Fedora, Mint, openSUSE, Ubuntu: Which Linux desktop is for you?

We look at the top four Linux distributions to find out which is right for which users.

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Interface

When it comes to interface, the Linux distributions all go in their own directions. Indeed, if you didn't know what you were looking at, you might well not realize that you're looking at Linux with any of these distributions.

Fedora

Fedora's current default desktop is GNOME 3.2.1, which bears only a passing similarity to the popular GNOME 2.x interface. I find this new version annoying because so much has changed from the previous iterations -- for example, when you turn off the computer you must press the alt key to get to the shutdown menu, instead of simply choosing to turn it off from the top-level menu, and you can't easily shrink or re-size windows.

Fedora
Fedora Click to view larger image

Perhaps the most troubling thing about GNOME 3.x is that it really doesn't work or feel like GNOME 2.x or any other desktop environment I've ever used. It requires you to learn a new interface to do even the most basic of things. It's a heck of learning curve.

It does have some good features. For one, you can manage all your default online accounts settings from one place. So, for example, you can set all your Internet applications to automatically use Google services for your e-mail, instant messaging and calendar tasks. You can also, if you use GNOME 3.2's default Web browser Epiphany, save Web sites such as Gmail as if they were local applications. They will then start automatically when you turn on your PC and you can use them with a single click.

You should note that Fedora 16 and GNOME 3.2 require 3D-capable graphics cards. Otherwise, as was the case with my laptop, GNOME defaults to "Fallback" mode, which (ironically) looks and feels a lot like the earlier version of GNOME. In fact, I actually found it to be far more usable than GNOME 3.2.

Mint

Mint, on the other hand, tries to do it all. While it uses GNOME as its foundation desktop, Mint gives you three different spins. You can, a la Fedora, use GNOME 3.2 but you can also use MGSE (Mint Gnome Shell Extensions) -- a desktop layer that sits on top of GNOME 3.2 and tries to make GNOME 3.2 look and feel like GNOME 2.32 -- or MATE, which is a GNOME 2.32 fork.

You can install all of them and then choose which one to use when you log in to the system. Of the trio, I like MGSE the best. While it doesn't make GNOME 3.2 a perfect clone of GNOME 2.32, it does make it far friendlier to experienced GNOME 2.x users. I want to like MATE, but at this point in its development it proved to have many compatibility problems with GNOME applications.

OpenSUSE

OpenSUSE uses KDE 4.7.2 for its standard desktop. This is an excellent example of the KDE family; all the applications work smoothly together. While at one time, I felt that KDE 4.x was dreadful -- for example, it crashed frequently -- it's gotten much better over the years. KDE 4.7's Plasma Workspaces and Applications are well integrated, offering a very smooth user experience.

The KDE desktop also proved to be much quicker than the other desktops. While it's impossible to benchmark such very different approaches to the desktop, both the desktop and applications felt faster to me. It was like the difference between driving a car with a bad transmission and a smooth transmission.

Ubuntu

Ubuntu Unity is Ubuntu's own take on GNOME 3.x. Unity is designed to be a universal interface for desktops, tablets and smartphones. It is also based on GNOME 3.2, but it's hard to tell that from its glossy, tablet-like interface.

While not as fast as openSUSE's KDE 4.7, Unity is very fast and smooth. After some rough patches in early versions, it's now quite stable. It's also an interface that many hardcore Linux users hate -- for the same reasons that many BSD Unix fans have never warmed up to Mac OS X. Both interfaces make it very hard to get at the underlying operating system.

The interface is well done and designed to make Linux friendly to an audience that's more comfortable with smartphones and tablets than they are with traditional desktop interfaces. However, if you're a long-time Ubuntu user who prefers a less consumer-oriented interface, I recommend you give Mint MGSE a try.

Bottom line

Which is the best? That really depends on you. Personally, I'm happiest with both Mint's MGSE and openSUSE's KDE desktops. I can live with Unity, but I really, really dislike Fedora's GNOME 3.2. It simply doesn't work like any other desktop interface I've ever used and I, for one, don't see any advantages to its approach.

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