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. 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.
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 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.
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”).
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:
- KDE — The KDE theme Mac OS X Yosemite makes no attempt to hide that it’s styled after Apple’s OS.
- GTK-Based Desktops — The macBuntu Transformation Pack has versions going all the way back to Precise.
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, right down to the transparent task manager at the bottom.
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.
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). 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.
Then follow the closing message of the installer and run the bootstrap program to start Icaros desktop:
On its first run, Icaros will offer you some options.
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.
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.
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 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, 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