Switching to Linux? 4 Operating Systems That Feel Like Home
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Switching to Linux opens the door to new tools and techniques to make your computing experience easier. But there is a learning curve, and depending on your choice of Linux operating system even navigating your desktop may be a challenge. Here’s how to make your new journey a little more familiar.

Distribution vs. Desktop

Some distributions’ choice of desktop is one of their main ways of shaping your experiences as a user.

“Wait, choice of desktop?” you ask.

Linux offers a wide variety of desktop environments, or graphical shells, ranging from the very fancy to the clean and minimalist The Best Lean Linux Desktop Environment: LXDE Vs Xfce Vs MATE The Best Lean Linux Desktop Environment: LXDE Vs Xfce Vs MATE On a fresh Linux installation, there's not much you can do to speed things up, other than look at your choice of desktop environment. Here we look at three options: LXDE, Xfce, and MATE. Read More . Unlike some operating systems where a single graphical shell is at least the norm (if not the only option), Linux lets you install one or more different options to suit your taste.

Almost all desktop-centric distributions use one of these as their “main” option, and some of them will configure things in such a way that they emulate the look-and-feel of other operating systems. If you’re coming to Linux from one of those, it can make things easier as you’re learning the basics of kernel upgrades and command line arguments to see some items where you expect them.

Desktop Options

While this post is focused on what desktop a your chosen Linux version installs out of the box, you can also very likely install them on other Linux operating system distributions. You can load your system up with as many as you want: for example, a minimal window manager to play games, a medium-complexity desktop for productivity, and a tricked-out flash-fest KDE Explained: A Look at Linux's Most Configurable Desktop Interface KDE Explained: A Look at Linux's Most Configurable Desktop Interface What does Linux look like? Sometimes, Unity; other times, GNOME. Oftentimes, though, Linux runs KDE. If you're not using the erstwhile K Desktop Environment on your Linux PC, now is the time to change! Read More when you’re just surfing the web.

Below, we’ll show you some examples of Linux distributions that come themed “out-of-the-box,” as well as some pointers on how to get these looks on an existing Ubuntu-based installation. (Hint: For other distros, start by searching for the theme names in your app store or package manager.)

Switching From Windows 10

Out-of-the-Box Distro: Zorin OS 12

Zorin OS is a desktop distribution with a focus on business productivity use. It offers a robust set of business apps out of the box and premium support for businesses. To make things familiar for corporate users, the layout of the default desktop mimics that of Windows 10.

Zorin OS

The toolbar at the bottom of the screen mimics the latest Windows version, down to the layout of app icons on the “start menu.”

Windows Theme Options for Existing Desktops

If you already have a Linux installation but are missing that “Metro” (or “Neon,” or whatever codename Microsoft is using this week) look, check out the following themes for your favorite desktop:

  • KDE — Try out the K10ne theme for a Windows 10 look.
  • GTK-Based Desktops (Unity, Cinnamon, MATE, etc) — The “Windows 10 Transformation Pack” has everything you need, including a convenient install script.

Switching From macOS

Out-of-the-Box Distro: Elementary OS

The developers of Elementary OS wrote their own environment, called “Pantheon,” for complete control over the look-and-feel. They created a theme (especially the icon set and window borders) that should make Mac switchers feel right at home, to say nothing of the dock at the bottom-center of the desktop. The applications are also given names that will help new users identify them (e.g. “Mail” instead of something like “Geary”).

Elementary OS

macOS Theme Options for Existing Desktops

It’s possible to create the layout of most desktops by merely positioning an app launcher/dock in the bottom center of the screen, and placing a small toolbar at the top. But if you want something that really evokes that “Mac feeling,” check out some of the following themes:

Switching From Chrome OS

Out-of-the-Box Distro: Cub Linux

As Chrome OS is built on a Linux base, it’s a quick “upgrade” of sorts to start using Linux. The distribution Cub Linux aims to provide an experience that mirrors Chrome OS Replicate Chrome OS on Your Laptop With Cub Linux Replicate Chrome OS on Your Laptop With Cub Linux If you're interested in Chrome OS but already have a computer, it would be nice not to have to go buy one. Enter Cub Linux, a Chrome OS-themed Linux distro. Read More , right down to the transparent task manager at the bottom.

Cub Linux

Out-of-the-Box Distro: Gallium OS

If you’re looking to replace Chrome OS entirely on your Chromebook, Gallium OS is worth a look. Their interface is also very similar to that of Chromebooks, including an icon-based app launchers and a “search style” application launcher.

Gallium OS

Switching From Amiga: Icaros Desktop

Icaros Desktop differs from the above in that it isn’t a theme or even a desktop environment. It’s an operating system unto itself — when you download the ISO file, you can burn it to a DVD or USB drive and boot your computer from it. However, it also offers a “Linux hosted” mode” in which you can install the desktop shell to an existing Linux machine. We’ll take a look at the latter option.

There are two caveats on using Icaros Desktop you should be aware of:

  • Most importantly, Icaros runs on 32-bit systems, not the 64-bit machines that are all but ubiquitous today. This means you it’s a good choice for older hardware, but it also means you’ll need to hunt down a 32-bit copy of your favorite Linux distro.
  • The desktop actually runs isolated from your Linux system (not unlike fs-uae with Workbench installed How to Emulate a Commodore Amiga on Your PC How to Emulate a Commodore Amiga on Your PC Want to emulate one of the classic 16-bit consoles, the Commodore Amiga? Here's how to do it on any system! Read More ). It runs within a separate window, and (as shown in the picture below), it starts up its own kernel and drivers. You’ll also need to set aside RAM for it. Think of it like it’s own little VM.

Installing Icaros Desktop

Once you’ve unpacked the ISO file, open it in a terminal and run the install script. Stray “\n” newline characters aside, this does its job with little complaint.

Icaros Install

Then follow the closing message of the installer and run the bootstrap program to start Icaros desktop:

Icaros Startup

On its first run, Icaros will offer you some options.

Icaros Setup

Finally, it will unpack and install some extra software. You have the option for a Default install, a Full install, or to select packages manually.

Icaros Software

Then, at long last, you’ll arrive on the Icaros Desktop itself. One nice touch the developers put in place was mounting your home directory, so you can access all your files right away.

Icaros Desktop

While you’re not precisely running Amiga and Linux apps side-by-side, you are able to “collaborate” since Icaros has access to files in your host Linux machine. Of course, you could forget that and just play some games 10 Amiga Games You Should Play With an Emulator 10 Amiga Games You Should Play With an Emulator The Commodore Amiga is one of the most important consoles of the 16-bit era. Want to know what games you should play on an Amiga emulator? Here are 10 you should try! Read More instead.

Mix and Match

All of the above offer you a familiar, unified experience by emulating the look-and-feel of your “other” operating system. But one of the great things about Linux is your ability to pick and choose elements you like (with the exception of Icaros) and construct your own Frankenstein desktop!

Take an Ubuntu install, add the elementary icon theme from their PPA What Is An Ubuntu PPA & Why Would I Want To Use One? [Technology Explained] What Is An Ubuntu PPA & Why Would I Want To Use One? [Technology Explained] Read More , mix in the window decorations and wallpaper from the “Windows 10 Transformation Pack,” and change your desktop to mimic the layout of Gallium OS. It’s all about freedom!

Have you tried any of these desktops or themes? Did you find it easier to move into the Linux world with them, or was Ubuntu’s Unity or Mint’s Cinnamon enough for you to feel comfortable? Tell us below.

Image Credit: Khakimullin Aleksandr via Shutterstock.com

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  1. Brenton Horne
    May 17, 2017 at 2:26 am

    Why no mention of deepin? It's as mac-like as elementary OS.

    • Aaron Peters
      May 22, 2017 at 3:14 am

      Hey Brenton...

      No reason other than space (I was already up against my max word count) and popularity, at least in the English-speaking world. But you're right, it is a good-looking Mac-a-like!

  2. Eric Milward
    March 21, 2017 at 5:02 pm

    As previously mentioned, Cub Linux has been discontinued. Although it will still receive ubuntu updates, I would probably consider an alternative. Neverware's CloudReady OS is what I use and it is great. Based of Chromium OS (so technically still linux) and it's the closest thing you'll get to a real Chrome OS environment without actually using it. Installer is quick and easy and it's just an overall great alternative worth considering

    • Aaron Peters
      March 30, 2017 at 6:47 pm

      Hi Eric,

      I'd heard of this one, but it's Chromium OS-based and therefore not a "full" Linux system per se, right? Although you could always install crouton I suppose...

  3. TB
    March 21, 2017 at 3:42 am

    Switching from Amiga? Glad that was included. My Amiga 800 isn't coping with the internet very well, so I decided to upgrade... Now I can do it without having to move into the 21st century. :P

    In seriousness though... That ones more for nostalgia than helping people switch, right?

    • Aaron Peters
      March 21, 2017 at 5:40 am

      Hi TB,

      Yes, I came across it while searching for the others here. Never used an amiga myself, but I know many (including my editor) are big fans. Seemed like a fun thing to toss in there... :)

  4. Kozy
    March 20, 2017 at 8:30 pm

    I enjoyed the article and appreciate the inclusion of Chrome OS alternatives. However, Cub Linux has been discontinued, so you may want to remove it from the list.

    Solus is another Windows alternative that is worth noting. The taskbar in the Budgie desktop is the closest thing to the Windows taskbar I've used on Linux to date.

    • Richard
      March 20, 2017 at 8:41 pm

      I was going to say that about Cub as well. It's a shame, it had such high promise.

    • Aaron Franke
      March 20, 2017 at 11:55 pm

      Cub Linux will still receive updates as long as Ubuntu 14.04 does (2019 iirc).

      • Aaron Peters
        March 21, 2017 at 5:38 am

        Good point, though as Aaron points out even the security updates will continue through the end of the LTS period if nothing else. The only thing you really miss is new features for Cub-developed packages.

    • Aaron Peters
      March 21, 2017 at 5:35 am

      Hi Kozy,

      Very true, that's a great option. I'd only included one for the sake of space, but Solus is certainly worth a look.