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Few desktop environments have benefited from the recent diversity of interfaces more than Mate and Xfce.

A year ago, Mate hadn’t even reached general release. However, since then, it has been influential in making Linux Mint the distribution of choice among experienced users. Similarly, after years of being the third most popular desktop environment, Xfce has become one of the major alternatives.

However, despite their similarities, which one is likely to appeal to you depends on what you are looking for in an interface.

The newfound popularity of the two desktops is explained largely by the fact that both are based on GNOME 2. Mate is a fork of GNOME 2, openly intended as an alternative for those dissatisfied with GNOME 3 and Ubuntu’s Unity. Having spent several years consciously imitating it, Xfce also resembles GNOME 2, down to the wording of many menu items and dialog boxes.

As a result, both Mate and Xfce can be classified as traditional desktops. They consist of a desktop display, a panel and a launcher, and both are largely free of 3-D effects, the influence of mobile devices or any effort to innovate in any major design elements. Contrariwise, each includes the technically useless screen-saver, presumably in keeping with tradition and users’ expectations.

Each is an obvious example of the type of interface that was introduced in the mid-1990s, and remained dominant until the last four years.

However, the aims of Mate and Xfce differ strongly, to judge from each project’s home page. Mate proclaims itself “the traditional desktop environment,” and so far its developers have sought to do little else than to continue to make a popular desktop environment easily available.

By contrast, Xfce’s home page summarizes the desktop environment as “fast and low on system resources, while still being visually appealing and user friendly.” Like Mate, Xfce generally lives up to its self-description.

In addition, Xfce still shows signs of its more geeky past. The project only added user-friendliness as its goal around 2006. Even a few years after that, Xfce hadn’t completed the simple, user-friendly task of adding a desktop launcher.

Instead, for the first year of its existence, Xfce emphasized speed and a small footprint. Evidence of these priorities lingers even now in the interface’s inconsistencies and the tendency towards buttons and lists in dialogs and configuration settings. One or two dialogs, such as the Setting Editor might still seem formidable to less experienced users. So might the file manager’s option to “Open Parents.”

Nor has Xfce spent as much time as modern alternatives like Unity have in worrying about such details as rounded-corners or the width of scroll and slider bars. Despite the introduction of user-friendliness as an equal goal, to this day Xfce tends to have a blocky, slightly awkward appearance.

By contrast, Mate draws upon a decade of incremental development for GNOME 2. If it is less consistent and less current than modern desktop environments, it is still more consistent and less old-fashioned in appearance than Xfce.

At the same time, if Mate is faster than GNOME 3, it is less responsive than Xfce in every way imaginable, from start time to the speed with which windows open and shut.

But these generalities are only part of the story. There may be individual features scattered through both desktop environments that influence your choice as well.

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Xfce Linux Desktop: Better Than Kde Or Gnome?

A few years ago, Xfce had a reputation as a lightweight desktop that made few concessions to inexperienced users. However, the Xfce 4 series of releases have shown steady improvements in usability, and version 4.6 is no exception.

Although Xfce 4.6 has almost no completely new programs or features, it adds dozens of enhancements to features already present and continues the improvements in desktop usability that have marked the last few releases. The result is the most usable version of Xfce yet, and it is all the more pleasing for losing little — if any — of the speed and simplicity of earlier versions.

Xfce 4.6 is available as source code from the project website. You can compile the source code yourself or, somewhat unusually, you can install a graphical installer to assist you.

Alternatively, you can use the links on the download page to find binaries for Debian, Mandriva, openSUSE, and Xubuntu. However, be sure to research your binaries of choice thoroughly before using them, because they are in varying degrees of readiness. The Debian packages, for example, include one conflict that has yet to be resolved. Others may still have pre-release versions of 4.6.

While little is completely new in 4.6, many features show a continued evolution. In some cases, the evolution is toward greater simplicity.

For example, where the clock in version 4.4.2 offered customized setting of display lines and the mouseover tooltip, but might have confused inexperienced users, preferences for the clock in 4.6 are reduced to the type of clock, the tooltip format for the date, and the time format — all of which are configurable from drop-down lists.

Similarly, Xfce’s sound mixer and application finder (which, unlike in KDE remains independent of the main menu) have undergone GUI changes that make their layout easier to perceive in a glance.

Some of these changes are as simple as the addition of a radio button, but, if you compare these two applications in 4.4.2 and 4.6, the difference is a succinct case-study in usability design. In the case of the mixer, these changes include a complete rewriting of the application, according to the 4.6 online tour.

In other cases, utilities have evolved new features. The system tray, now renamed more accurately as notification area, now offers the options to display icons in multiple rows, and to hide icons; if you do decide to hide icons, the notification area includes an arrow to expand it display. The logout menu now includes Suspend and Hibernate options, while the Thunar file manager is especially rich in new features, including translucent icons for unmounted drives, and support for encrypted filesystems.

The greatest number of changes per square centimeter are probably in the Settings Manager. Version 4.6 adds accessibility, removable drives, and calendar features. Session and startup options are especially enhanced, having gone from a simple dialog with a few options for logging in and out and for starting GNOME and KDE services when logging in (so that they start more quickly when you use them) to options for autostarting applications, and options for how to restart core desktop utilities if they crash.

In much the same way, the Desktop options have not only been rearranged on their tabs, but joined by options for the main menu and windows menus.

Next Page: Compare to KDE and GNOME

Linux Mint: Inside The Top Linux Distro

Also see: Why Linux Mint Won

And: Must Have Linux Mint Software

And one more: Debian vs. Linux Mint

While Ubuntu has been refocusing their efforts, Linux Mint has managed to supersede other distributions in becoming what some have argued is the most popular Linux Distro of all time. Obviously there is no hard data to support this, however I’ve found that on YouTube and in the forums, Linux Mint is the go-to distro for most Linux newcomers.

What most newcomers might not realize is that Linux Mint wasn’t always that polished. As a matter of fact, Linux Mint used to be nothing more than Ubuntu with codecs and a green theme installed. Flash forward to the current state of the project, Linux Mint supports a number of desktop environments and even offers Mint specific tools as well.

Linux Mint disto: Cinnamon

In the early days of Linux Mint, users found themselves looking into the distribution since it provided restricted codecs by default. Even though Ubuntu users did have access to oddball third party tools like Automatix to install software and codecs found in PPA archives, Linux Mint made the process even easier by doing all the newbie-readiness work for the end user.

Early on, Linux Mint also had useful command line tools like Mintwifi. This wireless utility provided access to ndiswrapper and a large number of proprietary drivers that would enable the casual Linux Mint user to get their wifi up and running quickly.

The timeline history for Linux Mint starts off in 2006, when the distro was first released with a KDE base. It was the release known as Ada with the following release called Barbara changing it’s codebase from Kubuntu to Ubuntu proper. By 2008, Linux Mint opted to stick with the Ubuntu release cycle timeline starting with Linux Mint Elyssa. It was during this time that we began to see Mint focusing on greater Ubuntu compatibility from its codebase in Linux Mint 6 Felicia.

Things in the Linux Mint camp really saw a flurry of activity in 2010 when Linux Mint Debian Edition was released. At the time, this version of Linux Mint was built as a rolling release distribution based on Debian, not Ubuntu. Fast forward to 2023, the rolling release element of Linux Mint Debian Edition was swapped out for a fixed long term release version of a distro by the same name. This Linux Mint Debian Edition version was based on Debian Jessie.

These days, Linux Mint is enjoying unbelievable popularity. Much of this is likely due to their approach of putting usability first, only offering releases based on Ubuntu long term release candidates and providing the simplest default desktop experience possible.

The Linux Mint flagship desktop known as Cinnamon, has done wonders to provide a solid alternative to the Ubuntu Unity desktop. Despite both Ubuntu and Linux Mint providing a suitable Linux newcomer experience, more people than ever seem to be embracing the Linux Mint way of doing things.

Linux Mint is unique in comparison to Ubuntu in that it exclusively focuses on the desktop user. Ubuntu by contrast, focuses on a wide range of areas that just happen to include the desktop user. It’s my personal belief that the exclusive focus provided by Mint on the desktop has helped greatly to attract and retain a loyal userbase.

Another thing I’ve noticed about Linux Mint is often times bugs found in Ubuntu don’t affect Linux Mint. Sometimes this can be desktop environment specific, but in others cases it feels like any bugs from Mint’s Ubuntu base were worked out ahead of time before releasing the distro to their users.

In the past, I’ve found that ex-Windows users tend to gravitate towards Linux Mint. In fairness, I have also had success with Ubuntu MATE edition with the same users, but overwhelmingly the success of Linux Mint with Windows users can’t be overstated enough.

Another component that I think wins people over to Linux Mint is a combination of predictability and Linux Mint Tools. The predictability relies heavily on the fact that today’s Linux Mint is built upon Ubuntu long term releases. Additionally, these releases are only provided to the public as a finished product once the release team feels they’re ready. This issue alone, differs from Ubuntu which works off a stricter time based release schedule.

And the final component that makes Linux Mint shine is the aforementioned Mint Tools. These tools handle everything from domain blocking to home directory backups. Most of the tools provided aren’t really unique to Mint per se, rather, they’re bundled and presented as a tool set that makes sense to newcomers over the random scattered tools with the same functionality provided by other distributions.

So where is the Linux Mint project headed in the future? I think that for the most part, what we see with Linux Mint will continue to be what we can expect in the years to come. The only changes I see will be new kernels and various updates to the provided desktop environments (Cinnamon, MATE, etc).

I see a future where Linux Mint enjoys newcomers joining the ranks for the community, much like we see today. I don’t necessarily see any explosive growth in Mint’s future simply because there’s nothing that will grow the userbase faster than we’re currently seeing.

As new technologies such as new wireless standards or improved handling of 4k displays are developed, Linux Mint is sure to be right there at the forefront of such offerings. Despite this good news, I think the secret to Linux Mint’s success will continue to be slow and steady wins the race.

Considering everything above, is it fair to suggest that Linux Mint will eventually overshadow proprietary desktop operating systems like Windows? The short answer to this would be no. The longer answer would be that Linux Mint isn’t trying to compete with proprietary operating systems. Instead, Linux Mint is destined to provide a solid, easy to use operating system for those who want to use Linux but may not have much inclination to use other desktop distros.

Linux Malware Vs Phishing Schemes

For years now, we’ve been told about the dangers of how various types of malware like worms and other threats were going to catch the growing Linux user base off guard. As of the year 2014, nothing remotely close to this has happened. Malware exists, but for desktop Linux users, it’s a non-issue.

Despite this fact, there continues to be rumors that malware “could” affect desktop Linux users. It seems the mere “threat” holds greater proof of concept than the reality that no one is actually seeing malware threats on their Linux desktop.

In this article, I’ll examine current threats to the Linux desktop and explain why I believe phishing is far more dangerous to most Linux users than malware.

One of the first things I’d like to point out is that when it comes to the exploits targeting Linux, it’s the server – not the desktop – that is at the greatest risk. Servers are front-facing appliances exposed to the web. This means patches/updates must be applied on a regular basis to minimize the risk of the server being exploited.

While it’s true that the desktop is also facing the web, it’s not the same sort of destination as a web server. See, Linux desktops are far more likely be exploited by an open port and poor firewall settings than an actual “in the wild” exploit. Obviously, there may be exceptions to this in the future. But for the time being, the most dangerous exploit I’ve found with the Linux desktop is human error and complacency, not malware.

As it turns out, the real threat is more human than machine. And the name of that threat is phishing.

I don’t care how savvy you happen to be, most of us have had close calls with phishing schemes. Some of the easiest to fall into are those shared via social media. A trusted friend shares a link on Facebook, not thinking much of it when you’re asked to log back in and then it hits you — that wasn’t really Facebook that asked you to login.

As you can see from my above example, phishing schemes aren’t something that only affect those falling for faked banking emails or spoofed PayPal alerts. Sometimes it’s stuff that’s mundane enough to seem legit, worse yet, these things can happen when you’re not paying close attention.

Where things can go from bad to worse, is when the media gets ahold of something legitimate that happens to something with technology. Cross-platform, state-sponsored spying becomes “Linux malware threat.” When we read stuff like this, it’s important to take a step back and examine the facts. More often than not, stuff being reported in this space is a non-issue or is simply taken completely out of context.

Making matters worse is when the tech media perpetuates this kind of nonsense. This is the segment of the media we like to believe knows better than to perpetuate Linux FUD. Sadly though, this isn’t always the case.

Personally, I believe the tech media has been chomping at the bit to see Desktop Linux experience one really big malware outbreak. This would serve two ways: One, it provides really juicy news stories for tech writers. And two, it does wonders for writers who have claimed that Linux is just as insecure as other operating systems.

Old code, new code, if it can be executed, the device running said code is potentially at its mercy. So while there have been great strides in OS security, app containers, and other safety layers from which to feel safe with — anything that executes code “could” be a risk. The key thing to remember however, is just because something is possible doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. It’s possible I might win the lottery and buy a small island. Yet, when we look at the odds, the numbers simply don’t add up.

Linux Concerns: Convenience Vs. Security

Ask why you should use Linux, and inevitably someone will claim that it is more secure than Windows, and doesn’t need anti-virus protection, either.

Such claims sound like a wish-fulfillment, promising computing without the precautions that that have become routine in the last two decades. The only trouble is, they are half-truths at best. Like any operating system, Linux is only as secure as you make it — and the current trend is to choose convenience over security.

Once upon a recent time, Linux was more secure than it is today. Only the root user could mount external device, and in many distributions new users were automatically assigned a few groups that limited the hardware they could access. Distributions followed the principle of least privilege (aka least access), under which users, applications, and devices receive only the access to the system that they absolutely require.

Applying least privilege makes for a securer system, which is where Linux gained its reputation. However, a secure system is often an inconvenient system, and hopes of desktop domination put pressure on distributions to match the convenience of Windows. The problem was not so much that increased popularity encourages the writing of viruses and malware as that the hope of popularity encouraged the relaxation of security standards in dozens of little ways.

A few changes had mixed results. For example, the rise of Ubuntu introduced the use of sudo, which helps to reduce the amount of time that the root user is loged in. But, as implemented, it can make possible the control of a system from multiple accounts, which means that Ubuntu simultaneously increases and decreases security. More often, though, the changes were in the name of being as convenient as Window, with the cumulative effect.

Many of these relaxations were minor in themselves, such as allowing anyone to reboot the system or burn a DVD or to install extensions to software like Firefox or Vim for their personal use. However, the cumulative effect is that Linux’s reputation for security is less true today for most distributions. While complete control of the system is still likely to involve social engineering — that is, deceiving a user — personal accounts today are easier than ever to compromise.

Mobile and Cloud Compromises

In the last few years, the preference for convenience has accelerated even more with the rise of mobile devices and cloud services.

You might imagine that Android, being a Linux derivative, is secure, but as phones and tablets are shipped, nothing could be farther from the truth. Most mobile devices ship with so little security that it takes hours of work to set up the basics. Even then, between the free services that come with the device and the apps that you install, you can quickly have two dozen outsider organizations with access to your device.

The overwhelming majority of these outsiders are benign, of course. To think otherwise would be paranoid. Yet the fact remains that they are strangers, and you have absolutely no idea of how well they secure the data that they store or their access to your device. From a security perspective, the arrangement is simply not a good idea. The difference is that when you follow basic security steps, you know your system is as trustworthy as you can make it, while on a mobile device, you simply have to trust that a stranger is doing their best for you.

Put in those terms, common modern practice sounds as naive as it actually is. Yet, with the rise of Chromebooks, the triumph of convenience goes one step further. Instead of checking for malware yourself, you are invited to trust the manufacturer to scan your system for you — a useful convenience, so long as the manufacturer never hires a careless or a malicious employee.

The point is, when you allow a service to access your system, you can have no idea who you are giving access to. But the convenience is so great that few of us stop to imagine the tradeoffs that can be involved, even with the best of intentions on both sides.

The High-Wire Act

Realizing the extent of convenience’s victory over security, you can easily become paranoid — all the more so because your reaction is justified. Give your reaction full range, and you might quickly end up working only on a computer that has no Internet connection, and is stored down a mine shaft with three layers of security guards between it and the rest of the world.

In other words, favoring security as much as convenience is currently favored is simply going from one extreme to another, and no solution at all. The trick is to find a balance between security and convenience that allows you to get your work done.

Fortunately, there is no shortage of information online about how to strike this balance. Security hardening tools and tips for your workstation are everywhere. For mobile devices and cloud services, you can store your data encrypted, or, as Tahoe-LAFS allows, store your data in pieces across multiple clouds, so that it has to be re-assembled to use. Instead of using someone else’s cloud storage, you can create your own with ownCloud.

With mobile devices themselves, you should seriously consider rooting — altering them so that you have root access. Voided warranties and bricked devices are a possibility — or were once — but rooting remains the only way you can be completely sure of securing your mobile device. Given today’s security standards, rooting is not just a clever bit of hacking, or a technological accomplishment, but, increasingly, a necessity.

Yes, such actions take effort. In particular, you should not consider rooting until you have thoroughly investigated the possibilities on your device. But restoring basic security seems worth the effort. You may choose not to revert to the security standards of the past, but with a little effort you can do far, far better than the modern norms.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

40Mp Shootout: Huawei Mate 20 Pro Vs Nokia Lumia 1020

Camera specs

As far as we’re aware, the main camera sensor inside the HUAWEI Mate 20 Pro is essentially the same as the P20 Pro. It’s a 40MP, 1/1.7-inch sensor with 1.0µm pixel sizes that can be combined via pixel binning to produce 2µm 10MP shots for better light capture. The lens retains a f/1.8 aperture and 27mm focal length.

Camera shootout samples

Detail at a distance

A 40-megapixel camera is overkill for most shooting situations, but it’s really good for capturing extra detail in long distance and macro shots. That’s what we’re predominantly going to test here, looking for fine details, as well as general color balance and exposure.

First, a full-frame outdoor shot. The most obvious difference here is the color balance. The Lumia 1020 opts for a warmer, more colorful pallet than the Mate 20 Pro. However, the Mate 20 Pro gets the nod here for its more realistic look. The Lumia 1020 oversaturates the grass.

Closer inspection of the 100 percent crop reveals very similar levels of detail between the two cameras. The Mate 20 Pro has its pros and cons here. While there’s a smidgen of extra detail and highlight capture on the roof tiles, the sharpening and denoising algorithms ruin other aspects of the image.

This is particularly noticeable in the shadows. While the Lumia 1020 presents smooth shadows on the side of the house, the Mate 20 Pro creates a spackled, painted-looking effect that’s not very realistic. The tree is also captured much more clear on the Mate 20 Pro, while the Lumia presents a very soft image that almost blurs the branches into the sky. Although HUAWEI’s extra clarity comes partly from the use of some sharpening in its post-processing pipeline.

Unfortunately, the Lumia 1020 becomes increasingly noisy and smudged looking towards the edges of the image. It’s not unusual for camera resolution to be superior in the center of a camera frame, but the 1020 suffers from this problem quite noticeably. The Mate 20 Pro holds up a little better at the edges (see the grass and leaves in the image below), but we can again clearly see the heavy denoise algorithm working on the branches and shadows.

Time for another outdoor example, but we’ll save some space and just look at the crop this time. Key things to look for in this picture is the clarity of the metal bars on the left, the noise and clarity of the text on the right, and the depth of the blacks in the shadows underneath the sculpture.

Here the Lumia 1020 appears sharper in the foreground, particularly on the top left of the crop and around the edges of the sculpture. However, the background on the right of the crop is noticeably noisier and less defined than the Mate 20 Pro’s photo. It’s clear HUAWEI’s heavier reliance on denoise post-processing works better in some areas than others, and it doesn’t look very good on straight lines. Overall the colors are both pretty good.

One final outdoor crop. Again, the Mate 20 Pro’s details pop more than the Lumia’s, but this is again a mix of post-processing and some small improvement to its resolvable resolution. The straight lines on the brickwork appear to suffer from HUAWEI’s denoise algorithm once again, but the sharpening does pick out some extra dynamic range in the texture detail. The Lumia is noisier than HUAWEI once again, which can be easily observed in the sky. There are definitely pros and cons to each camera here.

One final note. The branches on the left in the Lumia 1020 picture seem slightly purple, a telltale sign of chromatic aberration from the camera lens. The effect pops up with the Mate 20 Pro, but to a lesser extent. The Mate 20 Pro isn’t immune from problems in this picture though — there’s a clear border on the top edge of the building.

This doesn’t appear on the branches, where the Mate 20 Pro produced a noticeable halo, and it’s clear the sharpening effect isn’t as strong as before. This could be the result of the sharpening and denoise algorithm, or perhaps from multi-frame exposure stitching.

Macro shots

However, there’s an odd haloing effect around the edge of the leaves in the Mate 20 Pro picture. It’s tough to tell if this the result of a typical oversharpening problem or a side effect of multi-frame exposure processing. The highlights are arguably also slightly overexposed in this image, which some purists certainly won’t care for. The painting effect of the denoise algorithm can also be noticed on some of the leaf textures.

In this final shot, again the HUAWEI Mate 20 Pro comes out clearer, albeit with some rather strong highlights. Although most of the details are again like for like. The Nokia Lumia 1020 seems to have a little trouble keeping everything in focus, seemingly because of trouble with light capture, which is indicated by the rather large amount of noise near the bottom of the crop.

Overall, the Mate 20 Pro captures a smidgen more detail but is much heavier on the post-processing

Low light performance

Performance in low light is simple enough to judge. Less noise is obviously desirable, as long as an excessive denoise algorithm doesn’t brush over details. The P20 Pro was rather overzealous in that regard last time we tested, but the Mate 20 Pro has clearly dialed back the level of denoise processing applied.

This example is a clear win for the HUAWEI Mate 20 Pro. Not only is the noise far less pronounced, but the color balance and exposure are notably better too. There is still some noise present, but that’s normal for such small pixel sizes in very low light. The Lumia 1020 struggled to focus with light any lower than this and clearly suffers from a substantial amount of grain. We can also see colors leaking across pixels, resulting in poorly defined edges around our little Android figure. Say what you will about about mobile camera technology development over the past five years, low light performance has improved substantially.

The scientific method

If you’re not a fan of this subjective testing I’ve also put both phones through our camera testing suite, where we can accurately measure color accuracy, resolvable resolution, noise, and more. Here are the results.

Based on the numbers from our lab, the HUAWEI Mate 20 Pro is the better shooter in detail capture, noise, and color accuracy. The Nokia Lumia 1020 still performs reasonably well by today’s standards, but the image quality towards the edges of the frame prevents the camera from fully realizing the benefits of its high-resolution sensor. At the very least, we can conclude HUAWEI’s work on the lenses and color processing in the Mate 20 Pro pay off.

In real-world shots, we see the scientific analysis clearly reflected in the level of detail and colors from our sample shots. That being said, some lingering issues with HUAWEI’s sharpening and denoise algorithms prevent this from being a home run. The situation has improved from the P20 Pro, but there’s clearly still room to further tweak HUAWEI’s camera setup. Even so, it’s the best 40MP smartphone shooter in town.

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