NsCDE | Not So Common Desktop Environment on openSUSE

One of the aspects that first attracted me to Linux was the choice in desktop environments. What I specifically thought was great when I made the switch to Linux from Windows was the KDE option at the time. I could shape and mold it to what I wanted my desktop to be, something I had never experienced quite like that before.

My first real foray into using Unix was working with CDE or the Common Desktop Environment. It was so radically different than anything I had used before. Sure, it has windows I could move around, menus for where the software lived but it had something I hadn’t used before. It had virtual desktops. These were a marvelous new feature I had never seen before and I found them absolutely fantastic.

I was working for a major appliance manufacturer at the time, using CDE on an HP Unix system. I was amazed how I could have my mechanical design work on one virtual desktop, Lotus Notes on another and a web browser on yet a 3rd virtual desktop. There were 6 desktops in total I could place things and even move various bits of work between these desktops. It was this marvelous user experience along with encouragement to give Linux a try that I ultimately became a Linux user.

I had since moved on from HP Unix and CDE but I never forgot the experience. I found out excitedly on Twitter that Lubos Kocman, openSUSE Leap release manager, had packaged up NsCDE for openSUSE. I put it on my list of things I had to do. Admittedly, it is a long list but it surfaced to the top when I suggested that, on Linux Saloon, we try out NsCDE as a kind of desktop exploration.

BLUF: NsCDE is a CDE Look-alike desktop environment. It is, fundamentally, FVWM in a CDE wrapper which allows for easy access and use of more modern underpinnings. It was a great trip down nostalgia lane but it is quite clear that what we all “love” about CDE is very much a 1990s desktop interface paradigm. It was very fun to use and get things done but desktops have moved on from what CDE is and how we use them.


A prerequisite for installing NsCDE, you will need to install “OPI” to make this happen the easy way. You can check out how to do that here.

There is a graphical method of installing NsCDE but what fun is that if we are going back to the 90s? In terminal, run this:

sudo opi NsCDE

In my case there were only 14 packages that had to be installed. It took all of 60 MiB of additional storage space. So, really, not a major burden on your storage.

First Run and Initial setup

Adding NsCDE to Tumbleweed was quite trivial and didn’t take very long. Once Zypper was done installing all the necessary packages, it was time to log out of my beloved Plasma and into my Unix past with NsCDE.

SDDM has the option to change your user session. In the lower left side of the screen you can select which session you would like to run. I selected NsCDE, entered my credentials and as soon as I hit “enter” the old, familiar hourglass icon replaced my cursor as it was loading.

It was a happy surprise that NsCDE gives you a kind of “first run” wizard but in a terminal form. Sure, not the friendliest way to start your session out but you ARE running NsCDE which wouldn’t exactly be something I would put into the “easy for a new user” category. The step by step prompts were straight forward and I went with the defaults for each question, which was, perhaps, a bit of a mistake.

The desktop presents itself much like I remember CDE did some 20 years ago. The color scheme is very much of the 1990s with pastels which I’m sure were fantastic in their own time. I did go through the various themes to see if I could select one that really made CDE pop and feel a bit more modern, or at least, to my liking. Unfortunately, the various themes were much like one another with pallets that were variations of shades of orange, teal and brown. I ended up leaving it at the default scheme as that was most to my liking.

I explored the various menus at the bottom dock and did notice that many of the applications I run regularly were missing from the selections. The right-click menu was also without all that I was hoping I’d see but that was no problem as there was a terminal readily available to me.

I decided, that I wanted to get some actual work done while on NsCDE. Things like video editing, conducting research on the web, taking notes and general communicating. Really, all these things worked out quite nicely. Moving apps around to the various virtual desktops worked out without any issue whatsoever. I could very much be productive on NsCDE.

I did have a few issues and I couldn’t reproduce them consistently. One was that the desktop would lock itself up from time to time. The applications would still function but the desktop itself had become unresponsive. This became a problem when I had various applications on different virtual desktops. Since I am pretty good about saving early and often so I didn’t lose any work, just time in being productive.

In using NsCDE, I did find that there were a lot of Plasma features I ended up missing quite a bit, things I didn’t even realize I would use that I didn’t think to use so many years ago. Simple things like my shortcuts, my quick way of doing things and so forth. I am quite sure that I can customize this but there isn’t that convenient Plasma way of doing it. It’s not that I couldn’t get used to it. It’s more of a matter of motivation.

There were some settings I couldn’t locate as I was using the desktop environment. Just little things, I wanted to tweak, such as changing some of the default applications and the like. I’m sure it’s there someplace, but I was unsuccessful in locating it.

Another annoyance with NsCDE was that not all my applications were in the menus. Many where, but not all. I’m quite sure it is a bug that will iron itself out in time. There was a menu item to “Regenerate” the list but it didn’t do anything. Perhaps there is something missing. Regardless, I was able to launch the applications through the terminal quite happily.

What I like

On the very first run, the setup process is quick and easy. You are asked a series of questions that lays out the defaults quite nicely.

CDE / NsCDE provides a very simple interface that is easy enough with which to get going. There really isn’t much to NsCDE and as a consequence, not much to learn. It is also very useful and makes work fun.

Since NsCDE is highly configurable, you can set your defaults and as such, I can use my preferred file manager, Dolphin.

The general nostalgia feel of running something very CDE on my modern system is the absolute best part. I very much enjoy the late 90s GUI experience. It is a great reminder of what using Unix or Linux was some 20 plus years ago. It really brought an ear-to-ear smile to my face.

What I Don’t Like

A feature that I have become quite accustomed to using in Plasma is the snapping and tiling windows. It has been a kind of “staple” in my desktop usage. NsCDE lacks any kind of snapping or tiling and it makes the window management a bit less fun than what I would have on Plasma. It would be a welcome feature on NsCDE.

None of the color schemes are to my liking. I am sure I could take the time to make a color scheme that I really like but just haven’t gotten that far yet. What is there is all kind of much of the same.

When I initially set the default file manager in NsCDE to “pcmanfm” this also affected my default file manager in Plasma. Not a huge deal but it does limit how much I can tailor the experience and not affect my already customized Plasma session. To really experience NsCDE the way it really needed to be experienced, I did end up setting a separate user to keep any customizations from affecting my regular session.

Final Thoughts

I am aware the CDE is now open sourced and perhaps I should really give that try. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been built for openSUSE at this time but it might be a rather fun adventure and trip down nostalgia lane.

Although I won’t be changing over from using KDE Plasma to NsCDE, I will absolutely be keeping NsCDE on my system so that I can hop into it for nostalgia sake. CDE was my introduction into Unix which lead me into Linux. CDE was an important stop on my computer journey and although it is clearly a work flow from another decade, it is absolutely functional and quite a joy to use. I highly recommend trying it out. If not on your main syste, then just on another for fun. You just might enjoy it more than you think you would.


NsCDE Github

5 thoughts on “NsCDE | Not So Common Desktop Environment on openSUSE

  1. We were using DEC Windows Motif (CDE on VAX/VMS) – apart from a few who were using KDE on Sun Workstations …

      1. I do hope to be able to “kick the tires” on one of those at some point. I think it would be fun to work with.

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