargman: You have hit the nail on the head with this:
    "But most Linux users ARENT most users, and there in lies the problem – the year of Linux will not come from some mythical "everyday users on everyday computers". If it ever comes, it will come from "everyday tech-heads, doing abnormal work". In that regard, in my opinion, Linux needs to be smarted-up, not dumbed-down."
    Best analysis of the issue I've seen yet!

  6. I just want something to work that does not get in my way. I use XFCE4 because I can set it up the way I want and then it just works for me. I am not much of an eye candy person, although I do enjoy a nice background on my desktop.
    What works for me may not be for everyone (a "duuh" statement if there ever was one). But at least we have that choice. Windows, OSX, or the many flavors of Linux. Just about everyone can find or make what they want.

  7. To some degree, what we're seeing is the difference between gradual evolution and disruptive change. Countless examples exist in nature and in technology. Just to take several recent examples, KDE made disruptive changes several years ago, was heavily criticized and now has recovered into a popular distribution again. Likewise Gnome abandoned their comfortable users and built something strange and different. When a degree of user options returned, Gnome started recovering. The same disruptive cycle was followed by Ubuntu's Unity and Window's shift from System 7 to System 8.

    The advantage of having so many Linux distributions is that dissatisfied users can try different distributions and desktop interfaces until they find one that may work better for the way they like to work. People have a comfort zone and too radical a change may push people migrate to something more to their liking.

    I've used KDE, Gnome, Unity, XFCE and Mint over the years with a combination of the best mix of KDE and Gnome applications that work the best for me. I finally adopted Linux Mint Cinnamon after a brief trial period. I like Clem Lefebvre's "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" philosophy and really like the current Mint development team's staying with a stable base (Ubuntu 14.04) for several cycles and spending the developer's volunteer time to improve the features that make Cinnamon, Mate and the other Mint DUI's even better. Example: The upgrade to 17.2 was as quick and as smooth as any computer upgrade I've ever attempted.

    As new versions of critical application software are need and released, I usually use Ubuntu's vast PPA library to tweak the long list of software that works with Linux Mint. For example, I usually stay very up-to-date with versions of LibreOffice to have the most recent translations to MS Word and Excel for friends who are limited by business or government organizations to use MS Word or Excel. At least I have the option to use the software that works the best for me.

    Evolutionary change works best for me and what I want to accomplish with a desktop or laptop computers. I'll let the others who enjoy disruptive change hang onto the "bleeding edge." Just remember that an airplane wing's trailing edge gets to the next airport just about the same time as the leading edge and isn't covered with as many bugs.

  8. I personally prefer to use the current Xfxe 4.12 desktop as implemented in antiX 15 (very recently released), in MX-14, another antiX project, or the Xfce desktop as implemented in Debian Sid (similar to the comments from Richard).

    I like Xfce because it satisfies my usual workflow and on the systems I've mentioned it is a moderate consumer of resources and easily modified.

  9. It depends on the way individuals think. In my case I am a bit lazy when it comes to learning something new so I find Mint's traditional cinnamon desktop familiar and fine for me. I'm not a very visually oriented person and when I do things like word-processing I often find I am using menu's rather than icon's, which many might think a harder way of doing things. I guess this also affects using an unfamiliar desktop, it's a while before I find my way around. Some users seem hair-shirt about it, I don't think of it as dumbed down that I like a tried and tested familiar approach, I just don't have the time to learn too many new things, even if it might make things easier in the long run if I did. As I said though, I am a bit lazy.

  10. I think more simliarly to what John Bargman statements lead to… There is still some thing else ought to be added that is these "enviroments" are just a choices of packages that do common everyday tasks as we know today is necessary. It boils down to this kind of choise, I think: better to use LibreOffice or MousePad to write my monograph, or my memo??

    Glenn Thigpen, me too, I am not an eye-candy person when it comes to user interface, just want to get as low as possible with my RAM and CPU basal usage. Your words my thoughts precisely!!

  11. My favorite environment is the KDE Plasma desktop, but I am writing this from Xfce, which I consider a close second. I don't like desktop icons; they are just clutter. So, I turn them off in either environment. I like the ability to create and place panels wherever I want and to set up custom keyboard shortcuts for often-used window manager functions. Such things as minimizing windows, vertically maximizing, toggling full-screen, tiling, and shading windows. I create other custom key combinations to load specific documents into my editor or spreadsheet, and I make heavy use of Alt-F2 to locate other files and programs.

    My customizations extend to applications as well. I use Okular for viewing PDFs and heavily customize its keyboard shortcuts to emulate vi key bindings. I can control most functions in Okular with a single key press without conflicting with functions that demand I type text.

    Most of these interface customizations would be at best painful to achieve in GNOME or Unity. Since I don't like using the mouse, these environments are not what I would call easy to use.

    I will take issue with your use of the word intuitive when referring to user interfaces. There really is no such thing as an intuitive user interface; there is only familiar and unfamiliar. No one who has never used a computer just intuitively knows how to use one. Similarly, what is easy for one person is not necessarily easy for everyone. If you find GNOME is easier for you to use, don't assume that it is easy for all of us. I personally find GNOME to be infuriating—a lot like a Mac, which I also find infuriating to use. I'm certain that if I declared KDE's Plasma easy to use that people would storm out of the woodwork to take issue with me, but Plasma is familiar to me (Xfce, too), so I find it easy to use. I don't expect that everyone else would just because I do.

    As for KDE being the way it has always been, that's just not the case. KDE 4 was a major departure from how KDE 3 worked, and it upset a lot of people. Not just because of the botched way in which it was released, but because it worked differently from what people were used to. It became unfamiliar.

    If you want to know why LAS uses Unity in their demos, ask them; they would know why better than anyone guessing here.

    So, I'm in the let-me-customize-it camp and the keyboard camp (I'm also writing this in Vim within a Konsole window). The beauty of Linux is the variety of environments available for people to use. It really does offer a wide range of options. Even better, you don't have to settle on just one environment; you can have multiple login sessions running, each with a different graphical environment. I sometimes do this when trying to help people on-line with questions about one environment when I'm running a different one. I can switch between sessions to verify that what I'm telling them is accurate.

  12. Dumping down or removing functionality that is useful to many doesn't equal to making something easier to use or more intuitive. It can actually be the opposite. For example removing taskbar or well organized app menu or customizing options makes working harder for me. It's not that I don't like change, I *LOVE* change… as long the change is for better. For usability stand point, the Gnome 3 and Unity feels like step back in many areas compared to "traditional" UI. Lack of useful functionality and options, more mouse movement and clicks needed to accomplish tasks without shotcuts.

    Simple GUI may be easy to use as long as you don't want to do something that isn't in given options. Then they are not so easy. Try for example change place of dock or min-max-close -buttons in Unity. I like more flexible DEs like Enlightenment and KDE.

    Gnome3 and Unity UIs feel like making a new car UI where steering wheel is on the other side and pedals have switched places because of innovation and there isn't wipers or turning lights anymore to make it simpler and easier to use.

  13. Interesting how you frame the choice — as between "modern" and "traditional". Actually, I prefer *modern* desktops like Plasma 5, Luna and OSx to *experimental* desktops like Gnome Shell and Unity. Are my biases showing? Even Windows 10 is reverting to a more modern DE after its dismal experiment with Metro. So, to answer your question (having re-framed it) I would say that I prefer the modern Plasma 5 or Elementary OS to the experimental Gnome Shell. 🙂

  14. I prefer a desktop that does not slow me down. Unfortunately, these options you call "modern" require more steps to accomplish the same task, this make me call them "broken by design". I can see why some people may consider "modern" an user interface that borrows a lot in look, feel and interaction from mobile (phone/tablet) interfaces, but is a mistake: a desktop is a deskstop, used to create, not merely consume stuff.

  15. I don't like what I've seen of Gnome 3 for exactly the opposite reasons from what your article assumes. For me, it was hard to use and wouldn't get out of my way. I'm used to being able to launch my favourite applications with one click. I couldn't do that in early Gnome. And, keyboard shortcuts are no doubt great if you're willing to do the research to figure out what they are and what they do, but they are by definition not particularly discoverable, so when it comes to ease of use they might as well not exist. Maybe if other aspects had attracted me
    And the "hot" areas or whatever at the corners were constantly activating when I didn't want them to; this is not "getting out of my way".
    Search is no doubt a marvellous thing but it solves a problem I don't have, because I know where my files are. Search for applications on the other hand just doesn't solve the problem I do have, because generally if I'm going to use an application I don't use that often I don't know what it's called–I need a menu with categories so I can look at the list of stuff that might do what I want.

    Traditional interface lets me find applications I don't already know about, launch the ones I use more quickly, and doesn't interrupt me with weird crap if I move my mouse to the wrong place. Ease of use.

  16. I agree that it's all about workflow. How easy is it to get things done? I've tried just about every desktop environment, and it's Xfce and MATE that suit my purposes. LXDE is lighter, but it lacks some features due to that lightness. I just can't get along with GNOME and Unity. I added a start menu to Windows 8.1 as well.

    I'll try it again, no doubt, but GNOME just doesn't seem to suit the way I work. It also seems to waste screen space, so it's less suitable for the 1366×768 resolution of my laptop (xubuntu seems to make the most of this). MATE and Xfce are rock solid, familiar and responsive desktops, and that's what matters to me right now.

  17. It's Unity for me on my main machine (I have an AMD FX6300, 8GB RAM and an SSD and it is very very slick and responsive) and XFCE on my older lower spec laptops, and Raspbian on Raspberry Pi.

    I'm spend more time using Unity than anything else and it suits my needs perfectly. It's my favourite DE I've ever used. However XFCE is a great alternative on my other hardware and Raspbian is perfect for my RPi.

    The conclusion for me is that from my experience and reading others' above is that Linux allows choice and we will all have own personal preferences. And that is great. The only downside is that so much time and energy is wasted in irrelevant 'mine is better than yours' debates.

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