Battle of the Retro Unix Desktops: NsCDE versus CDE – The Register | Hot Mobile Press

When real CDE is too much hard work for you or A new version of the Not So Common Desktop Environment is available for your computer.

Almost a decade ago we reported that the official Common Desktop Environment was 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 designed to display brutalism on UNIX and Linux X11 screens [is] in … architecture. Rough, megalithic, strong and functional – not everyone’s taste

CDE dates from the Windows 3 and OS/2 1 era, before the relative sophistication that Windows 95 brought to the Mac-less world. It was a bit clunky, but people still liked it and were nostalgic for it. As we mentioned in the 2012 article, there was a re-implementation project called OpenCDE, but as far as we can see it isn’t anymore: the OpenCDE domain is for sale, and there hasn’t been any activity on its github in 11 years.

But a new competitor has emerged: NsCDE, the Not-so-Common Desktop Environment. We let the project describe itself:

Its developer “Hegel3DReloaded” continues in the FAQ: “However, NsCDE is intended to show on the screen of UNIX and Linux X11 what brutality is in architecture. Rough, megalithic, strong and functional – not everyone’s taste. NsCDE does not try to please everyone and does not 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 binary packages are available for Fedora, openSUSE and Debian family distributions – the latter in both x86-64 and multiple ARM flavors.

When the package is installed on a distribution that already has a desktop, it takes over the existing text editor, file manager, web browser, etc. We tried it on the latest Debian, which uses the GNOME desktop by default. The result was bewilderingly inconsistent: some apps had title and menu bars, others didn’t, and so on. (The particularly unkind might say that this is fully representative of the underlying GNOME environment.)

The NsCDE desktop is almost scary like the original, and where it’s different, it’s better

We tried again based on Xubuntu, which mostly does without GNOME components. We found the result to be much more harmonious, with the Xfce component apps, like the Thunar file manager and mousepad text editor, picking up on NsCDE’s clunky retro themes and looking the part, and the environment works just as well as our faint memories to the desktops of the 1990s. It looks like it, and even the text-based initial install felt authentically 20th-century.

Upon reboot, Xfce was using 495 MiB of RAM. In contrast, NsCDE consumed only 291 MiB, a fairly significant saving. NsCDE is based on the FVWM window manager plus its own elements, but the result is light and snappy in feel.

The installation is very simple: download the package, install with dpkgthen install any missing dependencies:

sudo dpkg -i nscde_2.2-6_amd64.deb 
sudo apt install -f

That’s all. After that it appeared in the list of available sessions on our login screen, both on Debian with GNOME and on Xubuntu with XFCE.

We thought it was only fair to pit it against the Real Thing. The true and now open source Common Desktop Environment is still under active development: it is now 13 releases away from the original 2.2.0a version. Version 2.5.0 was released just a day before NsCDE 2.2.

CDE’s maintainers host it on Sourceforge, not Github, and they don’t release binary packages: you have to clone the source tree and then compile it yourself. However, there are good, comprehensive instructions, and once we installed the provided list of dependencies, it built it in a two-core VM in about half an hour of compile time with no problems.

The real original Open Group CDE works perfectly on modern distros, authentic jagged fonts and all.

The real original Open Group CDE works perfectly on modern distros, authentic jagged fonts and all

We ran it and were greeted with an eerily similar environment. Even the text mode first boot setup screen is quite similar. CDE includes its own shell, text editor, file manager, and so on, since such things were not standard equipment in the 1990s.

CDE’s age only revealed that all fonts are anti-aliased and therefore appear jagged on a modern flat screen – the Help menu is right-aligned in the menu bar. Both are just like in the graphical version of WordPerfect for Linux.

The only big shock came when we checked memory usage with the free Command: After a reboot, CDE consumed a whopping 892 MiB of RAM, more than three times as much as NsCDE.

We did find that CDE struggled a bit in places. Its terminal emulator can be used with modern apps such as htop or the tilde text editor. We also saw some screen redraw issues in VirtualBox.

It’s fun to experiment with vintage code this way, but if you actually want to run a CDE-like desktop on a modern Linux distro, you’ll probably enjoy the experience with NsCDE more than real CDE – but either will work, and neither was difficult to install.

In fact, CDE’s documentation is excellent, with comprehensive manuals on the desktop and very good building instructions, even telling you how to add it to your login screen. NsCDE also has extensive documentation, most of which opens in your web browser. The resemblance between the new project and the original is amazing and we are very impressed with NsCDE’s fidelity.

Some people actually prefer the look of crisp fonts without anti-aliasing. If that sounds like you, then you might find the combination of CDE and WordPerfect very enjoyable. If you have a big screen and like a fairly minimal desktop experience that’s highly customizable, and you don’t like taskbars and full-screen app browsers and whatnot, both are worth a look. ®

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