I am not writing a tutorial or start a discussion, I just wanted to share some interesting findings after a little experiment with users and Linux based systems and especially with Desktop Environments ( DE's).
My friend and I have been using Linux based systems since the early 2000, so we are quite capable of dealing with Linux. For this reason, a friend came on to us and asked us what is the best DE/ Linux to use. Well the answer we came up with was: “ Use what ever makes you feel happy and comfortable to get the job done. Just try some Distro’s and take it from there.”.
He replied: “Well, but I don’ t want to try Distro after Distro. And is there really a big difference between them?”
This actually made us thought about DE’s and Linux based systems. Are they really that different ? What appeals to a user more ?
To answer these questions, we set up a challenge.
Install a Linux based system
Configure the Desktop environment:
change icon theme
change system theme and window decorator
change menu entries
Configure the system:
setup a printer/scanner HP printer ( Linux certified )
install nvidia/ati drivers
install a LAMP environment
setup a firewall ( allow the web server to be only available on the local network)
make sure that httpd and mysld are not auto started by the system on boot.
secure the system so root account cannot log on remotely.
Setup the core system so the firewall will be running before the network card will be initialized by the system.
This will be done on different Distro’s and different DE’s.
OS’s used ( all out-of-the-box installs ):
Debian, Mint, Ubuntu, Zenwalk, Slackware, Vector Linux, Arch, Elementary OS, PC Linux, SUSE
XFCE, Mate, Cinnamon, Unity, Gnome 3, Fluxbox, LXDE, KDE
To install the system on a clean hard drive, we always used the default option given by the installer. All systems were installed without any hassle, all hardware was correctly installed out of the box ( Note: for nvidia and ati cards, this will be covered later on ).
Configuring the DE environment
All modern DE completed the task with ease by only using the DE’s system settings. It seems not to matter what Linux flavor is under the hood. XFCE, LXDE, KDE, Gnome 3, etc... all behaved and felt the same on any Linux flavor.
The only real difference was optically due to branding, and here and there an extra GUI to perform some special tasks. Think here like Mint Backup or the system settings GUI in SUSE.
Small changes, little touches.
The only outsider here is fluxbox. Fluxbox does not have a “ system settings” gui, or as a matter of fact no GUI tools at all ( by default install ). So all changes have to be done manually by editing text files. But still configuring a fluxbox will always be the same, no matter what is running under the hood.
Configuring the system
This is the part where we are expecting to separate the boys from the man.
System configuration is really bounded to the way the Linux based system has been setup by their creators, at least so we thought.
Well plug and play did the job usually.
Once again, fluxbox on Slackware turned out to be more of a hassle, but after some bashing in the terminal, all was fine. And it really helps if you start CUPS........
As it tunes out, most off the tested distros have pre-compiled packages for ati/nvidia cards. So installation is not a big deal. Sometimes you have to use the package manager and some times you have a nice gui like the restricted drivers to pull of the installation out of the box.
Slackware was bit more complicated. The core repository of Slackware does not feature a driver package for ati/nvidia. You will need to use a third party repository ( like Slackbuilds.org ) or you can download the drivers directly from the manufacture and run them on the system.
No trouble of installing. The only difference are the different package managers GUI. But still, in the end they work pretty much the same. Search, click install, done. Same goes for the CLI commands.
No big trouble. Most DE come with a firewall GUI. Not complicated to use. Most of the time there are basic preset rules and a setup wizard. In case no GUI is available it can be installed or iptables can be invoked. There was no issue in isolating the apache web server to the local network only.
Here, we actually found major differences. Not all DE can actually handle system services like apache webserver or mysql from their very own system settings to auto start or not after booting.
As it turns out, the most reliable way was to use the command line to handle the job.
This was the first time we actually saw a difference in Linux flavored OS systems running with the same DE.
Securing the system
In this case, we wanted that root was not allowed to log on remotely on ssh, ftp, webdav, remote desktop. No installed system came with a GUI to do that out of the box completely or at all. Securing the system was done manually by altering configuration files.
The Bonus round
This was quite a challenge to pull of. Usually the network card will be initialized by the system, before the firewall.Firewalls usually will be loaded after all basic system configurations have been loaded.
To change this, one has to change the loading order of certain start up scripts. On all distros, it took us quite a while to make it happen. In any case, no GUI tool was available to do the job out of the box.
Well we sat down with 12 year old whiskey and discussed. In the end we concluded:
Installation: Easy, no problem
Configuring the DE look and feel: Easy, No Problem
Installing video drivers and software: Easy, No Problem
Setting up the system: Basically no problem. The system now a days are setting them up themselves pretty good out of the box.
Only when it comes to change security and changing system behavior, this can be tricky.
But in the end for the average joe, this does not really count. These parts are more for the advanced users. Fluxbox stuff and Slackware included.
So what did we actually learn? Well we agreed that it does not really matter what kind of Linux flavor your running nor what kind of modern DE you are using. Changing the look and feel of the DE is quite easy, installing software is easy. In any case, you are fast on the Internet, you can read your emails, chat, listen to music, watch a movie, etc ....
So in the end we learned nothing we already knew. Or did we ?
So we decided to figure out what a normal people want/like. To do this, we got some PC’s and installed Linux Mint on it with different DE’s. XFCE, Cinnamon, Mate, LXDE, Fluxbox and KDE.
We setup the PC’s at the lobby of the local University and asked students ( technical and non technical ) to play with the DE’s for a moment and choose, what DE they liked best and why.
The most easiest to use was voted XFCE, the “geeks” went for KDE than Fluxbox.
At the end of the day, we had a clear winner. Cinnamon. The reason why they chose Cinnamon, was a bit of a surprise. It was not because it was easy to configure or use, but simply it was looking gorgeous, modern and fresh.
This answer we did not really expect. We thought users would care more about easy to use than looks. As it turns out today, looks are more important to most people around here.
Well does this contribute in any way to old beaten down horse which DE is best or with Distro is the best. The answer is: No. This is just a sharing of an experiment with an outcome not expected by us. Looks seems to count more than the rest these days. At least in our town.
Mhhhh, perhaps this is the reason why Mac’s are so popular?