Switching to Linux. Graphical environment

This is the third article in our series on migrating to Linux. If you missed the previous articles, they introduced Linux for new users and an overview of files and filesystems in Linux. In this article, we will discuss graphical environments. One of the advantages of Linux is that you have a lot of options and you can choose a GUI and customize it however you like.

Some of the popular graphical environments on Linux include Cinnamon, Gnome, KDE Plasma, Xfce, and MATE, but there are many options.

One thing that is often confused with new Linux users is that while specific Linux distributions have a default graphical environment, you can usually change the graphical interface at any time. This is different from what people are used to with Windows and Mac OS. Distribution and graphical environment are separate things, and in many cases they are not closely related to each other. In addition, you can run applications built for one graphics environment in other graphics environments. For example, an application built for the KDE Plasma GUI usually works fine in the Gnome desktop GUI environment.

Some Linux graphical environments try to mimic Microsoft Windows or Apple’s macOS to a certain extent because some people are familiar with them, but other graphical interfaces are unique.

Below, we’ll cover several options that showcase different graphical environments that work on different distributions. If you’re not sure which distribution to upgrade to, we recommend starting with Ubuntu. Ubuntu is very stable and easy to use.

Moving from Mac

Elementary OS provides a Mac-like interface. The default graphical environment is called Pantheon, and it makes the transition from Mac easy. It has a dock at the bottom of the screen and is extremely easy to use. In an effort to keep things simple, many of the default apps don’t even have a menu. Instead, there are buttons and controls in the title bar of the application (Figure 1).

The Ubuntu distribution comes with a default graphical interface that is also very Mac-like. Ubuntu 17.04 or later uses a graphical environment called Unity, which by default places the dock on the left side of the screen and has a global menu bar at the top that is used for all applications. Please note that newer versions of Ubuntu are moving to the Gnome environment.

Moving from Windows

ChaletOS models its interface after Windows to ease the transition from Windows. ChaletOS used a graphical environment called Xfce (Figure 2). It has a home / start menu in the usual bottom left corner of the screen with a search bar. In the lower right corner are the desktop icons and notifications. It is similar to Windows, which at first glance might even suggest that you are using Windows.

ChaletOS with Xfce.

The Zorin OS distribution also tries to mimic Windows. Zorin OS uses the Gnome desktop to act as a Windows GUI. The launch button is at the bottom left with a notification and an indicator bar in the bottom right corner. The launch button displays a Windows-like list of applications and a search bar for searching.

Unique environments

One of the most commonly used graphical environments for Linux is the Gnome desktop. Many distributions use Gnome as their default graphical environment. Gnome doesn’t try to be like Windows or MacOS by default, but strives for elegance and ease of use in its own way.

openSUSE with Gnome

The Cinnamon environment was created largely out of backlash against the Gnome desktop environment when it changed dramatically from version 2 to version 3. Although Cinnamon is not like the old version of the Gnome desktop, version 2, it tries to provide a simple interface that somewhat resembles Windows functionality. XP.

The graphical environment, called MATE, is modeled directly after Gnome version 2, which has a menu bar at the top of the screen for applications and settings, and is a bar at the bottom of the screen for launching application tabs and other widgets.

KDE Plasma is built around a widget interface where widgets can be installed on the desktop or in a panel.

Kubuntu with KDE Plasma.

One graphical environment is better than another. They are just different to suit the tastes of different people. Again, if the options seem too complex, start with Ubuntu.

Differences and similarities

Different operating systems do some things differently, which can make the transition difficult. For example, a menu might appear in different places, and different paths might be used to access parameters. Here we will list a few things that are similar and different in Linux to make customization easier.


The mouse often works differently on Linux than it does on Windows and macOS. On Windows and Mac, you double-click most items to open them. In Linux, many Linux GUIs are set up so that you simply click on an item to open it.

Also in Windows, you usually need to click on a window to make it the focused window. In Linux, many interfaces are set up so that the focus window is under the mouse, even if it’s not on top. The difference can be subtle, and sometimes the behavior is surprising. For example, on Windows, if you have a background application (not in the top window) and you hover over it without clicking or scrolling the mouse wheel, the top application window scrolls. On Linux, the background window (with the mouse over it) will scroll instead.


Application menus are a staple of computer programs, and lately there seems to be movement to move menus or remove them altogether. Therefore, when switching to Linux, you won’t be able to find the menu as you would expect. The application menu can be located in a global common menu bar, for example, on macOS. The menu may be below the More Options icon, which is the same as in many mobile applications. Or, the menu can be completely removed in exchange for buttons, as with some applications in the Pantheon environment in Elementary OS.


Many Linux graphical environments present multiple workspaces. The work area fills the entire screen and contains windows of some running applications. Switching to a different workspace will change the look of applications. The concept is to group open applications used for one project together in one workspace, and also for another project in another workspace.

Not everyone wants or even likes workspaces, but we mention them because sometimes, as a beginner, you might accidentally switch workspaces with a keyboard shortcut and go, “Hey, where are my apps?” If all you see is the desktop wallpaper where you expected your apps to appear, chances are you just switched to the workspace and your programs are still running in the workspace, which is no longer visible. In many Linux environments, you can switch workspaces by pressing Alt-Ctrl and then the arrow (up, down, left, or right). Hopefully you can see that your programs still exist in a different workspace.

Of course, if you like workspaces (a lot of people do), then you’ve found a useful default feature in Linux.


Many graphical Linux environments also have a preference or preference pane that allows you to tweak preferences on the machine. Note that, similar to Windows and MacOS, everything on Linux can be customized in great detail, and not all of these detailed settings can be found in the preferences program. These settings, however, should be sufficient for most of the things you need to set on a typical desktop system, such as choosing your desktop wallpaper, changing how far before the screen goes blank, and connecting to printers, to name a few.

The options presented in the app are usually not grouped the same or named the same as in Windows or MacOS. Even different GUIs on Linux can represent settings in different ways, which can take time to set up. An online search is, of course, a great place to find answers to how to customize things in your graphical environment.


Finally, Linux applications can be different. You will most likely find familiar apps, but others may be completely new to you. For example, you can find Firefox, Chrome, and Skype on Linux. If you cannot find a specific application, you can usually use an alternative program. If not, you can run many Windows applications in a compatibility layer named WINE.

In many graphical Linux environments, you can open the application menu by pressing the Windows Logo key on your keyboard. In other cases, you need to press the Start / Home button or click the applications menu. In many graphical environments, you can search for an application by category rather than by its specific name. For example, if you want to use an editor program, but you don’t know what it has invoked, you can bring up the application menu and type “editor” in the search bar, and it will show you one or more applications that the editor is considering.

To get started, here’s a short list of several applications and possible Linux alternatives.

Windows programs and their Linux counterparts

Please note that this list is not exhaustive; Linux offers many options to suit your needs.

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