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Chapter 16. Graphical Desktop Overview

Linux was criticized in the past for lacking an easy-to-use graphical desktop, but that has changed significantly. These days, there are several such desktops, as well as advanced alternatives aimed at experts, developers, and high-performance enthusiasts. This book covers three graphical configurations: two complete environments with their own application suites (GNOME in Chapter 17 and KDE in Chapter 18), and one traditional window manager (fvwm2 in Chapter 19).

GNOME and KDE are the most commonly used desktops on Linux systems. KDE has been around longer, and as the default desktop for SuSE, has more of a European following. The GNOME project was started more recently, and its desktop, used as the default for Red Hat Linux, is more common in the United States. Many operating system vendors have produced unified themes for the two desktops, so that applications written with one toolkit appear consistent with those from the other.

16.1. Desktop Environments and Window Managers

The simplest graphical desktops consist of the X Window System, which displays the windows and graphics, and a window manager, which determines where windows are placed and how users interact with applications. A window manager, such as fvwm2, determines window "focus" (that is, which window is currently accepting input) and some keyboard shortcuts. Window managers often include some sort of control panel or task bar, but not always.

A desktop environment, in contrast, attempts to provide a complete experience, offering many of the tools someone would need for a typical day at the office. A desktop environment also includes more extensive cooperation between applications, ensuring that cutting and pasting text and dragging and dropping objects around the desktop work as expected, even between applications. A minimal installation would include a window manager with control panel, a file manager, and a few sample applications such as a text editor. Additional items such as games, email, calendars, office tools, and software development tools are usually available and work closely with the desktop core.

Both GNOME and KDE should look familiar to Windows and Macintosh users: they feature a desktop background with icons for files and folders, a bar with buttons and a clock at the top or bottom of the screen, and a central menu to access everything from applications to system settings. Both have more settings available than either Windows or the Macintosh OS, including support for virtual desktops, customizable key bindings, and window focus behavior. They also include or share a series of applications: office suites for word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations; groupware tools for email, calendar, and address-book management; and image processing, web, and software development tools for artists, programmers, and system administrators.

While GNOME and KDE offer entire suites of applications and configuration tools and serve as both software and software development platform, fvwm2 focuses strictly on handling windows and the desktop background. fvwm2 does not include other applications, and is customized with configuration files the way that all Linux and Unix applications used to be. It is, in fact, almost endlessly customizable—as long as you are willing to edit the right files. Some developers of software for GNOME or KDE will admit to using fvwm2 or another window manager on their own systems, because they have customized it to work exactly as they wish.

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