Switching Desktops on Ubuntu

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I intended to begin this month with a few words about Microsoft's latest attempt to drive abject fear into the hearts of potential Linux converts. Those words instead found a home on our Today @ PC World blog, so check in over there, and be soothed: Microsoft isn't going to come after you if you make the switch.

And in case you missed the last few installments of Free Agent, let me bring you up to speed: Now is a really good time to give Linux a look. Ubuntu Linux 7.04 (the "Feisty Fawn" release) is out, and there's very little about it that doesn't completely rock. From installation to daily usage to a lifetime of free updates, nearly everything "just works" in an intuitive way that tends to incite reactions such as "Wait, this is Linux?"

Three links I'd like to offer up as reference points for anyone considering (or in the midst of) a dalliance--or a long-term relationship--with Ubuntu:

  • Psychocat's Ubuntu Installation Guide: Shame on us for not having an illustrated step-by-step this good on PCWorld.com. Installing Ubuntu Linux is by no means scary, but if you have apprehensions, they'll likely fade after you peruse this guide, which makes the entire straightforward process seem, well, straightforward.
  • Seven Post-Install Tips for Ubuntu 7.04: Last month I provided a list of steps to take immediately after installing Ubuntu. Look here for fixes to common problems and a couple of ways to take your Ubuntu desktop to the next level looks-wise. (Also note the debate over my suggestion that Ubuntu users use Automatix, and see below for an alternative.)
  • Ubuntuguide.org: Every Ubuntu user should bookmark this site. If something goes wrong, you can often find spot-on troubleshooting advice in this lengthy document before you ask for help in the Ubuntu Forums. (It also offers instructions for manual installation of most of the packages that Automatix can fetch and install.)

Giving Ubuntu Multiple Personalities

What Gnome looks like under Feisty, with a few included apps open.
What Gnome looks like under Feisty, with a few included apps open.
Here's a question that arises often enough to elicit several different answers in the Ubuntu Forums: "I just installed Ubuntu, which comes with the Gnome desktop. Now I want to try KDE. Can I?"

The answer is "sure thing," and the same answer holds if you installed Kubuntu (which comes with KDE) and now want to try Gnome. Or if you installed either Ubuntu or Kubuntu and now want to try the Xfce desktop (reviewed previously in Free Agent). Or if you installed Xubuntu (which comes with Xfce) and wish to try either Gnome or KDE.

Several different permutations of the problem, yes, but a single, simple answer to all. Here, I'll lay out one not-too-complicated set of instructions for adding any of the "Big Three" desktop environments to any flavor of Ubuntu. Most of these steps happen at the command line, so first open a Terminal window, by clicking Applications, Accessories, Terminal. Kubuntu users, open a Konsole window via System, Konsole in your start menu. (Ye gods, how I hate the endless stream of K-named apps in the KDE universe.) Now let's get down to brass tacks.

Installing packages: We'll use one of Ubuntu's command-line package management tools (Aptitude) to download the desktop environment we want to take for a spin. If you're an Ubuntu user and want to try KDE, enter the following two commands, one at a time. (You'll probably be prompted for your password after you press Enter the first time.)

sudo aptitude update

sudo aptitude install kubuntu-desktop

The kubuntu-desktop package is a so-called meta-package; when you install it, dozens of other packages that make up the entire KDE infrastructure come along for the ride. On my bare-bones Feisty installation, Aptitude needed to fetch 198MB of packages, which took up nearly 600MB on my drive when unpacked and installed. Moral: Don't begin this journey without bandwidth and disk space to spare!

KDE, the default environment if you install Kubuntu, with a few core apps.
KDE, the default environment if you install Kubuntu, with a few core apps.
At some point during Aptitude's work, it will stop and ask about your "display manager." In Linux lingo, the display manager is the program that provides a log-in box when you boot your PC. KDE has its own display manager (called kdm) that replaces Gnome's (called gdm). You'll be asked which display manager should be enabled. The choice is yours (use the arrow and Enter keys to respond to the text-based dialog box), but take note of Ubuntu bug 64695 if you intend to run KDE but use gdm for logging in.

You might also encounter a 'Postfix configuration' text dialog box while Aptitude is doing its work. If you do, use the arrows, Tab, and Enter to select OK, No Configuration, OK.

If you want to install Gnome on Kubuntu (or Xubuntu), substitute ubuntu-desktop for kubuntu-desktop in the second command above. If you want to install Xfce on Ubuntu (or Kubuntu), substitute xubuntu-desktop for kubuntu-desktop.

When Aptitude is finished, you can see the complete results of your handiwork, including new boot graphics specific to the desktop you've installed, by rebooting your PC. When you arrive at the log-in screen, you can now choose which desktop environment to use:

  • If gdm is your display manager and it's running Ubuntu's default "Human" theme, you can click Options, Select session and choose from the available desktops.
  • If gdm is your display manager and it's running the "Xubuntu" theme, click the Session button to select a desktop.
  • If kdm is your display manager, click the picture of a pop-up menu just to the left of the log-in box. In the Session chooser submenu, select from the list of available desktops.
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