Thursday, 2 October 2014

I've just done the Linux equivalent of Star Trek.

Although mine was more of a 90minute mission, and didn't involve killing any guys in red shirts.

I'd thought that I'd more or less got my head around the main Linux desktop environments by now. They all followed a few common themes, which had become reasonably predictable and mainstream:

KDE is windows for those who want security and freedom on their computers, without fear of infection or spyware. Distributions using KDE pretty much work out of the box, as much as Windows 8 does, and if you've used anything from Vista onward then it will feel reasonably familiar. Of all the DEs it has the most functionality baked in (open an audio CD and it will offer you the audio in several different formats and bitrates - you'll never even realise you're ripping, it's so seamless) and as a result it's a real heavyweight for a linux DE. Occasionally it will fall over, but then if you've used windows (or OSX) you know how that feels already.

Gnome 3 was a hare-brained idea to emulate iOS in Linux, and it's a fascinating experiment in how to sod up a perfectly good interface. It was so cleverly done that a couple of years later Microsoft borrowed heavily from it to create the metro/modern way of working for W8. I want to love it, but it's clunky, obstructive and a little too TOYS-R-US to really make me want to stay for long.

XFCE/LXDE - both have slightly different ways of doing things, both are super-lightweight for a modern GUI and both have strong reminders of windows XP. Linux Lite OS that I use on an old laptop (1.6GHz dual core, 1 Gb RAM) runs XFCE (if I recall correctly) and it's quick & responsive. Ironically it's not a DE that I've fallen in love with, even though it's so good, because it just feels a little clunky: just like XP does when you've been using a slick modern desktop. Definitely recommended for an older machine with limited RAM.

Ubuntu Unity seems to be a real marmite option, with most either loving or hating the odd colour scheme, launch bar on the left side by default, font choices etc. I tried it last Christmas in whatever was the current distro then, and found it buggy and a bit unstable. Ubuntu's popularity is inexplicable to me.

Cinnamon/Mate (Gnome 2 updated) is the continuation of what one might consider the classical Linux desktop by the Linux Mint group. I have 2 Mint installations with Mate and Cinnamon on this machine (using Mate right now) and visually they are the same, though I believe the significant differences are under the hood. Both are quick, neat, lighter than KDE, a little old fashioned looking and without so much built-in functionality (want to rip a CD - install a ripper). The feel is slicker than XFCE/LXDE and the interface more pleasing if your computer is less limited.

Finally there are the Rat Poison/crunchbang desktops that are practically not DEs at all, and work without a mouse, everything being driven by keyboard commands. Not my cup of char, and I stay well away.

What's new then?

Tonight I tried 3 distros on live DVD as a first look-see.

Elementary have a new version in beta, code named Freya that is rather sweet and reminded me a lot of Pear linux. As well as the OSX-style dock many of the icons and functions seemed similar and felt familiar. It was nicely responsive, looked attractive and made me want to see what the full release will be like. There's a current version, but I'd heard good things about the new beta and wanted to try it. Here's a video (there are probably lots) which gives an idea of how it looks. For me it worked without any fiddling, but I wasn't trying to use slightly fussy recording software like the reviewer in the video.

Bodhi linux uses the Enlightenment DE, and is designed to be minimalist and fast, yet interesting and attractive. There were a lot of warnings and caveats with this one, both in the instructions for download & DVD burning and then during the boot process. There also seemed to be pressure to donate with this distro that I've not felt with other linux versions.

So when offered the choice during boot I went for a desktop with more widgets. It looked pretty, but the clock was set on US central time without an obvious way to change. Then I couldn't get the network manager to work properly. Navigating the desktop was a bit different too, with an 'everything' menu launching when pressing alt-escape. It *looked* fascinating, but also felt like a desktop designed by a small group of friends to work *just for them*. Cool, neat, but I'm not part of that group.

KaOS uses the KDE desktop, but have re-worked the appearance and components to give a very clean, smooth DE that looks fresh and interesting, and different from the (often clunky) implementations of KDE that we see with Kubuntu, Mint KDE, PCLOS and even to an extent with openSUSE. All their packages are built specially for their version, and designed to work well, rather than being the very latest version available. I comes bundled with Calligra office, which seems clunky & old fashioned compared to Libreoffice, but would probably serve fine if you didn't want to install LO. I'll partition & install this to run alongside the existing Mint installations for a while to test performance & see whether it is stable and appeals longer term.

There y'go then, a little more exploration of places unknown. That was quite fun.

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