Do touch interfaces work on Linux desktops?

In today's open source roundup: DistroWatch looks at how touch interfaces perform in various Linux desktop environments. Plus: Linus shares his thoughts about computing security. And a review of the ASUS ZenWatch 2

Do touch interfaces work on Linux desktops?

The mobile revolution has trained many people to use touch screens instead of mice or trackpads. But how well do Linux desktop environments perform when it comes to touch? DistroWatch looked at various Linux desktops to find out how well they work as touch interfaces.

Jesse Smith reports for DistroWatch:

A little while back one of our readers e-mailed me and asked if I would experiment with the commonly used Linux desktops and report on how well they worked with touch interfaces. This is unusual territory for me. I generally do not like using touch interfaces, though I have worked with them on and off for over a decade. I tend to find navigating by swipes and finger presses cumbersome and unpleasant. I suspect part of the problem is my fingers are somewhat large, the buttons I am aiming at are often small (by comparison) and I dislike seeing finger prints on my screens.

On the whole, I don't think there were a lot of surprises in this trial. The older, traditional desktops (LXDE, MATE, Xfce) appear to be much more interested in saving screen space than being touch friendly. More modern desktops like KDE 4, GNOME Shell and Unity appear to be making an effort to use large, touch accessible controls. No desktop environment worked with touch perfectly, but GNOME certainly stood out as being made with touch screens in mind.

Something I noticed while exploring each desktop environment was there did not appear to be a way to right-click on anything. When using an Android phone, pressing down for an extended period usually causes a context menu to appear. This does not seem to be true of any of the desktop environments I used this week. I think this is a shame as hold-to-right-click probably would have made several tasks easier. I also found most desktops have not addressed scrolling. Unity tries to allow us to swipe to scroll, but it only works about half the time. The other desktops are all still stuck with traditional scroll bars which feel a little out of place when using a touch device.

In the end, I was quite happy to return to using a mouse instead of my finger. It is nice to be able to right-click on controls again and select items with a higher degree of accuracy. But if I do need to, in the future, use an open source desktop on a touch device, I hope it is GNOME Shell.

More at DistroWatch

DistroWatch's article spawned a thread in the Linux subreddit and redditors shared their thoughts about touch and Linux desktops:

Jens: ”It's a bit of a shame that he's trying the older Gnome version since the new one (3.18+) has a lot of really good features for touchscreens. The keyboard for example is spot on and works from login, onwards.

We worked on how to make touch more of an availability for Plasma 5 in Randa. There are some very clear specifics needed in 5 (like settings for touch gestures, a GOOD virtual keyboard, a way to easily resize, move and scroll in windows etc) - but mostly they are things that can be added without changing the desktop as a whole (meaning they don't affect those who don't use touch at all).”

Subsonik: ”Neat article. Figured gnome would be good for touch screens. Everything is so huge and spaced out by default in gnome. Accessibility and their human interface guidelines along with the way you launch apps from the HUD make sense for that environment to work good for touch. That said, I still can't stand it for use on a desktop. Needs too much tweaking in order to be usable and sane. ”

Markole: ”I adore using Gnome on the desktop. Why? I got used to Overview, workspaces and keyboard shortcuts.”

Lumentza: ”I'll share my experience.

I bought a cheap netbook with touchscreen that came with Windows 8 preinstalled,

UNITY

I first tried to install Ubuntu with Unity, but Ubuntu refused to boot in this netbook, something about UEFI. Arch did boot in the first attempt, so good bye Unity. I was in a experimenting mood but not enough to Install Unity in Arch.

GNOME3

In Arch I tried GNOME first, even if it isn't my choice with keyboard and mouse I expected it to be great with a touchscreen. And it is indeed well thought for this use case, the onscreen keyboard is not as good as the Windows one though, otherwise all the design decisions I didn't understand before started to make sense. However, as the author of the article I also had problems with GNOME, it stopped responding temporarily, or it froze completely. I investigated and it had apparently something to do with a new and more strict even handling policy in GTK, and the conclusion I arrived to was that the problem wouldn't be properly solved in the short term. That was about a year ago, so perhaps it's solved now in recent versions of GNOME, I haven't tried.

KDE4

So I installed KDE4. It behaved well and responsive even if the netbook is really modest, but as the author of the article I found very difficult to use it with the default theme, so I installed a window decoration theme called Simplicity[1] and configured it to my liking, with fat buttons and window borders. Much better.”

Redsteakraw: ”I don't know about the touchscreen but KDE does make use of multi-touch touchpads. I think multi-touch is a feature of Qt 5 so the frameworks 5 / Plasma 5 apps may be more capable. As for onscreen keyboards the keyboards that KDE uses for it's mobile ui is Maliit, MeeGo and Ubuntu Touch uses it as well. They experimented with a plasma keyboard but doe to the complexity they figured Maliit all ready does it better so it is better to delegate to it. They aren't alone in that regard. ”

Anglagard: ”And they say that Gnome was made for keyboard & mouse, and does not have anything to do with touch screens. Hah! It almost looks like Android/iOS. It's sad there there are no tablets shipping with Gnome...”

Redsteakraw: ”KDE also has their netbook UI which may be better for touch screens, the search and launch desktop is screaming to be used on a touchscreen. As for the gripes of window resizing and KDE, there is a window snap feature where you drag the window to a corner or side of the screen and it will snap to the side or corner. This allows for simple tiling. With Plasma 5, Breeze can be configured to have either large borders or a resize handle. It's nice to know KDE works well on touch screens while still working very well as a desktop. KDE is very configurable so there are tweaks you can do. ”

Silencement: ”2015, the year of the Linux touchscreen.”

Whotookmynick: ”Gnome3 was obviously made for touchscreens, what they called "unified interface." It was crap from the start.”

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