Monday, 5 May 2008

5 Linux distributions that rival OS X for looks

Mac OS X has a reputation as the most visually pleasing operating system around today. Fans often decry other operating systems as looking pathetic by comparison. Well, I beg to differ. Many of these people's only other experience of using computers is with Windows, which has never been strong in terms of appearance. Linux has come on in leaps and bounds in the last few years, and many distributions now offer an extremely visually pleasing desktop, one that (dare I say it) approaches and possibly even exceeds OS X in terms of looks.

Linux has also had several different desktops available, which I think helps as there's a degree of competition between them. Also, it's highly configurable - don't like something, you can change it! Even a distribution like Ubuntu, which has a relatively tame desktop by default, needs only a little configuration to transform it into a real looker.

So, to perhaps open a few people's eyes, I've done a round-up of five of the most impressive Linux desktops available today. I've deliberately stuck to distributions which can be booted in LiveCD mode, so that if you're curious, you can try them out without needing to be installed. I've also avoided all distributions that aren't free to download, which unfortunately does leave out some great ones like Elive.

Some of you may find that these desktops are a lot better than you might have thought. If you're a Mac user, you may want to give some of these a try to see how they stack up against OS X. While I'm not looking to necessarily convert anyone, there is a tendency for Mac users to dismiss anything else as looking rubbish by comparison, which is often just a knee-jerk reaction. By writing this post, I'm hoping that perhaps a few people will see their preconceptions challenged.

So, without further ado, here's my round up of five Linux desktops that give OS X a run for its money:

PCLinuxOS has a well-deserved reputation as a good distribution for beginners, because it includes many of the multimedia codecs that other distributions can't for legal reasons. It has a great range of applications, with plenty more available from the repositories.

It's also got a strikingly beautiful desktop:

Also, like most modern Linux distributions, it includes Compiz:

There's many good reasons for PCLinuxOS's popularity with Linux newbies, and this desktop is clearly one of them! It also includes a great "Copy2ram" feature when booting from the disc that allows you to load the whole OS into memory if you have 1GB or more of RAM, providing an incredibly fast system.

This distribution is another good newbies distro, being based on the extremely newbie-friendly Ubuntu distro. Of all these desktops, gOS Space is the one that owes the most to OS X, but the philosophy behind it is different, with its emphasis on web apps instead of the desktop.

Again, Compiz is included for desktop effects.

gOS Space is a distribution that's easy to use and beautiful to look at. Its use in the MyMiniPC will no doubt expose it to people who wouldn't otherwise consider Linux as an option.


One relatively obscure, but extremely beautiful Linux desktop is Enlightenment, version 17 of which has been in development for many years. While it's not yet been officially released, it's still complete enough that it's used in several distros. Probably the most striking of these is OpenGEU, formerly known as Geubuntu. Like gOS Space, it's based on Ubuntu, but it uses elements of the Gnome and Xfce desktops to fill in the gaps in Enlightenment. And it looks awesome, with animated wallpapers and bling aplenty. Check out the default theme, Sunshine:

It also comes with a second theme, which I prefer, namely Moonlight:

This desktop has to be seen to be believed - it's truly astounding!


Dreamlinux is a distribution that hails from Brazil. Like gOS, the layout takes a degree of inspiration from OS X, but the overall look is distinctively its own:

It has a choice of desktops available - either Gnome or the lightweight Xfce, yet maintains a consistent look between the two and manages to squeeze both onto one CD. It also includes a very handy utility to install it to a USB flash drive, so you can carry it anywhere!

It includes Compiz, and the Emerald theme manager, so it's very easy to customise it to get a distinctive look in a matter of minutes:

It also has Avant Window Navigator, an excellent dock bar. This includes the DCP Control Panel, where you can easily adjust the settings for Compiz, Emerald and AWN to get your desktop looking the way you want it.

Linux Mint

This distribution is based on Ubuntu, but is made even more user-friendly thanks to the fact that, like PCLinuxOS, it includes multimedia codecs by default. The desktop isn't glitzy like some of the other distros I've mentioned, but has an understated elegance of its own:

It also includes Compiz out of the box, so you can easily get the cube effect going in no time! Linux Mint is a tremendous distribution for those who don't want to get bogged down in the technical details but like an attractive desktop that's easy to use. It's always my first choice for a recommendation to Linux newbies.

I'm also going to make special mention of the KDE4 desktop. At the moment, only one distribution (Kubuntu Hardy) offers a KDE4 desktop, and it's not very mature at the moment, as many of the applications for KDE have not yet been ported to KDE4. But it shows a lot of promise:

All of these distributions are freely available, so if you like the look of one, then just click on the link to take you to the website, where you can download an ISO image and burn it to disc to try. I know that some Mac users hate having to use Windows if they're at a friend or relative's house, so if you like the look of one of these, you may want to keep a copy handy to use as an alternative under those circumstances. Also, Linux has the same kind of resistance to viruses and malware as OS X, so you have those advantages as well - always worth having if you're going to use a computer that could have all kinds of junk on it! Live CD's can also be handy if your computer won't boot due to problems and you need to use it in a hurry.

By reading this article and perhaps trying one or two of these, I hope you'll find that Linux has a lot more going for it on the desktop than perhaps you realised!


Anonymous said...

KDE4 is not the default KDE desktop in any of the mayor distros but it's an option in Mandriva Spring 2008.1 ALREADY and it's easily instaLlable in every major distro (like in openSuse though the 'one click install' system).

And, KDE 4-0-3 it is really stable, only bad implementations, like Kubuntu's, produce such instabilities.

Daengbo said...

Please clean up the spam!

PAK5695 said...

NO, Nevr will lunix be as nice and stable at the same time

MattBD said...

pak5695, have you even tried any of these? That's the entire point I was making. I'm not suggesting by any means that everyone who uses a Mac should switch to one of these. My point is that Linux nowadays is really pushing the boundaries of the desktop, and most of the really exciting developments in terms of desktops are happening in the Linux world because people can freely experiment with it - for example, gOS with its integration of web and desktop apps. Another good example is Compiz - neither OS X nor Windows can match that for sheer wow. For another way of getting impressive desktop effects, check out Metisse in the new Mandriva Spring 2008.
These distros can be very useful for revitalising old hardware (after all, I'm sure not even Mac owners ceremonially burn their old machines when they switch to a Mac), so an old machine with a Linux distro can be handy to pass on to a friend or relative. Or, like I said, you can carry around a live CD to use if you're only likely to be able to use Windows machines. You can even install it to a flash drive.