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Best Linux desktop for VirtualBox?


Sandy Bridge
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Howdy folks!  I don't know if I'm ever going to be a Linux-first user, but I do have a desire to have a good, responsive Linux desktop in VirtualBox.  Maybe if I like it enough it'll eventually become my primary, but for the time being it would be really handy to test software I am writing on Linux in VirtualBox without having to reboot into a native Linux install.

However, I've noticed that my Bionic Beaver VM is not very responsive like my old KDE 3.5 VMs were.  Programs take awhile to open.  The GUI doesn't react very quickly.  It's kind of like Windows 10 in that regard.  During the last days of NBR, I fired up some XFCE Linux Mint 20 machines, and they were noticeably snappier.  I tried Mint 20 MATE, but it's not as responsive as XFCE (although natively on my Core 2 Duo, it's good enough, and noticeably better than Mint 18 MATE).

So what I'm wondering, is what's the best balance of responsiveness in a VM (with VirtualBox's graphics), with a MATE/KDE 3.5-level feature set?  I've used XFCE professionally for a year (in 2020), and while it is sufficient I'd prefer slightly more creature comforts if possible.

Recommendations could be a distro (please keep it easy-to-use-out-of-the-box), a free VM software that will give snappier graphics (does VMWare have such an option these days), or a desktop environment that strike a good balance.

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On 2/8/2022 at 12:52 AM, Sandy Bridge said:

Recommendations could be a distro (please keep it easy-to-use-out-of-the-box), a free VM software that will give snappier graphics (does VMWare have such an option these days), or a desktop environment that strike a good balance.

 

As a VMware guy, I can't speak to VirtualBox but I can say that I've used various versions of Ubuntu and Linux Mint in VMware Workstation and never had an issue with "snappiness".  VMware Workstation has supported GPU acceleration in Linux guests for a while now, and I remember noticing when they added it that it definitely helps with desktop responsiveness.  The code (kernel modules, etc.) is open source so many major distros include it in-box.  If they do not, you can look for an "open VM tools" package for said distro and install that.  (This package should also provide things you'd expect like copy/paste synchronization between host and guest.  You should not have to run the script that VMware provides that tries to compile VMware Tools.)

 

As you probably know, VMware Workstation has a paid "pro" version, and also a "free" version ("VMware Workstation Player").  I do have the pro version so I'm not that familiar with the limitations of the free "Player" version — does it still not allow you to create/edit VMs, only run them?  If that's the case, I can let you in on a "trick".  Grab a trial version of VMware Workstation Pro and it will install both "Pro" and "Player" (as separate apps on the Start Menu).  Even after the trial expires, you can use "Pro" to create and manage VMs.  It doesn't actually give you an error about needing a license until you try to run a VM.  You can just run the VMs in "Player".

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10 hours ago, Aaron44126 said:

As a VMware guy, I can't speak to VirtualBox but I can say that I've used various versions of Ubuntu and Linux Mint in VMware Workstation and never had an issue with "snappiness".  VMware Workstation has supported GPU acceleration in Linux guests for a while now, and I remember noticing when they added it that it definitely helps with desktop responsiveness.  The code (kernel modules, etc.) is open source so many major distros include it in-box.  If they do not, you can look for an "open VM tools" package for said distro and install that.  (This package should also provide things you'd expect like copy/paste synchronization between host and guest.  You should not have to run the script that VMware provides that tries to compile VMware Tools.)

As you probably know, VMware Workstation has a paid "pro" version, and also a "free" version ("VMware Workstation Player").  I do have the pro version so I'm not that familiar with the limitations of the free "Player" version — does it still not allow you to create/edit VMs, only run them?  If that's the case, I can let you in on a "trick".  Grab a trial version of VMware Workstation Pro and it will install both "Pro" and "Player" (as separate apps on the Start Menu).  Even after the trial expires, you can use "Pro" to create and manage VMs.  It doesn't actually give you an error about needing a license until you try to run a VM.  You can just run the VMs in "Player".

Can second this; VMWare seems to work really well for Linux VMs, although if you're on Windows and have access to it, Hyper-V might be a good alternative (if you can get it to work with that, haven't used it much and can't say).

I'd say if you're gonna be running it in a VM, maybe start with something Debian-based, like Ubuntu or Mint. Fedora may not be a bad option as well; it's fairly fleshed out and stable from what I can tell.

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Any Debian or centos/fedora is as they have files already for virtual machine guests.

 

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When it comes to running a virtual machine host on Windows I'm quite a big fan of using VMware. VMware player will do nearly everything you need to have a responsive client with little to no configuration.

There's a feature comparison of player/workstation here: https://www.vmware.com/ca/products/workstation-player.html you miss out of some features like network types and snapshots.

 

My experience with Virtualbox has been mixed, usually decent aside from 3d acceleration support which I've had quite a few problems that i just didn't care to dive in to.

 

For my daily drive distro i use Manjaro gnome. I found that the "non-free" installation works amazingly well out of the box for nvidia cards and updates easily. Arch's AUR is crazy powerful, I find its probably the best option out there when it comes to using "3rd party software" (anything not included in the official repositories). Manjaro is also rolling release which is great if you're looking for the latest and greatest packages but also comes with some downfalls.

I personally think Manjaro is the most complete and "out of the box" ready to use distro out there.

 

When deciding your distro consider which package manager you want:

  • pacman/pamac (Arch/Manjaro)
  • apt/.deb (debian (Ubuntu, Mint)
  • yum/.rpm/dnf (Fedora/RHEL/CentOS)

There's other package managers but these are the main 3

 

Desktop Environments (DE) I would consider to use

  • Gnome (GTK based) is OK, and what I'm personally using right now but the philosophy behind it leaves me wanting to substitute and tweak things until its working the way I want it to work. I suppose its along the lines of a mac user "it just works" but in reality i find it lacking power user features.
  • KDE (kde qt based) is almost the opposite philosophy and my "favourite" DE. Full of features, eyecandy, and nearly everything can be customized to your liking. Its actually also very lightweight on resources surprisingly. The only reason I'm not using it is games don't seem to like it as much as gnome with my current hardware. Nvidia 3070 w/ 1440p 144hz main monitor 1080p 60hz second monitor.
  • XFCE  (GTK based) I found is good alternative to gnome for low powered systems, but again needs a lot of customizing to get it looking and working the way I want. I'll use it for running simple "one task" machine. It feels to me like the UI is dated though and I always find myself wanting to run KDE or Gnome.
  • Cinnamon (Linux mint's fork of gnome 2), Mate (another fork of gnome 2), Budgie, LXDE, LXQT, I3 | I honestly don't care too much for these or they're best suited for a specific workload (check out i3) though cinnamon is a great alternative to gnome and definitely worth looking at.

For me the distro I'd pick boil down to this:

Desktop/Daily driver:

  1. Manjaro (doesn't have .exe-like files like .dep/.rpm, usually anything found in those flavours can be compiled from source or added through the AUR (which you can optionally view/edit source code before adding)
  2. Linux Mint (not a fan of .deb files as they're harder to manage (remove/delete/modify) if you don't know where to look, plus you have to trust the person to not put anything damaging to your system in it.
  3. Fedora (not a fan of .rpm files for the same reason)

Although Debian/RHEL based distros are most widely supported by proprietary software developers by .deb/.rpm packages, AUR has many of those packages available there.

 

Server/Web server:

  1. Ubuntu
  2. CentOS however Redhat recently announced they're switching to a rolling release distro CentOS Stream there are some major changes happening on this front and is splintering users into many different flavours unfortunately.

Theres some alternatives for CentOS already, however its yet to be seen which one will be the spiritual successor.

  1. AlmaLinux
  2. Rocky Linux

I don't know If I even answered the question... I'd just use Manjaro KDE 😛

I've added links to all the underlined items to help with your own research too.

 

EDIT: as a side note you can also use distro agnostic programs: Flatpak, snap packages, and appimages to run programs not in their respective distro's repositories. These also come with their own pros and cons.

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  • 1 month later...

Circling back to this topic... I got distracted for a month or so, but recently decided to give Fedora a try.  Looks like maybe I should have tried VMWare first, as Fedora doesn't even boot under VirtualBox (with the latest Fedora 35 x64 Live DVD image).

 

Re-reading the replies, I realize that my criteria are different than Hiew's, and probably than most Linux users'.  I don't really care if the software I'm using is open-source, as long as it's reputable.  I don't want to have to think about package managers, I just want one that works.  I guess I've only really used apt, apt-get, and Synaptic over the past decade, and I never fell in love with them.

 

Although I do know enough to know I'm leery of snaps, due to the overhead of them and consequent slower startup time for applications, and to a lesser extent the space requirements.  As an option to resolve conflicting dependencies, maybe, but as the default in a package manager, no thanks.

 

I'm currently waffling between Manjaro KDE, or maybe PC Linux OS or Mageia.  Manjaro being Arch based is a bit intimidating, due to Arch's reputation of having to set everything up yourself.  Back when trying Linux distros was exciting to me, I did try Arch, but even then my enthusiasm was not sufficient for it.  But supposedly Manjaro tries to be easy to use.

 

Really, I wish there were a flowchart for choosing a Linux distro.  I've chosen semi-randomly over the years, and sometimes I've lucked out (PC Linux OS and Mandriva in the late 2000s, Mint 18), and sometimes not so much (Ubuntu 18.04 GNOME, Mint 20, Gentoo back in the day).

 

Desktop: Core i5 2500k "Sandy Bridge" | RX 480 8 GB | 32 GB DDR3 | 850 Evo + HDDs | Seasonic Prime Titanium 650W | 8.1 Pro

Laptop: MSI Alpha 15 | Ryzen 5800H | Radeon 6600M | 16 GB DDR4 | 512 GB SSD | 10 Home

Laptop history: MSI GL63 (2018) | HP EliteBook 8740w (acq. 2014) | Dell Inspiron 1520 (2007)

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