Selecting an Appropriate Desktop Environment

Depending on your Linux distribution and installation options, chances are good your system has more than one desktop environment available. The most common desktop environments are:

KDE The K Desktop Environment (KDE; is one of the most popular desktop environments for Linux. It's the default desktop environment for Mandrake and SuSE. It's built atop the Qt widget set, and it includes many powerful tools that integrate together very well. It's described in more detail in the upcoming section, "Mastering KDE."

GNOME The GNU Network Object Model Environment (GNOME; is KDE's primary rival in the Linux desktop environment arena. GNOME is slightly newer than KDE and is built atop the competing GIMP Tool Kit (GTK+) widget set. Like KDE, GNOME includes many powerful tools that work together. It's described in more detail in the upcoming section, "Mastering GNOME."

CDE The Common Desktop Environment (CDE) is a commercial desktop environment that has long been the standard on Unix systems. CDE isn't as complete as either KDE or GNOME, and it's losing ground even on commercial Unix systems (Sun has announced that it will be using GNOME on its Solaris, for instance). CDE is less memory-intensive than KDE or GNOME, and is built atop the commercial Motif widget set. A version for Linux is available from Xi Graphics ( under the name DeXtop.

XFce This desktop environment, headquartered at, is modeled loosely on CDE, but it is built using the GTK+ widget set. XFce sports fewer features than KDE or GNOME, but it also consumes less memory.

XPde The XP-like Desktop Environment (XPde) is a very new desktop environment for Linux. It aims to reproduce the appearance and behavior of Windows XP's desktop as closely as possible. You can learn more at

Roll-Your-Own It's possible to build a desktop environment of your own from components you like. At a minimum, you need a window manager (dozens are available), but for the configuration to truly be a desktop environment, you'll need other components, such as a file manager and small productivity tools. All of the components need to be accessible from some sort of menu system. The upcoming section, "Creating a Desktop Environment That's Just Right," describes this approach, which can yield a much snappier system than KDE or GNOME would create—albeit with much greater investment in picking components and putting them together.

Unfortunately, it's impossible to give a simple set of rules for when one desktop environment works better than another, although there are some generalities that do apply. New users who are accustomed to Windows or Mac OS will probably be happiest with GNOME or KDE; these environments are most like these traditional desktop operating systems' environments. Users who are familiar with commercial Unix OSs might give XFce a try or buy CDE for Linux. These environments are also good choices on systems that have less than copious RAM or less than blazing CPUs—as a general rule, KDE and GNOME both need 128MB of RAM and 500MHz IA-32 CPUs to feel useable. People who like to customize everything or who have less-capable computers should investigate the roll-your-own approach.

Making a recommendation between KDE and GNOME is difficult. Each environment has its adherents, but the reasons for using one over the other are matters of personal preference or highly individual needs. I recommend you try both. You may want to start with whichever environment your distribution favors. Red Hat uses GNOME by default, while Mandrake and SuSE use KDE. Debian and Slackware don't favor either environment. Even in the case of Red Hat, Mandrake, and SuSE, it's easy to use the other environment. You'll need to install its packages, and then it should appear as an option in the GUI login screen, as shown in Figure 6.1. (The exact appearance of this login screen varies substantially from one distribution to another.) Some systems, including the one shown in Figure 6.1, show several window managers as options alongside the full desktop environments. When you select these options, the bare window manager runs, and you can run other programs from it.

Figure 6.1: GUI login managers usually provide a selection of environments from which you can choose what to run.

If you start X from text mode or are using the original X Display Manager (XDM) login program, you must launch your chosen desktop environment by specifying it in an X configuration file. The most common of these files are .xsession and .xinitrc, both of which are in your home directory. The .xsession file is the login file for XDM, and .xinitrc is the file that's run when you type startx from a text-mode login. Either file typically ends with a call to the desktop environment's startup program—startkde for KDE, gnome-session for GNOME, or startxfce for XFce. For a roll-your-own environment, chances are you'll start your window manager last, possibly preceded by calls to other utilities, such as a file manager. Chapter 9, "Bypassing Automatic Configurations to Gain Control," covers X startup files in more detail.

Some desktop environments—particularly KDE and GNOME—provide features designed to help integrate applications that use the environment's underlying libraries and services. For instance, you can set some user interface styles, default fonts, and so on, to apply to all supported applications. These features go beyond the raw mix of applications, and such integration is something you won't be able to accomplish in a roll-your-own solution. That said, most KDE and GNOME applications work fine outside of their parent environments, although they may be somewhat diminished by lack of integrative features. For instance, a KDE mail client and GNOME word

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Tip Linux desktop environments store users' configurations in subdirectories of users' home directories, typically named after the environment itself, such as ~/.kde or ~/.gnome2. (GNOME creates about half a dozen such directories, including some that aren't obvious, such as -/.themes.) If you like your desktop configuration, back up this directory or directories. If you experiment and wind up with a completely unworkable configuration, you can restore your backup; or if you prefer, delete the backup entirely to return to the default configuration for your distribution.

Team LiB

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