Desktop Ubuntu Performance Tuning: Select the Right Desktop

Picking the right desktop actually makes a huge difference in performance… but going lightweight doesn’t always work out. The lightweight desktops and their integrated apps often lack functionality that you need… and as soon as you install say, Dolphin (KDE’s file manager) or Nautilus (Gnome’s file manager), you load a lot of dependencies that make the lightweight desktop not so light. My recommendation is to just pick the right desktop and tune it as best you can.

Mainstream Desktops

Unity

Pros: Touch screen friendly, intuitive, pretty.
Cons: Slow, inflexible, and spammy.

I lived with Unity for two months. It was fine at first, but then you started noticing the spam from search scopes every time you launched an app. Then you realized that it just wasn’t very fast. Then you started noticing that under the beautiful veneer, you were really in a dystopia where the Unity developers decided what you get to do and all apps come from the company store. Fortunately, you can always use apt-get to get whatever you want.

Performance Tips

  • Don’t add social network logins. They just slow things down.
  • Turn off as many scopes as you can… While they might be fast, having 50+ running is slow (and that’s the default)
  • If you don’t have lots of memory make sure swappiness is set correctly.

KDE

Pros: Customizable, easy, fast, best file management.
Cons: Bad touch screen support, ageing productivity apps.

KDE has been my go-to desktop for a long time. I switched to Unity a few months ago to get my touch screen laptop to work. I love features like Kicker, KIO and KDE’s near infinite customizability. File management (Dolphin, Konqueror and Kommander) in KDE is easily the best on any operating system including Windows and Mac.KDE’s down side is that many KDE apps like Koffice, Kontact (KDE’s Outlook competitor) simply haven’t aged well. It seems like the efforts to improve the KDE application suite largely have haven’t worked out as planned.

Performance Tips

  • Don’t use Kontact or anything else that requires Akonadi. It’s slow.
  • Shutting off desktop effects actually slows KDE down. Just limit what effects are activated.
  • Install preload to avoid long load times for apps you use all the time.

Gnome 3

Pros: Easy, Fast, Simple
Cons: Inflexible, but more flexible than Unity

The new Gnome is where KDE was in 2008 when KDE4 was released and just wasn’t all the way there. That said, it’s more flexible than unity and performs well.

Lightweight Desktops

Honestly, I really struggle with the so-called lightweight desktops because they sacrifice so much functionality for relatively little in performance gain.

LXDE

Pros: Fast, Easy, Intuitive.
Cons: File management is awful.

The rub on LXDE is that it is easy, but the built in file manager is horrible. As soon as you install a better file manager, you’ve preloaded a lot of the backend processes for KDE or Gnome, and all of the sudden LXDE isn’t so lightweight any more.  If you are ok with staying inside of the tools LXDE provides, it’s light and fast.

Window Managers

The other alternative in Linux is to rock it old school and use a window manager. Window manager basically let you launch apps and control how they are displayed on screen. The plus is that they just don’t do a lot and are very fast. The minus is that the apps you launch probably have some Gnome, KDE or Unity dependencies. That said, a basic window manager on a modern computer is blazing fast, and if you like running everything from the keyboard, some of the window managers are super-productive.

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