GNOME, which was once an acronym for GNU Network Object Model Environment, harbours the interface that most first time users of Linux will ever encounter. A desktop environment is exactly that: the environment your desktop (or computer, in normal terms) provides. The Windows environment has its familiar start button, taskbar at the bottom and buttons to change from window to window. Mac OS X has its dock, and context menu at the top, with windows layered on top. GNOME is probably the most well-received desktop environment that you’ll find on Linux today, and just like its proprietary counterparts, it provides digital windows, icons, folders and wallpapers that most of us are used to seeing inside our computers.
GNOME used to be provided in its basic state with the default install of Ubuntu, a very popular and easy to use GNU/Linux distribution. It was chosen for its dependability, ease of use and good looks; all important things in any software. Previously a typical GNOME environment would hold two ‘taskbars’, one at the top and one at the bottom of the screen: an expanding menu to open programs at the top, and a window selector at the bottom. It’s easy to think of GNOME in its heydday around version two as a bit of a combination of the best bits in Windows and Mac. GTK+, the codebase behind GNOME, is an extremely popular toolkit for graphical applications and GNOME also is home to the GNOME keyring, a really popular tool for encryption keys used to check a file’s authenticity. Built on the back of an open-source licence, GNOME has always held usability, language support and developer-friendliness in mind.
GNOME has relatively modest system requirements, but it doesn’t lend itself very well to lower powered, slower computers. The average five year old computer will run GNOME virtually flawlessly, as will the vast majority of machines a little older, but if squeezing every drop of speed from your computer is a priority for you then XFCE is an ideal, and extremely popular, option. XFCE, commonly pronounced ‘ehcks-face’, is another desktop environment usually in use where performance is of the essence or system power is a little lacking.
XFCE also is available on Ubuntu by default, in the form of ‘Xubuntu’. It provides a fast and slim digital environment, while remaining as visually attractive as many of its more ‘full-fat’ competitors. In comparison to GNOME, XFCE can be considered a bit basic and empty , but this isn’t really a problem with the latest versions. GTK+ code used by GNOME works with no extra software needed and a load of displays and hardware work right away. The typical look of XFCE is similar to that of Windows, with a task bar serving as a window selector at the bottom of the screen and multiple windows available to be manipulated at once. Thunar, the default file browser for XFCE, has also been designed to look a bit like GNOME’s file manager Nautilus, keeping things the same and allowing die-hard GNOME users to more easily make the switch, allowing them to transfer files to things like custom USB flash drives effortlessly.
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