Innovative desktop environment

Surprising Shell

Article from Issue 236/2020

Offering a lean desktop, theShell demonstrates what an easy-to-use interface can look like if you think beyond outdated conventions.

No other operating system offers such a multitude of desktop environments as Linux. However, many of these user interfaces are very similar: MATE, Xfce, LXDE, and Trinity are based on similar ideas; their differences relate more to appearance and (under the hood) resource requirements.

Resource-friendly work environments, on the other hand, often deviate so greatly from modern approaches that they require a longer period of acclimatization. In addition, they often appear visually antiquated. Enter theShell [1]. If you are thinking it is just a lean desktop, you may be surprised that it does many things differently.

Based on the Qt toolkit, theShell works with the KDE KWin window manager by default. You can find theShell's source code [2] on GitHub, which means that you can compile it on any distribution. For this purpose, the developers provide some basic documentation [3], which details the required dependencies among other things.


Because theShell is integrated into a working distribution as an alternative desktop, it does not matter whether the existing work environment is based on Qt or GTK. TheShell cooperates with interfaces like MATE or LXDE and automatically loads the required dependencies. However, it does require a 64-bit system.

To install theShell on Arch Linux, you can retrieve binary packages from theSuite repository or install directly from the Arch User Repository.

To install directly on Ubuntu 18.04 or higher, you add a new repository to the package sources and then install the desktop from it. Listing 1 shows the commands to install theShell on Ubuntu; to do this, you need to be logged in as root or the equivalent.

Listing 1

Installing theShell on Ubuntu


Besides Ubuntu, theShell also supports Ubuntu derivatives. However, the developer, Victor Tran, cautions that theShell has only been tested on Arch Linux; the work environment for Ubuntu is still in beta.

After installation, you need to log out of the system. In the login screen that now appears, select theShell instead of the previous desktop.

As long as theShell is set to active in the login screen, theShell will load each time the computer boots. To switch back to your old working environment, make the appropriate selection in the login screen.

Design Concept

The Gateway, which is theShell's central control element, is an application selection list, which looks like a conventional menu. The Gateway displays the installed programs in a hierarchy with different, sometimes multilevel submenus. An input line at the bottom of the Gateway lets you quickly search for your desired application, even if the list is extensive (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The Gateway is theShell's central control element.

The Bar, a horizontal panel at the top of the desktop, also contains some apps. On the left-hand side, you will find an icon to access the Gateway. However, don't bother looking for a conventional system tray.

The Bar is hidden for applications, which theShell runs in full-screen mode. After closing or minimizing the application's window, the Bar automatically becomes visible.

Once launched, applications show the Bar in their own text tiles. Like a conventional panel, you can move the program to the foreground or minimize it by clicking on the respective item. TheShell color-highlights the tiles for a better overview.

Another special feature is the Status Center (Figure 2), which you can access by clicking on one of the existing elements in the Bar. This opens a full-screen window that shows the status of various components. At the top of the Status Center, there are some switches that let you control parameters for WiFi and Bluetooth. In addition, there is a Power Stretch switch, which promises improved battery life on mobile systems by disabling animations and some background processes.

Figure 2: The Status Center summarizes some important system functions.


TheShell comes with integrated applications much like other desktop environments. They include a graphical front end for package management and another for updating the system. The other on-board tools include a calculator, a file manager, and a terminal that supports a drop-down mode if required, similar to Yakuake.

Depending on the distribution, note that the tools called by the Gateway may be replaced by default desktop applications when installing theShell.

When reinstalling theShell on a Linux system already preconfigured with another desktop, theShell not only adopts the applications from the existing menus into the Gateway, but sometimes it also adopts their visual design effects.

This can cause theShell to display programs adopted from the default desktop with titlebars in a different style. In addition, some of theShell's applications are dropped from the Gateway, forcing you to use the tools from the default desktop instead of theShell's utilities. However, the Gateway and the Bar will remain regardless of the default work environment.

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