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One of the most amazing things about Linux is how versatile it is.
One of the most amazing things about Linux is how versatile it is. Let's face it - Windows and MacOS X are...boring. They look exactly how they look. When it comes to making your computer look and behave however you like, Linux is king. Let's take a stroll through some truly interesting, and beautiful, Linux Desktop Environments - the ones that many of us have never even seen.
xmonad (all lower case) is a tiling window manager built in the Haskell programming language (which is interesting enough to qualify for inclusion in this list). So what is a “tiling window manager”? Simple - no overlapping windows. That may take a moment to sink in for those used to KDE, GNOME or modern Windows/Mac. You won't be grabbing any title bars to drag windows around, because window title bars don't really exist here. But virtual desktops and an intensely high level of customization mean you'll be quite productive. And did I mention how much faster your system will feel?
Enlightenment is probably the most highly used Desktop Environment in this collection – it's been around quite a long time (it is actually older than GNOME) and is incredibly mature. The current version (E17) is fast – even running quite well on low-end hardware – and is truly gorgeous. Everything about Enlightenment will be instantly recognizable to users of modern computers, except it feels like it was created by some sort of ultra-classy alien race from a star system far, far away.
ROX is...weird, but wonderful. It brings together the “everything is a file” style of traditional UNIX systems with some concepts from RISC OS. Most current computers try to hide the guts of your file system from you and provide you with a series of launchers (docks, “start buttons”, etc.) and shortcut tools. ROX takes the opposite approach, opting instead to make the file system itself as usable as possible so you can work with your system efficiently directly from the file manager. To this end, ROX uses the “Applications are directories” approach, filing applications (and support files) in a single directory that is then treated as the app itself.
Sugar is a Desktop Environment focused on kids and education. Applications are run one at a time in full screen. There are no windows to manage. There is no desktop. Heck, there's really not even any concept of “files” for the user to deal with. Instead, Sugar provides a “Journal” that provides snapshots of saved application states.
Étoilé is based on GNUStep, the Open Source implementation of NeXT's OpenStep framework, which, in turn, is the system that Apple's MacOS X (and Cocoa) are based on. Because of this, MacOS X power users may feel quickly at home here (there's even a fairly recognizable dock). This system focuses on being as “high-level” as possible, and attempts to hide the complexities of the file system.
Ratpoison's goal is simple: kill the mouse. Because of this heavy reliance on keyboard commands for interacting with all aspects of the system, Ratpoison has a bit of a learning curve (though that is true of many of the Desktop Environments in this list). Once over that initial hump, Ratpoison is fast, customizable, easy to use and stable as all heck. Plus, you probably won't need to worry too much about setting up any security on your system, because most people won't even know how to open an application if they sit down at your computer. I call this “Security through being awesome.”
UDE, or the “Unix Desktop Environment,” is best described as “hardcore.” It is not based simply on Xlib (not Qt or GTK+, etc.) and, as such, is incredibly easy to port to various systems. You'll notice that there is no default “title bar” on windows, nor are there close or minimize buttons. Instead, UDE implements what they call “The Hex Menu,” which is triggered by clicking on the window borders. UDE also makes heavy usage of the mouse, going so far as to requiring a three-button mouse in order to use properly.
The Mezzo Desktop Environment is... weird. It’s definitely cool, but still weird. You know how most desktops have a “desktop” where you can put files? Not here. Or menus with sub-menus to categorize and launch things? Not here either. Instead, there are four corners of your screen – each handling a general system task (such as Files or Programs) – with the goal of simplifying user interaction. Mezzo is primarily used in SymphonyOS.
AmiWM is a simple window manager with a simple goal: emulate the Amiga Workbench. We're not just talking about applying a simple Amiga-styled theme here. This is for the hardcore Amiga nerds among us. Want to go more hardcore? There's a patch to make it look like just about any original versions of the Amiga Workbench. Some of you may be asking “WHY?!” To which I reply “Why not?”
awesome (all lower case) is another tiling window manager. But, boy howdy, is it a good one. It’s highly configurable and extensible using the Lua scripting language. No mouse is required, and it provides great support for multiple monitors. And, of course, it's fast as lightning, which brings us to the end of this list. Keeping this down to just 10 was certainly a challenge. Did I miss your favorite, ultra-cool (but under-utilized) Linux/Unix Desktop Environment? Toss a note in the comments here or let me know over on G+.