We’ve previously written about Ubuntu’s Unity desktop environment, which we touted as a “big leap forward” for Linux when it was introduced with Ubuntu 11.04. Unity was certainly a big leap in a new direction, but it left a lot of users behind.
Luckily, Linux is all about choice and Ubuntu’s software repositories contain a variety of excellent alternatives to Unity. Each desktop environment you install appears as an option when you click the gear icon on Ubuntu’s login screen. You can install as many as you want and find the one that’s right for you.
GNOME Shell (GNOME 3)
GNOME Shell is definitely the most obvious alternative to Unity, given that Ubuntu has historically shipped a pretty standard GNOME desktop environment. Ubuntu still includes most of GNOME 3; Unity just replaces the GNOME Shell launcher with Ubuntu’s own interface.
GNOME 3 feels pretty slick, but disaffected Unity users may be disappointed with what GNOME has become. Far from the traditional GNOME 2 interface, GNOME 3 includes its own full-screen application launcher and feels pretty similar to Unity. Some users will prefer GNOME Shell to Unity, but if you’re yearning for a more traditional interface, look elsewhere.
sudo apt-GET install gnome-shell
The KDE project alienated much of its own user base when KDE 4 was released, but it’s had a lot of time to add polish and work out the kinks. Currently at version 4.7, KDE has traditionally been the second most popular Linux desktop environment and primary alternative to GNOME.
KDE has its own alternatives to the GNOME applications you’re familiar with, but you can continue to use GNOME applications on KDE. They may look slightly out of place, since KDE uses the QT toolkit instead of GNOME’s GTK toolkit.
Click here to get KDE if you’re already using Ubuntu. You can also look for Kubuntu-Desktop in the Ubuntu Software Center or execute the following command:
sudo apt-GET install kubuntu-desktop
The Kubuntu project provides a Ubuntu installer disc that comes with KDE instead of Unity.
XFCE doesn’t try to reinvent the desktop like GNOME 3 and Unity do, but it does provide an environment that long-time GNOME 2 and Ubuntu users will feel at home with. XFCE was once GNOME’s less resource-intensive and more minimal cousin, but GNOME’s shift has made XFCE a distinct environment. XFCE uses the same GTK toolkit that GNOME does, so GNOME applications will fit right in on an XFCE desktop.
Did you know that Linus Torvalds, Linux’s creator, now uses XFCE? GNOME 3 pushed him to XFCE, just as KDE 4 pushed him to GNOME 2. Follow in Linus’s footsteps by clicking here, installing the Xubuntu-Desktop package from the Ubuntu Software Center or running the following command:
sudo apt-GET install xubuntu-desktop
Use the Xubuntu installer disc to install Ubuntu with an XFCE desktop instead of Unity.
LXDE is a lightweight desktop environment targeted at machines with less powerful hardware. LXDE’s focus on minimal resource consumption makes it a great choice if you’re looking for a desktop environment that doesn’t try to do too much and just gets out of your way. It’s lighter than Xubuntu’s XFCE desktop, which was previously considered the lightweight version of Ubuntu.
Check out our post about Lubuntu for a more in-depth overview of the LXDE desktop environment or click here to start installing LXDE if you’re sold on it. You can also grab the Lubuntu-Desktop package from the Ubuntu Software Center or use the following command:
sudo apt-GET install lubuntu-desktop
Download an Lubuntu disk image if you want to install Ubuntu with LXDE from scratch.
For the Linux user who’s really sick of having their hand held, Xmonad is less a desktop environment and more a toolkit for building your own. Xmonad is a tiling window manager, so it arranges windows for you and doesn’t make you drag them around. That’s about all that Xmonad does for you — Xmonad doesn’t even provide an application launcher or panel by default, but you can add those yourself.
Log into Xmonad and all you’ll see is the normal login screen background. From there, you can press Alt-Shift-Enter to open a terminal where you can launch additional applications. Check out the official Xmonad guided tour for an introduction to using Xmonad.
Click here to install Xmonad, grab it from the Ubuntu Software Center or run the following command:
sudo apt-GET install xmonad
Ubuntu also provides GNOME Session Fallback, which appears as GNOME Classic on the login screen after you install it. Don’t let the name fool you — GNOME Session Fallback is just a hack on top of GNOME 3. It’s designed to function similarly to GNOME 2 and has the same basic menu structure, but GNOME 2 fans will notice a lot of features missing. Install it byclicking here or running the following command, if you’re interested:
sudo apt-GET install gnome-session-fallback