Complete AMD64 Handbook/Graphical Linux
The X server
Many users believe that Linux is a command-line driven operating system. This isn't true, but the command-line interface is a standard, well-supported input method for Linux. However, graphical input is well supported and rivals other operating systems with its usability, flexibility and stability.
Like all tools, the graphical environment is also "just a tool" built to do what it is supposed to do: provide a graphical environment for the end user and libraries for developers so they can write graphical tools. The bases of a graphical environment are the X11 libraries and X11 server.
X11 is a network protocol designed to allow graphical environments to be exported over the network. As such, any graphical environment built using the X11 libraries can run on a server while it is displayed on a client. But we're drifting away now...
The X11 server is a service that performs the rendering of graphical environments. It isn't a graphical environment by itself but offers the base for graphical environments to be built: it is a framework where other software packages build upon.
Gentoo supports the xorg-x11 X11 server.
Since the X11 server performs the rendering, you need to configure it to use the hardware you work on. Gentoo has a nice Xorg Guide that will greatly aid the user in configuring the system to use X11.
With a bare X11 server you won't be able to do much. You need a window manager which takes care of the graphical layout of the environment and possibly even a desktop environment which integrates tools and usability guidelines with a window manager.
A desktop environment is a full blown graphical environment offering everything a desktop might need, all in a coherent package. Backgrounds, file management, drag and drop, screensavers, menus, theming with icons and sounds, virtual desktops, ... you name it, all of that is defined in a desktop environment. This is also why most users are searching for a desktop environment.
Users who want a small graphical environment with just the tools they need often opt for a window manager instead as they don't need all the bells and whistles a desktop environment offers.
The next few sections give a small introduction to various desktop environments. The list is not meant to be exhaustive but rather to provide some guidance to the new Gentoo user.
With KDE, users are offered a full-blown environment with a plethora of desktop utilities. It seems as if the KDE project tries to contain everything a user might require from a desktop: games, development tools, office suites, imaging support, multimedia tools, desklets, system utilities, ... and all those build upon the same libraries so all tools have a consistent look and feel and offer a well developed drag and drop mechanism.
The KDE project maintains much documentation (in various languages) and offers a quick release cycle with new features and fixes available at every new release. You'll find that the integration of the tools is flawless (the address book is linked from the Personal Information Management tool kontact, E-mail client kmail, Event Manager kjournal and of course the Address book maintenance tool kaddressbook) and the configuration interface kcontrol complete and well documented.
If you are interested in using KDE, don't hesitate to read the Gentoo KDE Guide.
The GNOME Foundation offers a consistent desktop environment (GNOME) which is developed using strict guidelines, offering a maximum on usability (layout and so on are strictly defined). Many GNOME enthusiasts are proud of their environment because it is simple to use, yet powerful and fully functional.
When you load up GNOME, you will notice that its interface is sober but well designed: the GNOME menu limits itself to the tools you'll most likely use while hiding the rest of the tools that probably confuse most of the users anyway. The window decoration is simple, but gives a nice finished look. Configuration options are limited at first sight but are very easy to comprehend. Real configuration gurus know that GNOME has a very extended configuration model, but it is hidden from the interface because most users wouldn't need it anyway.
The GNOME project has multi-lingual documentation and a good network of related sites where you can find the latest news about GNOME and GNOME tools.
If you are interested in using GNOME, don't hesitate to read the GNOME Guide.
The fluxbox window manager began its life as a spin-off of the blackbox window manager. When you install fluxbox, you'll notice that it is a lot faster than desktop environments. This of course isn't only true for fluxbox but for most other window managers: their job is a lot simpler (in size) than those of a desktop environment.
fluxbox offers the user with a simple interface for window managing, yet supports everything (and more) you require: we aren't talking about window minimalization and maximalization here (of course fluxbox supports that) but about tabbed windows, stickyness, virtual desktops, hotkeys, ...
If you are interested in using fluxbox, don't hesitate to read the Fluxbox Configuration HOWTO.
The right tool for the right job
After a first experience with the graphical Linux environment, many users ask "What's next?" They don't know what tools exist and just playing around, clicking on icons, doesn't help you find out what's possible.
Working well with Linux means that you know what tools to use. In this section, we'll give a head start on various tools and projects. These tools aren't mandatory, but give a nice idea on Linux' possibilities.
MPlayer is a well-known movie player and includes many features such as DVD playing, encoding/decoding of dozens of video formats, lots of output formats (have you ever seen a movie using ASCII characters?) and more.
With LibreOffice you have a full-featured office suite which uses a standard office file format and supports Microsoft Office documents to a great extend.
AbiWord is a good choice if you will only be doing word processing. AbiWord is a full-featured word processor that is much lighter and faster than LibreOffice, while still retaining complete interoperability with industry-standard document types.