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Ubuntu Linux – Using KDE, Gnome, Cinnamon and XFCE

Terry Cox
Terry Cox

Without getting into any political reviews of different flavors of Ubuntu (Xubuntu, Edubuntu, Kubuntu, AdInfinitubuntu), we are going to look at starting with the default Ubuntu installation with Unity and then branching out to include KDE, Gnome, Cinnamon and XFCE. We will make all of them available for use and will be able to choose amongst any of them at sign in so let’s get started!Desktop, Desktop, Wherefore Art Thou Desktop?As you know, by default as of Ubuntu 11.04, Unity is the desktop we are greeted with after a fresh install.

Unity Default Desktop

To be honest, I was one of the biggest detractors of this switch for a number of reasons. Not the least of which was that I felt that such a user paradigm shift would only hurt the burgeoning Linux desktop market. Ubuntu had built a fair amount of mainstream momentum in that space and I was afraid this change would reverse that trend. Even before the monstrosity that is the Microsoft Windows 8 Desktop, I began to reverse my view. I saw what Ubuntu was going for in a more unified desktop presentation even if I thought that it was a few steps back from Gnome and KDE.However, we are not here to discuss the merits or lack thereof in the default Unity desktop. Let’s move on to our first alternate desktop installation, KDE. We will start with KDE since I found that it was one of the easiest ‘upgrades’ in the desktop space.KDE 4 – Beast No MoreKDE has come a long way from it’s initial 4.0 release. Not only is it more stable, but it has gotten better looking with smooth animations and great compositing support with the KWin Window Manager.We can take a couple of tracks in installing these alternative desktops, we can install via the following methods:

  • sudo apt-get install kde-plasma-desktop – Just installs the KDE Plasma Desktop with minimal applications if you just want to check it out
  • sudo apt-get install kde-standard – Plasma desktop and the standard KDE applications (gedit, Konqueror, KMail, Dolphon, Konsole, etc)
  • sudo apt-get install kde-full – Give me everything KDE related in the repository (NOTE: this will take a while, over 1.2gb at last repository check)
  • sudo apt-get install kde-plasma-netbook – Added here for the sake of being complete. This is a minimal netbook install as the name implies, however, I do not expect this install target to remain supported for long, there has been talk of rolling it into the minimal install mentioned above.

Once this is all done, you should see (after sign in) something like the following:

KDE Desktop

You Don’t Gnome MeSo Unity has a lot in common (both in terms of use and codebase) with Gnome 3, but does not go full blow ‘Gnome Shell’ like Fedora for example. If you like that look and want to try it in Ubuntu, you can accomplish it a couple of ways:

  • sudo apt-get install ubuntu-gnome-desktop – Like KDE, this will give you the Gnome 3 Shell experience without installing a lot of the Gnome specific packages. Additionally, if you want to keep your default display manager, you can use this installation target without issue
  • sudo apt-get intall ubuntu-gnome-desktop ubuntu-gnome-default-settings – Be careful here, when the packages are installed, if you plan to use Gnome Shell, make sure to select the GDM display manager. There have been reports that Gnome Shell will fail altogether without selecting that option
    • NOTE: if you want to install everything for Gnome 3, a couple items are missing even in the full install. Add the following to get Gnome Documents and Boxes
    • sudo apt-get install gnome-documents gnome-boxes

After a few minutes, when you login you should be presented with this (rather cool looking) desktop:

Gnome 3 – Gnome Shell Desktop

I will say that although the default ‘accelerated’ Gnome Shell Desktop looks really nice, it is not mature enough to have some of the traditional compositing desktop effects (rotation, 3d cube, exploding windows, etc). Although if you are more interested in the fancier compositing effects that Compiz typically offers, our next desktop candidate will be right up your alley.Just a Pinch of CinnamonWhen Gnome 3 and Gnome Shell came out, there were a large number of people who were upset at the radical interface changes from Gnome 2 (people don’t like change? I am sensing a pattern here). So, a number of former Gnome programmers created Cinnamon, which is basically an implementation of the Gnome 2 interface and compatibility libraries. Besides being a visual and workflow clone of Gnome 2, it is a little less demanding on video hardware and supports third party compositing – namely Compiz, which will give us those fancy desktop effects.Installing Cinnamon in Ubuntu is actually very easy but a bit different since we will have to add a third party repository, just follow these steps for a little Cinnamon on your desktop:

  • sudo add-apt-repository ppa:gwendal-lebihan-dev/cinnamon-stable – This will add the ‘stable’ branch of Cinnamon (1.6.4 as of this writing) to your repository list. You could also add this through the ‘Ubuntu Software Center’ application.
  • sudo apt-get update – pull in the newly added repository’s index
  • sudo apt-get install cinnamon – This will install the desktop environment for Cinnamon, most of the underlying applications are installed and all the compatibility libraries you need by defaultOnce that is all done, after logging in you will get a desktop something like this:

    Ubuntu Flavored With Cinnamon

    NOTE: I mention this since I ran into it, when installing on Ubuntu 12.04/12.10, you are presented with a desktop with no icons of any kind and you want them back, use the dconf editor, go to org-gnome-desktop-background and tick “Show desktop icons” – voila!Light Desktop, Light InstallationSaved the cleanest desktop (and lightest on system resources) and the easiest install for last. If you want a no frills desktop that is light on resources, quick in 2D drawing and/or looks good on smaller monitors, the impossible to pronounce as a shortcut XFCE Desktop is for you. Install couldn’t be easier:

    • sudo apt-get install xubuntu-desktop – Installation this way will get you the full ‘Xubuntu’ XFCE experience with branded backgrounds and default applications
    • sudo apt-get install xfce4 – This option provides you with a distribution neutral XFCE Desktop, regardless of which you pick, the conflicts that were present in Ubuntu 11.04 have been resolved

    Finally, here is a screen shot of our simplified desktop:

    Simplified XFCE Desktop

    Final ThoughtsYou may find that, if you have the hard drive space, you may want one or more of these alternative desktop environments installed on your system. Keep in mind that any of them can be picked from the initial login screen once installed. Additionally, if you do any customization of any of them, the settings will be retained even if you go back to one of the other Desktop Environments. You may find that you want to keep one desktop for showing off all the ‘eye candy’ and customizations that Ubuntu is capable of while you maintain another ‘just for work’.In a future article, we will go in depth in customizing each of our new desktop installations. If you have any questions or would like any specific topics covered in any one of them, leave me a comment and we will put it on the agenda.


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