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Distro or Desktop? You Say Both

The FOSS Force Poll

Inquiring minds wanted to know, so we asked. When choosing what to run on a machine — we’re talking computing machines running GNU/Linux here — what’s more important, the choice of distro or which desktop environment to run? We began asking the question among ourselves several weeks back when we were running our “best distro” poll and a few commenters observed that the desktop might be a more important metric for most users, since it’s the desktop that supplies the interface with which the user interacts. Good point, we thought.

So we put it to you in a poll that asked, “Which matters most to you: The GNU/Linux distribution you use or the desktop environment?” The poll went up on Sunday and on Monday we published an article introducing it. The poll concluded this morning, shortly after midnight EST.

The poll was, of course, quite scientific. Our focus group was “FOSS Force visitors who took the time to take our poll.” Today we’re proud to say that we’ve counted the votes, analysed the results and are ready to report exactly what that focus group believes — as long as nobody threw a monkey wrench into our finely tuned machine by purposefully giving a wrong answer.

If we can remove our tongues from our cheeks for a moment: You think they’re both important and you believe that by a long shot.

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In all, 449 of you voted, and a whopping 48.8 percent of you, that would be 219 votes, said that when it comes to considering what to run on your desktop Linux box, the choice of distro and desktop get equal weight, or thereabouts.

We also got a chance to look at your reasoning, from comments you left to our introductory article. For example, digi_owl said, “A mix. As of late I look for a DE (XFCE in particular) and a lack of something (systemd). Then I start looking into the install method and the option of a live CD or similar.”

Another commenter, Scruball, pointed out — as did others — that a favorite desktop might have a different look and feel across distros, while there are important differences to consider as well in the distros.

“When it comes to desktops, most if not all major distros would support Gnome, Cinnamon, MATE, LXDE, XFCE and OpenBox, but the experience of these desktops might be very different from distro to distro. That is because distros are very different in the way they handle stable and unstable/testing software packages.Also distros differ by software discovery, software popularity and recommendations within a community, by what software packages are included pre-installed and in the repos. Some packages might be virtually unknown and troublesome to install within a given community. So differences might be a lot deeper than it seems on the surface and experiences much more varying than expected.”

Over half of you disagreed with the majority, with 18.7 percent — or 84 votes — pointing to the distro as the deciding factor.

“The distro is more important than the desktop,” wrote Mike, “since I can get pretty much any desktop I want on most distros. The distro determines the overall approach to open vs. proprietary software and also, to some extent, your level of security and privacy. Downloading random binaries from random repos is idiotic and dangerous. I see people trash their Debian and Ubuntu systems all the time by installing some random deb they found somewhere on the net.”

So what distro does Mike prefer? “Any desktop will do as long as it isn’t Gnome.”


Those of you who use the desktop as the deciding factor cast 72 votes for 16 percent of the total.

“In a nutshell, I’m much more likely to be put off and reject a distro that gives me trouble than by any particular DE,” Albin wrote. “I currently run Mint Cinnamon on stronger machines and XFCE on weaklings — the lesser refinement and cruder file manager with XFCE are small matters.”

Finally, 16.5 percent of you — or 74 votes — said neither neither distro, desktop or both, but “It’s complicated.”

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Commenter Cory Hilliard explained his reasoning: “Well, for the 30 or so people/families that I’ve converted to Linux because of the many issues that come with owning Windows, I have always showed them Gnome vs Cinnamon vs KDE. All of them loved Cinnamon except one that liked Gnome better. I have explained to them about distros and what it meant to be a user of one over the other. None of them cared. Zero. They just wanted a distro that worked. They didn’t care about package managers. They didn’t even care about open source or the GPL. They just wanted a pretty environment to mouse click on and not to have to deal with viruses anymore.

“You and I care about all those other things, because we’re geeks. We get the importance of choosing one distro over another, and which licences are being used. It would be [like] someone asking me what kind of car I drive. I just point to it and say ‘that black one right there.'”

As often happens on FOSS Force, our Distro or Desktop poll has been followed by another poll. This time we’re wondering whether you think antivirus software is now necessary on GNU/Linux. Take the poll, and tell us in the comment section below what you think.

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  1. Bernardo Verda Bernardo Verda January 29, 2016

    You should do a two-question poll:

    1) *Should* an antivirus program be used on desktop GNU/Linux?

    2) *Do you use* an antivirus program on desktop GNU/Linux?

    Does that sound like a worthwhile refinement?

  2. Kevin Kevin January 29, 2016


    In my opinion the browser and downloads are where the nasty little buggers attack so that’s where to put your defenses. An antivirus really can only stop known attacks it’s really just part of a good defensive posture.

    I do sometimes scan new downloads with ClamAV but I have never had any issues with downloads. I also run the uncomplicated firewall because it’s so easy to setup and manage why not, but it’s probably not necessary…

    The browser is where I put most of my security efforts. I use NoScript to block scripts on untrusted sites. I use a privacy tool to delete LSO cookies. I run Ghostery to block more ads and trackers especially for when I disable NoScript for a site. I am planning to setup firejail soon or on my next install.

  3. Duncan Duncan January 30, 2016

    AV on Linux? I voted no, given the usual meaning of both that term and the broader anti-malware term. However, in the absolute sense, I’d say yes, but the best anti-malware and ultimately the one that counts is the anti-malware running in the wetware (your head/brain). If you don’t have that, as apparently a lot of people don’t, then your machine is pretty much open to any good cracker that considers it worth their time, no matter what you run on the machine itself. Granted, given the statistics, a broad-based attack aimed at MSWindows on the desktop or Android on the mobile is most likely to get the biggest returns for the least trouble, so they’re most commonly targeted, but don’t kid yourself, anyone not putting a priority on updating their wetware anti-malware is open to pretty much any attack aimed at their hardware/software platform, whether it’s running anti-malware of its own, or not.

  4. Richard Richard January 30, 2016

    I voted Yes.
    I may be way off here, but my understanding is that it is easier to write code for MS, and also easier to infect. Plus the fact that what comes installed as an operating system when buying a new computer? So they get umpteen more chances to con users into installing their malware.
    In time, I think that GNU/Linux will come under attack. Both Apple and Google Android have had to take steps to prevent malicious code being written inside an ‘innocent’ app, so that is why I voted Yes.
    Like Bernardo, I use no-script and ghostery in Firefox on my Linux box and Windows machines which I have to use occasionally.
    So, to put it in a nut shell, as my old Gran used to say to us kids, “Better safe than sorry”.

  5. Fain Avis Fain Avis January 30, 2016

    I do not connect to any MS or apple machines, all my software is from the repository, and there is not a thing on any of my machines that would warrant an intruder’s attention. So why bother.

  6. Albin Albin February 1, 2016

    Thanks for quoting me, but sadly for the wrong “group”. My comment was that for me it’s the distro. Versus Windows, some distros can be a complete stopper, forget it, go away, try again, booby prize – while I willing and actually do work with alternative DEs, especially the aesthetic limitations of lightweight DEs on weaker equipment. If you want a rep for the group that thinks the DE is main thing, you’ll have to find someone else. In general, though, this was an interesting thought experiment.

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