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Flipping the Linux switch: The GNOME desktop environment

There is a controversy in the Linux world. It doesn't have to do with Microsoft, or anything overtly technical. It may seem, to the outsider, the open source equivalent of the question, "Boxers or briefs?" But it's much more serious than that.

GNOME or KDE? There's a lot of emotion on both sides of the argument. Because we here at Download Squad value our lives, we're not going to tell you which is the best (yeah, as if we agree anyway). What matters is what works best for you. That's why we're spending this week and next discussing the virtues and pitfalls of GNOME and KDE.

The GNOME project began in 1997. GNOME is built from entirely open software under the LGPL (Lesser General Public License), unlike KDE, which uses the dual-licensed Qt toolkit. This means that both proprietary software and open software can link to the libraries that make up GNOME -- free of charge. Encouraging developers in this way brings more choices and stronger applications to Linux.
GNOME is built with the GTK+ toolkit (a toolkit is programmer-speak for libraries of things like windows and buttons that are used to create a graphical interface). It determines much about how the programs you use integrate into the desktop.

GNOME aims for an uncluttered, simple interface. This is one reason it's a particularly good choice for new Linux users. Old pros who like GNOME cite different reasons. "It's a 'productivity-oriented' desktop," they'll tell you. They'll say, "It installs the programs I use most as part of the desktop environment." Or they'll tell you, "It just works for me."

Menu bar GNOMEGNOME is laid out a bit differently than Windows, so it's worth taking a look at the desktop itself. The default desktop has two panels located at the top and bottom of the screen. These panels, like most everything in Linux, are completely customizable. The top panel has three menus: Applications, Places, and System. On this panel you can place launchers (program shortcuts) and applets (little programs ranging from fun to functional). The panel may have a system tray area, with the obligatory clock and calender, mixer controls, and (depending on your distribution) an update alert.

The bottom panel typically lists your open windows and shows available workspaces (in Linux, you can have more than one desktop workspace). Applets and launchers can be added to this panel as well (oftentimes the "trash" function is an applet on this panel). Don't like where these panels are located? Move them! Simply drag the panel to the desired edge of the screen, and there it sticks. Don't like having a bottom panel at all? Go ahead and remove it.

The desktop workspace (where your slick wallpaper goes) works much the same way it does in Windows. You can place launchers here, or files and folders. You'll notice as you open windows on your desktop thWorkspaces showing windows open on the corresponding "workspace" in the bottom panel area gets window shaped icons on it. This little feature makes it easy to group windows and tasks on dedicated virtual desktops. Though not a feature unique to GNOME (or even to desktop environments), it is a strange concept to many new Linux users and is worth a mention.

GNOME is designed to work best with GTK+ applications. It can work swimmingly with Qt (KDE) applications, but most people like to keep the mixing to a minimum (at best it looks funny. At worst, it starts services you don't need). So what are some of the applications that are available for GNOME?

Nautilus is GNOME's file manager. Think of it as your Windows Explorer replacement. It's extensible, with the ability to add useful scripts and plugins.

Browsers that play well include Epiphany, and any of the Mozilla-based browsers. Evolution is the default email client, but once again, Mozilla-based mail clients, should you prefer them, work fine.

For photo editing, the GIMP is a great application (GTK stands for the GIMP Toolkit, after all). Photos can be downloaded from a variety of digital cameras with gtkam. For slide shows and basic picture manipulation, gthumbviewer and Eye of GNOME are native applications that are easy to use.

OpenOffice works well the GNOME desktop environment, and we admit to using it most of the time. You may want to try GNOME Office, the suite of Abiword, Gnumeric, and GNOME-DB. Simple text editing is done with gedit, a lightweight editor with features such as spell check, syntax highlighting, and document statistics. Notes can be made on the desktop with Tomboy.

Video and audio files are played with the Totem movie player by default. There are a number of compatible music players, such as Exaile and Songbird, if playing your music and videos through the same player doesn't really suit you.

GNOME has been called overly simplistic. (We're actually being kind here. Linus Torvalds, the man behind the Linux kernel, used much harsher words.) There are many more opportunities for "tweaking" on a KDE desktop than there are on a GNOME desktop. That doesn't mean you can't tweak. It just makes it a little harder in the long run.

For the average computer user -- someone who uses their Linux machine to go online, create documents, and access multimedia files, GNOME is a solid choice. Developers and those who like their systems completely free (as in speech) also find GNOME appealing. GNOME is the default desktop in distributions such as Ubuntu, Fedora, Debian and Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

Tags: desktop, GNOME, GTK, KDE, Linux, linux-switch, opensource, osupdates