NsCDE, The Not so Common Desktop Environment

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I’m quite excited about this desktop. The original “Common Desktop Environment” (CDE) was jointly developed back in 1993 by big names including HP, IBM and Sun and became the standard desktop for Unix machines until around the year 2000. It was also ported for use with Red Hat Linux in 1997. In the early 2000s, however, CDE started being replaced by Gnome and development slowed down. Sadly, it wasn’t until 2012 that CDE was finally released under an open source licence. A bit too late, otherwise we would probably have had another desktop environment for Linux to play around with. As it stands, a pure CDE install on Linux does not produce a very functional desktop.

The original CDE set-up

There is a rather large panel at the bottom with access to 4 default virtual desktops. That was quite a feature back in 1993.  Around it we find a lock-screen and a log-out button as well as a system load indicator that flickers under load like a hard disk indicator light. To the left we have a clock, a calendar, the shortcut to the file manager, a text editor and the short cut to the email client. You’ll note there is a little arrow over the text editor icon. When clicked, a menu expands with more applications marked “personal”. You can add more apps here for quick access. Otherwise, apps are launched using the icon further on the right. When clicked, a window with app categories is displayed, very much like a file manager. To the left of the app launcher is a settings menu for the system fonts, colors, mouse behavior and other basic options. Further left is the printer manager. At the very right we get a help menu and the trash can. When you open an app and minimize it, it reduces to an icon pegged to the top left of the work space. Further icons are added below the previous one. Reminds me a bit of NextStep/Window Maker. The overall look and feel might also remind some of the Amiga operating system, with the analog clock and it’s generous use of colors throughout.

Since development stopped many years ago and many of the underlying technologies are no longer current, CDE cannot really be used as a viable desktop environment today. Enter NsCDE, the Not so Common Desktop Environment.


Developed by “Hegel3DReloaded” and published on GitHub , NsCDE recreates the original look and feel with current technology. The result is a perfectly usable retro style desktop environment. It is based on a heavily modified FVWM windows manager and could be described as a “lightweight hybrid desktop environment” according to it’s developer. If you want to go back to the 90s, then this might just be what you’ve been looking for. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?

The easiest way to try it out is through Sparkylinux. Busy maintainer Pavroo has recently added the NsCDE to the many desktop environments available for installation. Either use the Sparky tool APTus or open a terminal and  enter:

sudo apt update
sudo apt install nscde-desktop

I fired-up a recent ISO of Sparky’s LXQt and installed it to a virtual drive, then added the NsCDE desktop. You can also test it in a live environment. Just install, log out, choose NsCDE from the menu and log back in again. You will be greated with a “first run” script to finish the installation.

On first sight, the system appears very much identical to the original. The looks deceive, however, because there is a lot more functionality now. First thing to note: We can right click anywhere on the desktop to invoke a global Openbox menu. The look and feel keeps perfectly to the original. We also get a modern file manager, PCManFM and have a complete set of settings to easily configure our system, just as with any other Linux distro.

I installed htop and got the following incredible readings: RAM: 224MB, Tasks: 58, Threads: 30! FVWM is very frugal, even after heavy modification.

NsCDE comes with a comprehensive 54 page manual describing all the technologies and configurations used to recreate the original CDE. It is quite technical, so don’t expect to be able to read through it like a novel. The developer admits it is not suitable for beginners as one would need to dig around to get things modified but it is quite usable out of the box thanks to Sparky.

Let’s have a look at day to day usability:


After using it for a while, I discovered I could use apps like Firefox full screen and still access the bottom panel and other active apps by double clicking on the very bottom of the screen. The same functionality can also be invoked by clicking on Firefox’s top panel (or any other app for that matter) This invokes the bottom panel and displays active apps docked to the top left of the screen. The panel does auto-hide by itself, but to make it reappear we have to do what I mentioned above. Just as with CDE, we get 4 virtual desktops by default. Unlike the original, however, we also get 4 pages for each of the 4 desktops. So each desktop can have 4 sub desktops – neat! I never came across a concept like that before. the Icon/button for that is on the bottom left of the central part of the panel. We can also add more virtual desktops if required.

Launching & Accessing Apps

The original way to launch apps in CDE was not practical to implement, so the developer went with Openbox. I have been a fan of Openbox for a long time, in my opinion it is as timeless and practical as the traditional “Start” menu. Additionally, we can add popular apps to the sub panels of the bottom panel. Just click on the sub panel and then “install icon”. You will get a list of available applications. Move the one you want to add to the right pane, then select it and hit save. We can also replace the default main apps on the panel by opening a sub panel, selecting an app and then choose “copy to main panel”.

I like how minimized apps dock as icons to the top left of the desktop. This can be done for each web browser window separately and thanks to the added text, it’s easy to see which one is which. This way we can have clear separate access to web mail, Spotify, etc. I remember trying to get something similar done with the Unity dock back then on Ubuntu but it didn’t work out for me.

We also have a system tray on the bottom right corner of the screen. If we launch Sparky’s Radiostation app for example, it will reside there and we would change channels by clicking on it’s icon. Also, VLC will populate the tray when launched and can be collapsed and expanded from there.

Final thoughts

I find it’s easier to review a distro than a desktop environment. There is always a tremendous amount of resistance to adapt to a new workflow doctrine and it takes a while to grow on one. I almost gave up early on NsCDE but I am glad I didn’t. It turns out it is perfectly usable. The developer says it’s for people who don’t like modern hypes or systems mimicking MacOS or Windows. He definitely succeeded! Many thanks to him for sharing this project with us.

Many thanks also to Pavroo of Sparkylinux for providing us with an easy option to use NsCDE.

Have you ever used the original CDE or had any experience with NsCDE? Let us know in the comments below!




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2 years ago

1995 called, they want their UI back!

Different strokes for different folks.

7 days ago
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Its likeable because some of us like the old school look. I might try installing it onto my Slackware install, but I am used to GnuStep as my WM

2 years ago

Hi Mike!

I loved this UI! I used it on my favorite HP-UX desktop system in the server room at Genentech. Fast, reliable, simple to set up and use–once you get the hang of it.


Thanks for the great review.

I’m restarting my interest in Linux after a prolonged absence.

I hope to install this onto an old MacBook Pro I haven’t used in awhile.


Melroy van den Berg
1 year ago

I also use NsCDE now for a while, I still suffer a bit on how to deal with window focus and dragging windows to full-screen or half screen, on modern WMs it’s just dragging your window to a border or corner. Which is here not the case.

Also killing the window takes 2 clicks. Bottom-line: I really do like like retro Solaris kind of feel, but it’s still not fully modern enough for me. In any case, I’m still using it now.

Melroy van den Berg
1 year ago

Best Window manager I have ever used!!

1 year ago

It had been a long time since I used CDE .. but a looking forward to getting NsCDE setup and running on all my machines. I’d much rather have function over flash, rather get things done then spend time playing with all the pretty lights and switches. I am going to try get NsCDE up and running also on a wide range of single board computers. (Raspberry Pi’s, Orange Pi, NanoPc, Nanopi and anything else I have kicking around.) A common desk top for all!

1 year ago

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Last edited 1 year ago by blackjack
6 months ago

I like it. Brings back fond memories when computers were used by intelligent people.