If the real CDE is too much work for you or for your computer there is a new version of the Not So Common Desktop Environment.
Nearly ten years ago, we reported that the official Common Desktop Environment had been made open source. In its day, CDE was quite a lot the unified desktop environment for commercial Unix operating systems: It ran on almost every proprietary Unix and Unix-like operating system out there, from IBM AIX to DEC’s Tru64, even on DEC’s OpenVMS.
NsCDE is on the screen of UNIX and Linux X11 to display some brutalism [is] into … architecture. Hard, megalithic, strong and functional – not for everyone’s taste
CDE dated back to the era of Windows 3 and OS/2 1, before the relative sophistication Windows 95 brought to the non-Apple-Mac-using world. It was a bit clunky, but still, people liked it and had nostalgia for it. As we mentioned in the 2012 article, there was a project to re-deploy it called OpenCDE, but as far as we can see it’s not anymore: the OpenCDE domain is for sale and there has been no activity on his Github in 11 years.
But a new competitor has emerged: NsCDE, the less common desktop environment. Let’s let the project describe itself:
The developer, “Hegel3DReloaded”, continues in the FAQ: “That said, NsCDE is on the screen of UNIX and Linux X11 shows what brutalism is in architecture. Tough, megalithic, strong and functional – not for everyone’s taste. NsCDE don’t try to please everyone and don’t pretend to be what everyone wants and likes.” (They also apologize for their English.)
Given our documented penchant for non-standard desktops, this is the sort of thing that appeals to us here at the Reg FOSS desk. Since the project released version 2.2 a few days ago, we thought we’d give it a try. Precompiled binaries are available for Fedora, openSUSE, and Debian family distributions – the latter in both x86-64 and several Arm variants.
When installed on a distro that already has a desktop, the package picks up the existing text editor, file manager, web browser and so on. We tried it on the latest Debian, which defaults to the GNOME desktop. The result was confusingly inconsistent: some apps had title and menu bars, others didn’t, and so on. (The particularly uncharitable might say this is fully representative of the underlying GNOME environment.)
The NsCDE desktop almost eerily resembles the real thing, and where it’s different, it’s better
We tried again based on Xubuntu, which usually eschews GNOME components. We found the result much more harmonious, with the Xfce component apps, such as the Thunar file manager and the Mousepad text editor, picking up NsCDE’s thick retro themes and looking good, and the environment works just as well as our fuzzy memories of 90s desktops. It looks good, and even the text-based first-run setup felt authentically 20th-century.
From a fresh start, Xfce used 495 MiB RAM. In contrast, NsCDE used only 291 MiB, a pretty significant saving. NsCDE is based on the FVWM window manager, plus its own elements, but the result is lightweight and feels snappy.
Installation is very simple: download the package, install it with
dpkgand then install any missing dependencies:
sudo dpkg -i nscde_2.2-6_amd64.deb sudo apt install -f
That’s all. Then it appeared in the list of available sessions on our login screen, both under Debian with GNOME and Xubuntu with XFCE.
We thought it would only be fair to compare it to the real thing. The genuine and now open-source Common Desktop Environment is still in active development: it is now 13 releases after the original version 2.2.0a. Version 2.5.0 was released just one day before NsCDE 2.2.
CDE’s maintainers host it on Sourceforge instead of Github, and they don’t publish binary packages: you have to clone the source code structure and then compile it yourself. There are good detailed instructions though, and once we installed the included dependency list, it built in about half an hour of compilation time in a two-core VM.
The genuine original Open Group CDE works perfectly on modern distributions, authentic whimsical fonts and everything
We performed it and were greeted with an eerily similar environment. Even the first startup screen in text mode is quite similar. CDE includes its own shell, text editor, file manager and so on, because things like that weren’t exactly standard in the 1990s.
The only thing that betrayed CDE’s age was that all of its fonts don’t have anti-aliasing, so they look jagged on a modern flat screen – the Help menu is right-aligned in the menu bar. Both are actually just like in the graphical version of WordPerfect for Linux.
The only major shock came when we checked memory usage with the
free command: from a fresh start, CDE used a whopping 892 MiB of RAM, more than three times as much as NsCDE.
We found that CDE struggled in some places. The terminal emulator cannot handle modern apps like:
htop or the Tilde text editor. We also saw some issues with redrawing the screen in VirtualBox.
It’s fun to experiment with vintage code this way, but if you really want to run a CDE-like desktop on a modern Linux distro, you’ll probably enjoy the experience with NsCDE more than with actual CDE – but they both work , and neither was difficult to install.
In fact, CDE’s documentation is excellent, with extensive tutorials on the desktop and very good build instructions, even telling you how to add it to your login screen. NsCDE also has extensive documentation, most of which open in your web browser. The resemblance between the new project and the original is astonishingly close, and we are very impressed with NsCDE’s fidelity.
Some people even prefer the look of bright fonts without anti-aliasing. If that sounds like you, you might like the combination of CDE and WordPerfect. If you have a big screen and like a pretty minimal desktop experience that’s highly customizable, and you don’t like full screen taskbars and app browsers, and so on, both are worth checking out. ®