Linux for Your Touch Screen: My 2.5ish Recommendations
Be everything to everyone — that is the basic mission statement of the 2-in-1 device. It must be robust for desktop users, but also friendly to mobile computing. It has to be powerful, yet light. Keyboard commands must abound, but so too must gestures and swipes.
Many giants have stumbled to reach this goal. Whether it is the failed Surface RT or the lackluster Pixelbook that caused Google to backtrack and release the Pixel Go, the perfect 2-in-1 remains elusive.
It is a tough needle to thread, even in the FOSS (Free and Open Source) communities. But, where with Windows and Mac you only have one option each for your desktop experiences, in FOSS you have a wide variety.
This can be a double-edged sword. A wide variety can make choosing your ideal DE (desktop environment) challenging. To help cut down the clutter of of DE’s to choose from, I’ve listed the best (in my experience) for touch devices.
The device I used to gauge this is my Surface Pro, which is the 2-in-1iest of 2-in-1 devices. And while no DE perfectly captures the fluid and intuitive experience of iOS or Android, the list below gets the job done, in bridging that gap between mobility and powerful desktop experience.
With each DE, I will also include an OS recommendation. While the DE experience won’t vary too wildly from OS to OS, the ease of use that comes with an Ubuntu based OS vs. a Debian based OS can vary wildly. As well, the OS’s I am recommending tend to be compatible with more devices.
Also, due to my dearth of convertible 2-in-1’s, I cannot say whether any of these would perform better or worse with a device like a Yoga or Zenbook. If I get my hands on one, I’ll update accordingly. As of now, this article is strictly for the detachable keyboard world.
OS recommendation: Linux Mint
Whether or not you choose this DE for your 2-in-1 will largely depend on how important virtual keyboard and screen rotation are to you. If you, like me, primarily live in landscape mode, and find it irritating when, upon moving seats or shifting your device, the screen suddenly flips, Cinnamon may be for you.
Often, when I am drawing in Krita, I find myself slipping into my pen and paper habits of sliding the computer around instead of hitting the Rotate buttons. If I’m in Cinnamon, this isn’t a big deal. In an OS that carries auto-rotate functionality, it can get annoying as the screen flickers in and out, and the interface expands and contracts.
However, if you like reading ebooks in your browser, or like auto-rotate, you might find Cinnamon cumbersome. The support for virtual keyboard and screen rotate are buried in the settings, and you’ll need to create a short cut for both of them on your panel in order to access them.
Cinnamon can also bog down older machines (we’re talking 10 to 15+ years old) since it is on the heavy side of resource usage. However, since 2-in-1 devices didn’t exist before 2010 or 2011, this shouldn’t be too big a deal.
Cinnamon also looks real good right out the gate. In Linux Mint, in particular, customizing the color scheme and icons is a breeze, giving you near Android level customization.
[Update 7/9/2020: Recently, Cinnamon has started supporting automatic screen rotation in their Display Settings menu. However, it is hit or miss whether the stylus and touch settings will rotate with your screen.
On my Surface Go, I’ve experienced the stylus settings rotating with the screen most of the time, but the finger touch input remaining in landscape.]
2. GNOME (Ubuntu Mainline)
Only available on Ubuntu
This is a very specific version of GNOME. It has been modified to look similar to Ubuntu’s original DE, Unity. It has customizations that give it a more Windows/Mac feel — expand, minimize, and close buttons on your window — that can help ease in new users.
GNOME also supports screen rotation automatically. The virtual keyboard — as of their 20.04 release — needs to be turned on under Universal Accessibility settings. Once on, it will always pop up, whether or not your physical keyboard is attached.
GNOME from Ubuntu is on the clunkier side of things. It loads a little slower, and requires more RAM, which, for devices like my Surface Pro (i5 processor with 4gb of RAM), can be a real con. It is felt whenever I’m running a lot of tabs in FireFox or drawing in Krita. This has been a consistent con since 18.04, though the 20.04 release is light years better.
Unlike the option above — and the option below — GNOME from Ubuntu does not have the nicest customization options or theme. Its dark theme is uneven at best. Even in dark, your calendar/notifications and UI menu are blindingly white.
While its latest release gives you an extension manager for customization, there are still several additional steps before you reach Cinnamon levels of customization.
Note: I will leave a little note here regarding Unity, which this version of GNOME is patterned after. While I haven’t tested it myself — Ubuntu abandoned the project a few years back — it has been recommended to me multiple times for being touch friendly. However, getting Unity requires installation alongside another DE, which can lead to issues with your desktop. If you want to try it, I’ll leave a link here. However, Unity remains only an honorable mention.
[Update 7/9/2020: There is a new remix of Ubuntu called Ubuntu Unity, which comes with the Unity 7 desktop. It is available here.]
1. Vanilla GNOME (Pop!, Fedora, and more)
Recommended OS paired with DE: Pop OS from System76
Vanilla GNOME is the stock version on which Ubuntu’s GNOME is built.
Unlike the Ubuntu version that tries to create a level of familiarity, GNOME Vanilla leans hard into itself. The interface looks nothing like Mac or Windows. It is truly its own thing.
Whether by accident or design, it is also well suited for 2-in-1 devices like my Surface Pro.
Because it is still GNOME, it has the same disadvantages as Ubuntu’s version. The rotate is there, but the keyboard is in Universal Settings, and doesn’t activate fluidly.
It doesn’t take too much work to make one look or act like the other either, if you know what you’re doing, either.
But, out of the box, Vanilla GNOME looks better and is themed consistently throughout the experience. Even though it isn’t as customizable as Cinnamon, I don’t find much need to tinker with it because it does look so good. It is a lot faster, and not quite as RAM hungry, too. This makes my app store, and software run nicely.
When compared to the others in this article, Vanilla GNOME (in particular on Pop where I tested) makes for the best 2-in-1 option. It isn’t perfect, but, as stated above, there is no such thing as a perfect 2-in-1. All you can hope for is the best experience possible. Vanilla GNOME on Pop delivers on that.
A Few to Stay Away
During testing, I found several DE’s that should be avoided at all cost if you want any kind of virtual keyboard and screen rotation support. These include:
XFCE — Linux Mint XFCE, Xubuntu, MX Linux
LXQTE — Lubuntu 20.04 and 18.10
KDE — KDE Neon, Kubuntu
It kills me inside to put these DE’s on the stay away list. I love these three. KDE is beautiful, quick as a whip, and highly customizable. XFCE is my favorite DE of all time with very light resource use, and customization that is more intuitive than any other DE. LXQTE is what got me into FOSS.
But none of these DE’s come even close to having reasonable screen rotation support. When testing, I found that, while you can force the screen to turn, the touch interface remains in landscape and therefore unusable. As of writing, I have found no workaround that would save any of them from this list.
However, if you have a desktop or plain old laptop, I cannot recommend the above DE’s enough, especially if you want to stay light on the RAM and CPU usage.