Using Linux today looks very different from five or 10 years ago. The most popular desktop environments no longer look stuck in the 90s. While you may still need technical knowledge to install Linux, you no longer need to be a computer whiz to use it afterward.
This change has happened gradually, so here is a compilation of some specific ways the Linux desktop experience has changed over the past decade.
1. Apps Have Less Clutter
The app design has changed across all desktop operating systems in recent years, and that trend has not skipped over Linux. Traditional elements of desktop interfaces such as toolbars, title bars, and menubars are now increasingly outdated.
The most popular Linux desktop, known as GNOME, uses a single header bar that contains icons and a hamburger menu button. Some newer GNOME apps lack any border between window content and a header bar at all. The same is true for apps on elementary OS.
This change has not come to all Linux desktops. Many traditional interfaces still exist and remain popular, such as Cinnamon, MATE, and XFCE. Yet even on these desktops, there’s a good chance you will still at some point install apps with the newer sense of design. The various distros based on KDE Plasma embody this in-between state, with some apps having either menubars or hamburger menus (or both).
2. More Apps Are Adaptive, Like Websites
Apps on PCs, in the early days, were relatively static. Elements did not move around much. If you shrunk a window down too far, you risked hiding content or elements of the interface.
Now apps are increasingly adaptive, changing to fit small window sizes and sometimes completely rearranging their interfaces in the process. This enables a single app to function comfortably on both desktops and mobile devices, just like adaptive websites.
This is another change to app design where GNOME is the farthest along, but other desktops are making the transition too. KDE Plasma has a separate framework called Kirigami which provides an app interface that adjusts well across form factors. elementary OS is making apps more adaptive as part of its transition to GTK 4.
3. Linux Looks as Modern as the Alternatives
Years back, switching to Linux felt like stepping back in time. GNOME 2.x and KDE 3.x looked like environments stuck in the 1990s, even as they added modern functionality. Embracing software freedom meant losing out on a certain gloss and bling.
These days the distance between free software desktops and their proprietary counterparts is much smaller. GNOME arguably has as cohesive and consistent a design language as macOS, if not more so. Desktop animations and transitions feel smoother than on ChromeOS. And it’s easy for a passerby to mistake KDE Plasma for Windows.
Sure, there are plenty of Linux desktops that still feel stuck in time. MATE and XFCE exist in part to preserve the old way of doing things. But if you want something that feels modern, Linux now delivers.
4. Apps Are Easier to Discover and Install
Installing software on Linux has long been a mixed back. On one hand, Linux has long had package managers, which functioned as app stores before app stores were a thing. If your distribution provided an app, you could install it with just a click or command. But if your distro didn’t provide an app, or it provided an outdated version, getting your hands on that program was a pain.
You had to compile the program from source or go about adding additional software sources to your system, a change that increased your risk of encountering bugs or crashes. Which software you could run depended a lot on which distro you choose.
Now there are multiple universal package formats that work across most versions of Linux. If an app is available in the Flatpak, Snap, or AppImage formats, there’s a good chance you can simply download the program and run it on your machine.
Flathub (for Flatpaks) and the Snap Store (for Snap packages) provide centralized sources of much of the software you’re likely to want along with continuous updates. So apps aren’t just easier to find, they’re easier to keep up-to-date. Even beta or experimental software is now easy to run at little to no risk to your computer.
5. Better Onboarding Experience for Newcomers
Linux is its own operating system, so it functions in its own way. Not only that, there isn’t any one form or shape that all Linux desktops take. As a relatively niche choice, most of us don’t necessarily know someone in our personal lives who runs Linux, nor can we take our PC to a big box store for help.
This increases the need for Linux itself to help us learn how to use the computer. Fortunately, this is an area where the desktop has come a long way. Ubuntu, the most popular version of Linux, forged new ground many years ago when its installer introduced people to various aspects of the Ubuntu experience.
These days GNOME provides a Tour app that opens at first boot and walks you through how to use the GNOME interface, and the Help app goes more in-depth. elementary OS has an onboarding experience comparable to using a mobile device. Some distros do a good job of providing an app filled with resources specific to their particular distro, as is the case with Ubuntu MATE.
6. Better Backend System Components
There isn’t any one company that produces or controls Linux. Instead, the entire ecosystem consists of many people, most of whom are volunteers, creating software that interacts with other software to produce a functional computer.
Linux is technically just the kernel, the part that enables what you do on-screen to communicate with your physical hardware. But there are many layers between what you see and what you click, and those layers have grown more powerful and better integrated.
systemd, for example, handles much of your computer’s boot-up and background processes. It can manage user login, device management, and network connections. Traditionally, disparate programs managed all of these various tasks. Centralizing the experience has helped distros achieve faster boot-up speeds and fewer bugs.
Likewise, Wayland is a modern display server protocol that better integrates with the Linux kernel and enables stronger security. Wayland helps produce smoother animations and gestures than the system it replaced. Then there’s PipeWire, a newer technology that is making Linux easier to use for audio production.
Is all of this change universally welcomed? Not without controversy. Modularity is, after all, a big part of the Unix way. Yet distros have chosen to embrace these components because they ultimately have led to a better experience for most users.
Linux Isn’t Done Changing
The Linux desktop has changed over time, but increasingly the Linux desktop is only part of the story. Various Linux desktop environments are now appearing on smartphones and tablets. They’re not yet ready to go toe-to-toe with their proprietary counterparts, but progress is happening, and devices like the PinePhone Pro come with Linux pre-installed.
If you’re new to Linux and have no idea what the old days were like, you can still experience them for yourself. Simply install one of the more conservative Linux desktops, like MATE. But remember, you always have other options available if a particular desktop doesn’t fit the bill.