Using Linux today looks very different than it did five or ten years ago. The most popular desktop environments no longer look stuck in the 90s. While you may still need technical knowledge to install Linux, you don’t need to be a computer genius to use it afterwards.
This change has been gradual, so here’s a compilation of some specific ways the Linux desktop experience has changed over the past decade.
1. Apps have less clutter
App design has changed across all desktop operating systems in recent years, and this trend hasn’t carried over to Linux. Traditional desktop interface elements such as toolbars, title bars and menu bars are becoming increasingly obsolete today.
The most popular Linux desktop, known as GNOME, uses a single header bar containing icons and a hamburger menu button. Some newer GNOME apps don’t have any border between window content and header bar at all. The same applies to apps on elementary operating systems.
This change does not apply to all Linux desktops. Many traditional interfaces still exist and remain popular, such as B. Cinnamon, MATE and XFCE. But even on those desktops, there’s a good chance you’ll still install apps with the newer design sense at some point. The various distributions based on KDE Plasma embody this in-between state, with some apps having either menu bars or hamburger menus (or both).
2. More apps are adaptable, like websites
Apps on PCs were relatively static in the early days. Elements didn’t move much. If you zoom out of a window too much, you risk obscuring content or user interface elements.
Now apps are increasingly adaptable, adapting to small window sizes and sometimes rearranging their interfaces entirely in the process. This allows a single app to function comfortably on both desktops and mobile devices, just like adaptive websites.
This is another change in app design where GNOME is the most advanced, but other desktops are also making the transition. KDE Plasma has a separate framework called kirigami which offers an app interface that adapts well to all form factors. elementary OS makes apps more customizable as part of the transition to GTK 4.
3. Linux looks as modern as the alternatives
Years ago, switching to Linux felt like stepping back in time. GNOME 2.x and KDE 3.x looked like environments stuck in the 1990s, although they added modern features. Accepting software freedom meant giving up some glitz and bling.
Today, the gap between free software desktops and their proprietary counterparts is much smaller. GNOME has arguably as coherent and consistent design language as macOS, if not more so. Desktop animations and transitions feel smoother than on ChromeOS. And it’s easy for a passer-by to confuse KDE Plasma with Windows.
Sure, there are plenty of Linux desktops that still feel stuck in time. MATE and XFCE exist in part to keep the old way of doing things. But if you want something that feels modern, Linux now delivers.
4. Apps are easier to discover and install
Installing software on Linux has long been a mixed back. On the one hand, Linux had package managers acting as app stores long before app stores existed. If your distribution provided an app, you can install it with just one click or command. But if your distro didn’t provide an app or provided an outdated version, getting your hands on this program was a hassle.
You had to compile the program from source code or add additional software sources to your system, a change that increased your risk of encountering errors or crashes. What software you could run depended heavily on the distribution you chose.
Now there are several universal package formats that work in most versions of Linux. If an app is available in Flatpak, Snap, or AppImage format, there’s a good chance you can just download the program and run it on your computer.
Flathub (for Flatpaks) and the Snap Store (for Snap packages) provide centralized sources for much of the software you’re likely to need, along with continuous updates. So apps are not only easier to find, but also easier to keep up to date. Even beta or experimental software is now easy to run with no risk to your computer.
5. Better onboarding experience for newcomers
Linux is its own operating system, so it works in its own way. Not only that, there isn’t one shape or form that all Linux desktops take. Since it’s a relatively niche choice, most of us don’t necessarily know anyone in our personal lives running Linux, nor can we take our PC to a major department store for help.
This increases the need for Linux itself to help us learn how to use the computer. Fortunately, this is an area where the desktop has come a long way. Ubuntu, the most popular version of Linux, broke new ground many years ago when its installer introduced people to various aspects of the Ubuntu experience.
These days GNOME offers a tour app that opens on first launch and walks you through using the GNOME interface, and the help app goes deep. elementary OS offers an onboarding experience comparable to using a mobile device. Some distros do a good job of providing an app filled with resources specific to their particular distro, as is the case with Ubuntu MATE.
6. Better backend system components
There is not a single company that produces or controls Linux. Instead, the entire ecosystem is made up of many people, most of whom are volunteers who create software that interacts with other software to make a working computer.
Linux is technically just the kernel, the part that allows what you’re doing on the screen to communicate with your physical hardware. But there are many layers between what you see and what you click, and those layers have become more powerful and more integrated.
systemd, for example, handles most of your computer’s startup and background processes. It can manage user login, device management and network connections. Traditionally, all of these different tasks were managed by different programs. Centralizing the experience has helped distros achieve faster boot speeds and fewer errors.
Likewise, Wayland is a modern display server protocol that integrates better with the Linux kernel and allows for stronger security. Wayland helps create smoother animations and gestures than the system it replaced. Then there’s PipeWire, a newer technology that simplifies using Linux for audio production.
Are all these changes universally welcomed? Not without controversy. After all, modularity is a big part of the Unix way. Still, distros have chosen to include these components because they ultimately resulted in a better experience for most users.
Linux isn’t done with the change yet
The Linux desktop has changed over time, but increasingly, the Linux desktop is only part of the story. Various Linux desktop environments are now appearing on smartphones and tablets. They’re not ready to take on their proprietary counterparts just yet, but progress is being made and devices like the PinePhone Pro come with Linux pre-installed.
If you’re new to Linux and have no idea what the old days were like, you can still experience them for yourself. Just install one of the more conservative Linux desktops like MATE. However, remember that if a particular desktop isn’t an option, you always have other options.
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