It’s the Qt showdown

Qt desktops are many and varied. So one may ask, all right, if you have to choose one, which one? Well, the answer is both complicated and philosophical. First, because taste is subjective, and my immediate answer would be Plasma, hands down. The way it is realized in Kubuntu 17.04 is just awesome. The best Linux has to offer on the market right now.

But let’s say you want to choose from one of the other available Qt-based desktops. What do you do then? Well, that’s why we’re here, and I’d like to give you a multi-dimensional overview and comparison of these different Qt desktop environments. After all, we talked about them a fair bit recently, so let’s narrow it down, shall we?

Look & feel

I am fond of simple, minimalistic design. Flat before flat became noun de jour. Flat in the sense that visual design should not distract or take away from functionality. But also very importantly, there should be no elements that disrupt the harmony of the (intended) design. Plasma fits this bill well. It also offers a rather consistent design throughout.

Among the rival, competitors and spiritual successors, LXQt offers a somewhat spartan old-school look with a mix of clashing styles and themes, which I never quite got around resolving and bringing into unity. Liri seems to offer consistent and pleasing looks, only due to hardware incompatibility, I never got around to testing more, so there’s a tentative vote. We cannot really include Budgie, because it is not quite there yet, but it definitely has an edge over many other desktop environment. It’s elegant and consistent overall.

Theme 2

Final 1

Next on our plate, Lumina, almost solely the domain of BSD systems and not so much Linux. Again, similar to LXQt, we have the old-new blend that does not blend well, simple and archaic intertwined. Now, Nomad is an interesting one. It’s not so much a complete different desktop environment as a heavily modified Plasma, and as such, it is much closer to the ideal state than all others. Vibrant colors, elegant lines, minimalism and form. Thus, in a way, it’s almost too easy to choose Nomad as the winner in this category.

Nomad desktop

Ergonomics

Beauty versus function is a big thing in software. More and more recently, due to the chaotic nature of software development, we’re seeing a disconnect between what the product looks and what it’s supposed to do. In the end, no matter how pretty something is, it actually has to be usable and useful, otherwise it serves no purpose.

If you ask me, well, what do you mean by that, then the answer is: The desktop environment should be intuitive. One should never need to consult a manual to be able to achieve something they want. There should be as few steps possible toward achieving a goal. The steps should be consistent and similar for different outcomes. If things work, they should work in a predictable fashion, and if they do not, the errors and the reasons should be clearly understood. You should feel fresh and relaxed after using the system for a while. You should be productive.

There’s a lot more, a whole bible of usability and experience and whatnot, and there are people who are much better at this than I am. Still, I believe some basic principles of human-machine interactions are universal, and yet so tricky to achieve in many a Linux desktop.

Lumina is heavily geared toward advanced users. While it does offer some neat tricks and options, there are at least three or four different ways to get to desired options, settings and tweaks. Some changes require manual, behind-the-scenes work. LXQt is very similar in this fashion, with more features but also more ways to go astray.

Control Panel

Budgie is a Gnome system, so we cannot really take it into consideration here, but on a side note, it’s relatively easy to master, and sometimes even over-simplified. Nomad is Plasma at its heart, so you get a lot from the parent. But then, less is more. In an attempt to be unique and special, Nomad reinvents the wheel by creating its own settings menu and tweaks, breaking the expected Plasma flow, and thus making itself less consistent.

Raven, customization in progress

The ergonomics also affect the visual side of things. All of the desktop environments come with sub-optimal fonts and color palettes that are not best tuned for long, sustained work. Nomad actually does a rather average job, with too much transparency and not enough contrast. Lumina and LXQt, being somewhat spartan, actually manage to be more legible, failing less on the visual side (aesthetics aside) and more on the functional side. Winner wise, Budgie would be the right choice, but on the exclusive Qt front, there’s really no one desktop environment here that I could point out in a positive light.

Unique software

A desktop is more than just a collection of colors and themes. Which is why all desktop environments work hard to create their own identities. This is something rather forced, and it feels that way. Furthermore, we cannot really fully separate from the desktop and the underlying system. Still, we will try.

LXQt brands itself as a lightweight alternative, hence lightweight software. By default, this means less popular software, often less glamorous and definitely buggier. No killer set that you could really brand as LXQt only, as you see a lot of commonality to popular Xfce and MATE desktop.

With Lumina, the distinction is even less obvious. The same with Budgie, which essentially rests on a heap of Gnome software. Nomad is closely tied to the NX Software Center, part of the Nitrux distro, and it’s more around backend software. However, the few apps that were offered were rather buggy, and did not really work for me. Again, no clear winner because neither one of these different environments provides a sufficiently unique and useful pack to call their own.

Maturity & stability

This is also a very important one. Also, one of the most difficult to judge. For instance, just compare my Kubuntu findings with the openSUSE Leap 42.3 review. Two Plasma systems, a world apart in terms of quality and stability. Distributions struggle to maintain quality and consistency in their own subsequent releases, so talking about different environments straddling different systems and tested on a range of hardware devices is almost impossible. But we must try.

Liri did not boot at all. Nomad was easy – live boot, enjoy. But then, the highly advertised package management did not work. Lumina, this was a virtual machine test, because BSD systems have a tricky hardware support, and you don’t want to mess up a ZFS setup on production hardware. Budgie booted without complaining, but then failed in a few important categories. LXQt was just okay.

Stability wise, I had the least problems with Nomad with hardware, although its app stack is completely borked. Lumina can’t really compete with modern Linux distros. LXQt is somewhere in between. So it would have to be Nomad, by this is more of a default win than anything to really be proud of.

Snapd timeout

Maturity is a different thing. It’s a combination of age, quality and future prospects of growth. Some of these desktop environments have been around only for a few months, while others have trucked on for years. All of them are relatively new in this sense, as Qt burgeoned around the time of KDE4, by which time Gnome, Xfce and KDE have already celebrated their first marriage. Budgie is the most complete among our contestants, and once it moves to Qt fully, it should be a really interesting player in the Linux world. It has also made the most significant progress from its early days, and the most radical transformation. LXQt feels somewhat stagnant, but it too has DNA in several related, forked and doomed projects.

Nomad and Liri are perhaps too young to judge, and the former does not even quality as a full member of the family, more of a hybrid. Lumina will probably remain restricted to the UNIX-like systems for the foreseeable future. Taking all of this into account, Budgie is the most mature, hence this sub-category winner, and we’re bending the rules here. Nomad has a good chance to grow, so it’s on the watch list.

Performance

Well overused as a selling point with most desktop environments. None of these will beat Xfce in any particular task, and Plasma has made so much progress recently, it’s mind-boggling. Perhaps some of these desktop can do wonders on ancient hardware, but then, so can Xfce, and I have yet to see a would-be lightweight alternative truly beat it in everyday tasks.

Nomad is very fast, thanks to the Nitrux heritage and modern kernels. Budgie is okay. LXQt works reasonably well, but it has sub-optimal power management, so it never really makes the hardware purr as well as it should. I can’t really judge Lumina, given that my tests included a virtual machine and the power-hungry ZFS filesystem. So yes, Nomad again.

So, what are you saying?

Let’s summarize it quickly. Nomad, still young, wonky app stack, good performance, decent ergonomics (trying too hard) because Plasma. Budgie, solid and mature, elegant, unique, decent overall, average hardware support, needs to become Qt. Lumina, feels like a relic, not really modern, archaic style. LXQt, similar ailments, misplaced objective, not the most pleasing visually or functionally. Liri, didn’t do enough to get on the list.

Which one would I use? Well, none. All of these upset the balance of energy, and nature has its way of being optimal. There’s a reason why there are so many desktop environments in the Linux world, and yet, just a small number dominate. Same as with distros. This is nature forking new species, trying new ways to improve itself, and then killing off the unnecessary offshoots. Brutally speaking, none of these desktops offers any real advantage over the KDE-Gnome-Xfce triumvirate. They have their bonus points and cool features, but nothing truly significant. It’s like moving to a new work place for 1.1% more money but no coffee.

Conclusion

The Qt world is saturated with offspring, and most of them are doing only half-well. Some great stuff, but also some lousy stuff. Ups and down. No harmony, no perfection. Plasma is the king of this hill. But underneath, long term, Budgie probably makes most sense, while Nomad is the winner in the short term, and only because it borrows so much from Plasma.

In a Utopian world, these projects would all merge, bringing their awesome qualities together, working on erasing each other’s deficiencies and creating something that truly stands out. I know this won’t happen, but on the bright side, the adventure continues. I will be having fun and frustration testing and exploring new desktop environments. If there’s one thing Qt never fails to deliver, it’s the next challenge. Let’s see what it’s going to be.

  • jawnhenry

    You’re turning into an Adrian Kingsley-Hughes clone…

    • Dedoimedo

      Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
      Dedoimedo

  • lionhater

    Isn’t this whole idea of DEs wasteful and problematic needlessly causing instabilities, issues, frustrations etc? Don’t we just need a good window manager (or an excellent one, fluxbox), a panel (lx- or lxqt-panel for instance), icons on the desktop (excellently provided by pcmanfm/qt among many other features, custom actions for instance) and a theme/config manager (the excellent qt5ct)? So do we need “unique apps” belonging to specific DEs or just fine independent apps like firefox, qupzilla, libreoffice, cantata etc.? In fact isn’t it better to focus on such apps rather than DE things? After all we use those apps not DEs.

    I’ve got such a system for the last 4-5 years and I don’t have any issues at all though having all the necessary feauters.