What Are The Best 10 Linux Desktop Apps?

This entry was posted by Friday, 20 January, 2012
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This weekend, I'm going to be spending some time at the Southeast Linux Expo (SCALE) and presenting at the Linux Beginner Training. I'm doing the Desktops and Applications presentation, which includes demos of Linux desktop apps. As I was prepping for the talk, I needed to decide which apps to focus on for a audience new(ish) to Linux.

Linux BeginnerSCALE has been going strong for a decade, but the beginner training is a new program for SCALE. It's going to be a lot of fun working with an audience that's still getting started with Linux.

Now, when I started working with Linux the selection of desktop apps was a wee bit more limited than it is today. Choosing the best desktop apps to demonstrate now is a little trickier than in 1996. Users have a lot of variety when it comes to standard desktop apps like mail clients, Web browsers, and whatnot. In many cases, apps are a matter of taste rather than a hard and fast set of criteria that can objectively say “this is the best app for” whatever. How to choose?

I looked at a couple of things: Features, stability, desktop defaults, and cross-platform support. While the focus is Linux desktop apps, I think it's reassuring for users who are new to Linux to be able to find the same application on Windows and/or Mac OS X if they need to. Features and stability, of course, need no explanation.

I also took into consideration whether apps were the defaults for major distributions. This is a bit more difficult lately since Mint, Ubuntu, Fedora, openSUSE, Debian, and other distros are picking different defaults more now than a few years ago.

Browser: Firefox

I admit, I struggled a bit with choosing the Web browser. These days, I switch back and forth between Google's Chrome and Firefox. Chrome is gaining in popularity, and I know lots of Linux folks prefer it.

And yet… here's my problem with recommending Chrome. First, it's not shipped by default with any Linux distro and it's not open source. Sure, there's Chromium. But Chrome itself is not FOSS and it's a few extra steps for most users to install. Firefox, on the other hand, is right there.

But, during my presentation I'll be sure to mention both.

Office Suite: LibreOffice

Choosing LibreOffice was an easy decision. LibreOffice is the default for every major Linux distribution and has the tools that most desktop users need. Its Microsoft Office compatibility makes it a good choice for users who have to exchange documents with their co-workers and friends. Its cross-platform availability, for Windows and Mac OS X, means that it's a good choice for users who need or want to run other platforms.

Music Manager: Clementine

Picking the best music manager for Linux was a real challenge. In the end, I decided to go with my personal preference – even though it's not actually the default for many distros (if any). My pick is Clementine, a music player “inspired” by the first versions of Amarok.

It's easy to use, but powerful. It's very easy to create playlists and the sidebar with song and artist info (especially lyrics) is a nice touch. It also has excellent support for online services like Magnatune and Last.fm, which I use quite a bit. In particular, it comes in very handy as a downloader for Magnatune when you have a subscription.

Again, though, I'll be sure to mention other apps while doing the presentation – because there are just too many great apps here to ignore.

Video Player: VLC

VLC is, hands down, my favorite video player for Linux. Plays just about anything I've ever thrown at it, from streaming media to DVDs, and it is cross-platform. It's not just a video player, of course. VLC can also stream video and audio, though most users are probably going to be happy with the playback features.

Naturally, VLC also passes the cross-platform test. You can run VLC on Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows. There's also a VLC app under development for Android, though I don't know when that will be making an appearance.

Text Editor: Gedit

Vim is my editor of choice, but it's not exactly user friendly getting started. If this was a class for people learning to program on Linux, I might throw Vim out as an option. But for folks who are new to Linux, I think that Gedit is probably the best way to go.

Gedit may not have all the features of venerable text editors like Emacs and Vim, but it does the job nicely. It's especially useful for desktop users who need to edit the occasional text file, but don't need to be living in their text editor.

Image Editor: The GIMP

While GIMP may not be a direct replacement for Photoshop, it's a mighty fine image editor. I thought about going with a less complicated program, but decided that GIMP was the best-of-breed for Linux. The GIMP has been around for more than a decade, and can produce amazing results. Unless you're a pro user that's switching from Photoshop, The GIMP should provide all the tools you need for image editing on Linux.

Photo Manager: Shotwell

The GIMP provides nothing in the way of photo management, though. For users who want to manage their photo albums on Linux, Shotwell seems to be the app of choice these days. It's the default for Fedora and Ubuntu, and handles RAW photos as well as JPEG.

It also has a good set of basic editing features for cropping, getting rid of red-eye in photos, and so on. F-Spot used to be my app of choice, but the development seems to have slowed considerably with the last stable release in December 2010.

Mail Client: Thunderbird

Mail is another tricky one. First, the number of mail clients for Linux is staggering. Plus, many users now use Webmail most of the time, so a mail client may not even be necessary.

However, after a lot of thought, I decided that Thunderbird is the best app to recommend to new Linux users. First, it's cross-platform so if they also use Windows or Mac OS X, they can use Thunderbird with minimal hassle on all platforms. That's not true for Evolution or KMail.

Thunderbird is also a decent mailer, and with Mozilla taking it back under their wing (pardon the pun) it seems well positioned for improvements and maintenance. I'm not so sure about Evolution, to be honest. The project seems stalled, at best. Claws is a really nice mailer, but it's a power-users' app for sure. I don't think it's well-suited for new users.

So Thunderbird wins on features, stability, platform support and does well on defaults too. It's now the default for Linux Mint and Ubuntu, and really ought to be considered strongly for other distros.

BitTorrent: Transmission

Yes, folks, torrent apps can be used legitimately. With the SOPA/PIPA craziness the last few weeks, I wanted to be sure to talk about a good torrent app for new Linux users.

Linux has plenty of good Torrent apps, but Transmission seemed like the best option. It's cross-platform, performs well, and it's easy to use. It supports encryption, magnet links, and more.


This one gave me a bit of pause. Most of the folks I know use Web-based solutions for calendaring and collaboration, these days. It varies a lot, of course. If you're on KDE, then KOrganizer may be the way to go. If you're a die-hard GNOMEr, then you might want to stick with Evolution.

But I think the best cross-desktop solution at the moment is Thunderbird's Lightning. It's not perfect, but it's very capable and a great solution if you're not looking for a business solution. In other words, I think Lightning is problematic for business adoption but fine for personal desktop users who don't need a groupware solution.

Your Picks?

What are your favorite apps, and did we miss some important categories? Would love to get some feedback in the comments.

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