I was a longtime Windows user with some previous experience using Ubuntu. At this point, Microsoft’s handling of the Windows 10 rollout had persuaded me to move back toward Linux Mint in particular. I had looked at several other aspects of the transition back to Linux; now I began to focus on the user interface.
The Windows Start Menu
This post presents some of what I learned and decided about Mint desktop environments, with a particular focus on what a Windows user would call the Start Menu and what Linux users evidently called the Application Menu: that is, the menu of options that would appear when a user clicked on the Start or Menu button at the lower left corner of the Windows desktop. I had long been using a classic Windows menu that looked like this:
This menu had several features that I appreciated:
- It was cascading. Over a period of some years, I had organized my programs and links into categories and subcategories, and had become familiar with where to look for a particular kind of tool.
- It was concise. I did not require two lines of text to explain to me what a given program in the menu did. I already knew; and if I didn’t, the organization of the menu would tell me what kind of program I was looking at. This menu was designed to minimize clutter, so that I could move as quickly as possible to the submenu I was looking for.
- It was compact. It used small icons and small fonts, so that all programs in a given subcategory could appear onscreen at the same time, conveniently organized.
- As detailed in another post, this menu was preserved and semi-portable. I had moved my Windows Start menu away from drive C, so I did not have to recreate and rearrange it every time I reinstalled Windows 7. To make this work, I just had to reinstall programs to their default locations. Then the shortcuts would link up with the program files like before.
- It was inclusive. This menu was not limited to links that would start installed programs. It also included web links — so that, for example, a foray into the Office subfolder could lead me to cloud-based word processing tools. It included all of the files used by portable programs, in their own subfolders. It included PDF documents and PowerPoint tutorials explaining how to use a given program. In short, the Start menu was a highly organized center for anything involving the use of programs in my Windows installation. Altogether, as listed in another post, it had more than 750 entries.
The question for me was, how could I achieve comparable functionality in Linux? That question was a part of the reason why I had not chosen Ubuntu, this time around. The Linux Mint “menu” button started out being closer to what worked for me. What I didn’t yet know was whether Mint would go far toward providing advantages like those listed above.
Appearance of Linux Menus
Beyond the similarity of having a button in the lower left corner of the screen, the initial impressions were not good. At this writing, a search produced many images of variations on the same old Ubuntu theme: big icons, loosely spaced, with lots of extra words, and little to no cascading. Leafing through hundreds of thumbnails produced by that search, however, I did identify several images that looked like they might have potential. Closer inspection revealed that one used the Mac-like Cairo dock; another announced that ZorinOS (Windows-like) themes and icons were available for use in Ubuntu and Mint; and one presented the cascading Start menu of the interesting but lightweight ROSA R6 LXQt. That Rosa page reminded me that classic cascading Start menus are not unknown in Linux: I had seen them in the Partition Magic and Knoppix live CDs, for example, and had recently seen an example in Linux Mint Mate.
The best classic menus — not only in Mint, but also in other Linux distributions — seemed to be found in the KDE desktop environment. A search led to 1 2 3 interesting examples. LinuxBSDos demonstrated examples of the KDE Classic, Kickoff, and Lancelot menu styles. I found confirmation that menu font sizes could be changed in KDE, though it appeared that font resizing might not always function as desired. Altogether, I came away with the impression that KDE’s classic menu might be able to appear much like my Windows Start menu.
(For the record, the Applications menu was not the only possibility. For instance, WebUpD8 said that KDE offered the alternative of a drop-down appmenu. Others suggested the options of Takeoff and Homerun application launchers, or a full-screen Application Dashboard.)
Ability to Edit and Save the Menu
Beyond the issue of menu appearance, there was also a question of editability. Could I move things around and create subfolders freely in the KDE classic menu? My 1 2 searches did not locate an immediate answer to the question of whether it was true, as I had heard somewhere, that Linux menus could cascade only three levels deep. I also got the impression that attempts to modify the menu might cause problems.
Page 32 of the Official User Guide for Linux Mint 17.3 said, “You can customize the menu in many ways.” But that page itself was not very persuasive. From what I could see, there were only a few options. I thought the Guide was probably more on-target when it said, later on that same page, “[Y]ou can modify some [I would have said “a few”] aspects of the Cinnamon menu.” That seemed to be the conclusion reached by at least one other Windows user as well.
Note, there, the reference to Cinnamon, not KDE. That was the Official User Guide for the Cinnamon flavor of Mint. I quoted from the Cinnamon Guide because the Mint website indicated that, as of this writing, there was no English-language User Guide for any version of Linux Mint KDE, whereas things were right up-to-date in Cinnamon. Not to say that KDE was disorganized; the sense I had, based on various comments, was just that it was something of a monster. Possibly I would be getting my KDE guidance primarily from the KDE website, which did appear to offer rather extensive documentation along with a UserBase and some well-trafficked forums.
As an alternative to menu editing in KDE, How-To Geek recommended installing and using the alacarte menu editor, at least back in the day of Linux Mint 12. That advice might still be creditable, unless alacarte or some superior alternative had meanwhile been built into Mint. More recently, LinuxBSDos recommended Configurable Menu, an applet for configuring the Cinnamon menu that, it seemed, might store its configuration data in the user’s home folder. If that turned out to be the situation, then the menu would have the potential to be restored to a home folder on another computer, or after a Mint reinstallation. One discussion uncovered by a search seemed to specify a procedure for backing up a KDE configuration as well.
My preliminary impression was that I would probably not enjoy as much freedom in the Linux Applications Menu as I had enjoyed in the Windows Start Menu. It appeared that KDE, especially, would be able to match some of the Windows features listed above, but would be inferior in other regards. Since I was not particularly interested in non-menu application launchers, there did not immediately appear to be any regards in which Linux would give me something that I couldn’t get in Windows, menu-wise, aside from the fact that, these days, Microsoft seemed to be trying to make it difficult to continue using Windows 7 at all, never mind its Start Menu. I certainly appreciated a variety of Linux menu options more than I liked the Windows 10 Start Menu.
I doubted that the menu would be a make-or-break feature, ultimately influencing my decisions on whether to use Linux, or which Linux to use. It seemed that, for further insights on the Applications Menu and its possibilities, I would probably need firsthand experience. KDE seemed like the place to start: if I couldn’t find what I was looking for there, it seemed I might not find it at all within the present state of the Linux world.