First off: this is a difficult concept to describe. I will do my best.
Windows has taught us that what you see when you boot up your computer is the same as anyone else running that version. Not counting personalization like screensavers, wallpapers, etc. The START menu is in the same place, icons act the same way, the taskbar looks about the same. (Windows 8’s ‘Metro’ interface is an exception and is discussed below).
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
If computers were cars we could think of them as two distinct parts:
- The part of the car that does car stuff
- The part of the car that human interact with: Pedals, steering wheel, door handles, wiper controls, dashboard, shifter, etc.
What if you could swap out the dashboard and controls with ones you preferred? Maybe you like fancy and blingy. Maybe you like sleek and minimal. Maybe you like a barrage of information, OnStar, heads-up displays, and a radio that guesses what you want to hear. Or maybe you want a minimum of critical information and will call up the rest when you want it.
Linux allows you to make changes like this. Just like the dash is what you see when you step into your car, the desktop is what you see when you log into your computer (linux or otherwise). Some desktops are fancy and impressive. Some are intended to have a traditional (and Windows-like) interface. Some are so clean and minimal they are inscrutable to newcomers.
I want to present this information here because oftentimes when you download a linux distro you are given a choice of default desktops. Yes, you can add other desktops at will and switch between them at login, but it’s nice to have a familiar default.
Here is my unscientific guide to commonly-seen desktops for the linux newbie:
- Traditional desktops look and act like one might expect. Not exactly like Windows but recognizable. Examples include KDE and MATE (pronounced “mah-tay” like the drink).
- Lighter desktops are similar to traditional desktops but are designed to be “lighter” so they consume fewer resources and run faster on older hardware (or really fast on modern hardware!). Examples include LXDE and Xfce.
- ‘Modern’ tablet-centric desktops These have caused a ruckus in the PC world, both linux and windows. The idea is that some companies/communities have tried to force PC users to use interfaces that were designed for touch-interface tablets. These look and act nothing like what a user would expect them to. Some people love them, many more hate them. Examples include Windows 8, Ubuntu’s Unity, Gnome 3. These desktops tend to require a ton of resources, including video acceleration, to be usable. This makes them less useful for those of us running XP-era machines. Some do allow a “2D” version with fewer visual effects that runs a little better.
There are also some attempts to integrate a few useful bits from the Modern desktops without going bat-poop crazy with the radical design changes. The main example of this is Cinnamon, which started as Linux Mint desktop but is now more widely available. Note: Cinnaman is the exception to the general rule that all desktops play well alongside each other. Cinnamon is reported to break Unity in some situations.
For our purposes, I think people coming from XP would be best served by starting with a linux distro that uses LXDE, Xfce or MATE as the default.