Saturday, November 12, 2011

Switching desktop environments

So, like many people, I have received GNOME 3 in the latest upgrade on Debian testing, and switched away to Xfce very soon after. What's amazing (to me) about this whole experience, however, is how easy it is to switch desktop environments in Debian. Two years ago, I fled KDE in very similar circumstances. I have since used Openbox, LXDE, GNOME, Xfce, as well as a few more obscure window managers in short-lived experiments. All of this was easy to do and worked flawlessly. Most of my settings, my preferred programs, and startup applications were preserved, and if I didn't like it, I could switch back without a problem. (Ironically, the upgrades from KDE 3 to KDE 4 and from GNOME 2 to GNOME 3 lost far more settings than changes to other environments.) And of course you can mix and match applications from different environments, and these days this doesn't result in a visual crime. I don't know whom to thank for this, probably a combination of upstream developers, guys, and Debian maintainers. Keep it up.


  1. I’m very curious as to why you switched away from GNOME 3 immediately. Even if you don’t like the shell (and really, you should use if for a few hours before saying so), the fallback mode is just like GNOME 2 with a lot of bugs fixed.

    I’m not complaining (I hope Xfce works great for you), I’m really curious.

  2. What's with the proneness to flee desktop environments after a major change? KDE 4.1 wasn't really usable and even by 4.4 it was only vaguely back on track, but by 4.6 or so KDE was back to being a highly usable DE — with several new features like plasma, a more configurable system tray, and of course "present windows" switching too. Don't you expect there to be significant losses in functionality in the first few releases following a major change? We're not using a commercially developed only-release-when-it's-finished OS, we're using one developed with a release-often-and-listen-to-the-feedback policy.

  3. Personally, I don't really ever want to spend time thinking about the desktop environment. I just want it to not get it in the way.

    If a DE fundamentally changes the way it's UI works, it is getting in the way BIG time.

    Fundamental changes to the way I use my computer every day should be opt-in, not shoved down my throat.

    @diggoryhardy: I also abandoned KDE at 4.1. Not only was the core UI fundamentally changed (for the worse IMO), but also pretty much every application I used had went through major re-writes and was riddled with regressions. Are you seriously suggesting that I'm expected to sit through a three year stabilization period (4.1-4.6)?

  4. @np237: Fallback mode looks reasonable, but they have hid it well enough, under "unsupported graphics card" rather than, say, "traditional interface". This makes one also wonder how long and well this is going to be supported. As a note, I had to install the gnome-session-fallback package to make this available. I'll give it a try.

  5. @diggoryhardy: People need to get work done on their desktops. If the desktop environment isn't ready, it shouldn't be shipped in stable OS versions yet, and the stable predecessor versions of the desktop environment shouldn't be abandoned before the next one is really ready. I don't mind it if people start radically new developments, but they can't expect users to halt their lives for several years until the details are worked out.

  6. In GNOME 3.2 we will rename “GNOME fallback” to “GNOME classic” in GDM (as did Ubuntu). This should be clearer.

    I’m not worried about medium-term workability of the fallback session. I’m more worried long-term about it supporting GTK+ 4 if it comes to life as early as the developers want it to.

  7. Working on several projects with the need to have multiple desktops and windows open simultaneously killed gnome3 for me as a workhorse. It is a good looking environment, but I need more than good looks alone.

  8. Just how did you find the easy method of switching desktops from Gnome 3 in Debian?

    apt-get install xfce4

    & then re-login to the desktop?

    1. Basically yes. You can choose which environment you want in the GDM login screen.