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Don’t know which Linux desktop environment is for you? From Gnome to KDE, from MATE to Unity, there’s a lot of choice out there. Where should you start?

Windows and Mac both basically offer one desktop interface: the default one. Linux is another beast entirely. You can choose whatever desktop interface you like. Overwhelmed? Here’s a list of the top ten desktop environments, to make it easy to compare.

Gnome 3

Gnome is one of the two major desktop environments available, alongside KDE. It was the top dog during the heyday of Gnome 2, but its market share has declined since the introduction of Gnome 3. For users who enjoyed Gnome 2, some developers forked the old project into MATE – keep reading to learn more about that.

fedora19_about
Gnome 3 features Gnome Shell, a new paradigm for a computer desktop GNOME 3 Beta - Welcome To Your New Linux Desktop GNOME 3 Beta - Welcome To Your New Linux Desktop Read More . Most of the interaction with the desktop environment is hidden in the “Activities” view, which some love and others hate. Additionally, Gnome has been leaning towards a simplification of the desktop. For example, there are no maximize or minimize buttons, and a handful of settings that most Linux users have been accustomed to having were removed as well.

Many disagree, but I still think it’s a good desktop environment to use. Gnome 3 is based off of the GTK framework that is created specifically for the desktop environment. Is the same framework that a majority of Linux applications use as well, which means that those applications will work well with the Gnome desktop environment visually. If you’re willing to adjust your workflow, you just might find yourself loving Gnome.

KDE

KDE is the other major desktop environment, alongside Gnome. It is considered to be the flashiest and most resource-heavy desktop environment of them all. It’s also the one that looks closest to Windows’ desktop without any special modifications or themes. KDE has the most features, as well as a massive amount of settings you can change to customize your experience. There are also a lot of themes available for KDE, so you can really benefit from KDE’s features and still have it look the way you want it to.

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kde-desktop
Like I mentioned earlier, you do need a bit more muscle to run a KDE desktop at acceptable performance. You shouldn’t expect to be able to run KDE well on a low-powered system like a netbook or an old desktop/laptop, even if you turn off all of the flashy features that don’t actually offer any functionality. The desktop environment uses the Qt (pronounced “cute”) framework, which isn’t used quite as often as GTK is for applications (though there are many apps made specifically for KDE).

Xfce

xfce
Xfce is a much lighter desktop environment XFCE: Your Lightweight, Speedy, Fully-Fledged Linux Desktop XFCE: Your Lightweight, Speedy, Fully-Fledged Linux Desktop As far as Linux goes, customization is king. Not only that, but the customization options are so great it might make your head spin. I have previously mentioned the differences between the major desktop environments... Read More that is based on the GTK framework. It looks quite similar to Gnome 2/MATE, but it’s a lighter option than those two. It’s also much lighter than Gnome 3 and KDE, so it’s perfect for low-powered devices or for systems whose owners seek to attain maximum performance. It’s not the lightest option available – keep reading for that – but Xfce does   achieve a balance of performance and function.

LXDE

lxde_lubuntu_desktop
LXDE is arguably the lightest option available for a desktop environment Using An Old Computer? Give It New Life With LXDE Using An Old Computer? Give It New Life With LXDE As Linux is arguably the most customizeable operating system between it, Windows, and Mac OS X; there's plenty of room to change just about whatever you please. Proper customizing can potentially lead to massive performance... Read More , at least among those that the traditional desktop paradigm. This GTK-based desktop environment replaces all of the default applications with even lighter options (think Abiword, Gnumeric, etc. instead of LibreOffice), and it offers no flashy visual effects – nor does it have very good aesthetics in general, without heavy tweaks. However, it’s still a functional desktop that you should consider using if you want something simple and fast.

Unity

ubuntu_trusty_desktop
Unity is the default desktop for Ubuntu Ubuntu 11.04 Unity - A Big Leap Forward For Linux Ubuntu 11.04 Unity - A Big Leap Forward For Linux It's here. The newest version of Ubuntu sports an entirely new user interface: Unity. It also includes a much-improved Software Center, alongside the usual updates for the thousands of free programs Ubuntu offers. Canonical decided... Read More , and piggybacks off of Gnome. In fact, everything about it is the same as Gnome except that the desktop shell is different. The supplementary programs such as the file manager and the control center are all shared. Unity is only officially supported on Ubuntu, and it’s unofficially available on a few distributions like Fedora and Arch Linux, both via third-party repositories. It’s a pretty good desktop environment to use because it’s rather simple to learn, and the Dash can be extended through the use of scopes Search News, Torrents, Spotify & More On Ubuntu's Dashboard [Linux] Search News, Torrents, Spotify & More On Ubuntu's Dashboard [Linux] Add a variety of powers to Ubuntu's dashboard, allowing you to quickly find news, stock information, the weather in any town, or even torrents. It's just a matter of finding and installing the right lenses,... Read More .

Cinnamon

cinnamon_desktop
Cinnamon is another alternative to Gnome Gnome-Based Desktop Environments Explained: MATE vs. Gnome Shell vs. Unity vs. Cinnamon Gnome-Based Desktop Environments Explained: MATE vs. Gnome Shell vs. Unity vs. Cinnamon Ever since Gnome went ahead with their Gnome Shell idea, the Linux community has been at a frenzy to find a new desktop environment that is right for them. A majority of users used Gnome... Read More . It tries to use the new technologies included in Gnome 3 but look more like Gnome 2. This desktop is primarily made for Linux Mint, and is unofficially available on a few other distributions as well. It’s similar to Unity in availability and goal – to replace Gnome Shell with something else. If you’re coming from Windows, it’s probably going to feel more familiar than Gnome 3 or Unity.

MATE

mate_desktop
MATE is a continuation of the Gnome 2 codebase A Review Of MATE - Is It A True Gnome 2 Replica? [Linux] A Review Of MATE - Is It A True Gnome 2 Replica? [Linux] The world of Linux desktop environments has dramatically changed since then. Gnome 3 was born, Gnome 2 was essentially thrown to the side, Gnome 3 was forked to create Cinnamon, and so on. However, Gnome... Read More . When Gnome 3 was released, Gnome 2 was officially considered dead and a lot of people were recommended to upgrade or move to a different supported desktop environment. However, there were quite a few people who liked Gnome 2 and wanted to continue to use it, so they forked it and named the new project “MATE.” This was done to continue development on the desktop environment, not only to add new features to it but to make improvements like fix bugs and rework some code.

Openbox

openbox_desktop
Is LXDE not light enough? Give Openbox a try. It steps away from the traditional desktop paradigm and operates on completely minimalistic principles Need A Fresh Desktop Environment for Linux? Try Openbox Or xmonad Need A Fresh Desktop Environment for Linux? Try Openbox Or xmonad Read More . While Openbox is highly customizable, the default setup will be very bare. In fact, if you’re used to traditional desktops, you might at first think that your desktop never loads, but in fact it loads very quickly and has nothing to show for it. Applications are opened via a right-click menu, which open up in normal windows in the seemingly endless, empty space. This desktop environment is great for those who run on extremely low-powered devices or just don’t care for any of the features that other desktop environments provide.

Xmonad and awesome

xmonad_example
Xmonad and awesome are the last two desktop environments I’d like to mention. They are both tiling window managers Need A Fresh Desktop Environment for Linux? Try Openbox Or xmonad Need A Fresh Desktop Environment for Linux? Try Openbox Or xmonad Read More , meaning that — instead of making free-form windows — it creates windows that follow a specific set of rules that you can write yourself. Most commonly, you’ll have the first window take over your entire screen, two windows will be split vertically, three windows will have one window take one half and two windows will split the other half, and four windows will take up a quadrant of the screen.

You can also enable virtual desktops and a bunch of keyboard shortcuts, but the general idea here is that you can configure everything to the way you like it. When comparing the two, people say that Xmonad is a more stable. Additionally, Xmonad uses Haskell for its configuration scripts while awesome uses Lua.

Conclusion

As you can see, there are a lot of different options to choose from. Think this is more than enough? There’s even more desktop environments than this  — albeit they’re lesser known. If you really think that none of these fit your needs, then you can search for others, but these 10 are among the top for a reason: they satisfy virtually everyone’s needs.

What’s your favorite desktop environment? What feature do you think is missing from it? Let us know in the comments!

  1. James Van Damme
    October 8, 2015 at 11:03 pm

    Bodhi is one of the few distros that comes with the Enlightenment desktop. It's fast and pretty. Good for older PCs that could use some eye candy.

    That said, I usually stick with Mint Cinnamon, because I'm an old fuddy duddy. And like things to just work, although Cinnamon occasionally locks up on me. I'm toying with KDE 5 now.

    Frankly, I don't get the religious enthusiasm of different desktop fanboys. I get along with any of them, and they're pretty similar.

  2. Matt McGraw
    September 16, 2015 at 11:31 pm

    i3?

    How are you going to mention xmonad and awesome without i3? It's the king of tiling wm!

  3. esrin
    February 16, 2015 at 2:55 pm

    What about Razor-qt??

    For people who have a love/hate relationship with KDE, it's a life-saver.
    I'm really surprised more people don't use it and I never see talk about it.
    It can be KDE without the resource hogging Plasma crap if you set it up that way.

    Really, why isn't there more mention of it? I would have given up on linux a few years ago if I hadn't found it. I needed the modern desktop of KDE but it would basically handicap my computer. Razor-qt was the answer. I also tried Trinity but it was just a relic of the old KDE3 which just didn't work for some reason.

  4. Jhamela
    February 3, 2015 at 10:40 am

    What about Deepin Desktop Environment and Evolve OS DE?

  5. Chris
    October 16, 2014 at 8:15 pm

    It should be noted that xmonad and awesome are not full blown desktop enviroments, but just window managers. What I mean by this is this: Gnome has Nautilus, Xfce Thunar, but xmonad has no built in file manager. It is best used in conjuction with a full desktop enviroment, so you can actually have apps. Or you could just pick all the apps yourself, instead of getting them all together.

  6. supdude
    September 11, 2014 at 5:48 am

    where is Pantheon Shell here??? THE BEST DE for Linux right now.

  7. Seetharam
    August 15, 2014 at 4:12 am

    I use GNOME 3 and it looks perfect for me. It looks classy and really mature. I don't know why others complain about it. I tried KDE but felt that too many settings actually spoils the interest. I tried many tweaks to decorate the desktop including Conkylua but I found that the default settings are the best with a minimum bit of tweaks.
    And by the way, in my opinion, performance, stability, response-time and utility should outweigh the visual appeal of a desktop

  8. Robford
    June 14, 2014 at 9:59 am

    I think they all have their benefits and drawbacks, but it's great that linux users have the choice and the options to truly make your operating system your own. The only downside (for me anyway) is the fact that I've been distro-hopping for years now. I've spent more time installing operating systems than actually doing work!

    • Seetharam
      August 15, 2014 at 4:15 am

      True to me too. Now fedora is my 6th OS, and I have to upgrade it every six months :(

  9. ElZergo
    June 9, 2014 at 3:23 pm

    well well desktop environments... tried everything since win 3.1 and those first Red Hat WM's, window maker, Gnome, kde , fluxbox, openbox, blackbox... you name it (excluding ubuntu wm's since I never tried that noob-friendly distro), the best is the one that fits your needs and specs... if you have time for customizing go for a customizable one... , if you have the hardware to load a heavy one, put that processor and ram to work!! I see no case in loading a blackbox in a quadcore/ 8gb ram box or even worse using a full pledged KDE in a atom/2GB laptop.... IMHO gnome shell 3.x is the future, the shell offers what the mainstream is aiming for... simplicity, style and performance and with the gnome 3 extensions out there available and custom themes... forget about it. Nice review Danny ....Keep the good work

  10. memo
    June 5, 2014 at 6:44 pm

    Hi, I am a big fan(boy) of awesome WM and I'm glad to see it mentioned here.
    What I am missing is a config tool, because configure in lua is not that easy :-).
    I don't realy care, but I understand everyone who says "no" because of this.

  11. David A. Spicer
    May 28, 2014 at 4:04 am

    My distribution of choice is Arch Linux, hands down. It's a little bit of a chore to install and get setup, especially on older hardware, but that's now been eliminated. Antergos makes installing and setting up Arch Linux, with the desktop environment of your choosing, very easy.
    http://distrowatch.com/table.php?distribution=antergos

  12. Thomas S
    May 27, 2014 at 5:52 am

    Don't see anything about Zorin. Does anybody have a comment as to how this compares with others?

    • Danny S
      May 31, 2014 at 10:32 pm

      Zorin isn't its own desktop environment. I believe it's just a highly customized version of one of the above-mentioned desktop environments.

  13. J6
    May 25, 2014 at 5:04 am

    "It looks quite similar to Gnome 2/MATE, but it’s a lighter option than those two."
    MATE is actually lighter than XFCE.

    You should also add in Pantheon DE, a DE developep by elementary OS team and used in the famous elementary OS. It is lighter & response faster than GNOME 3, KDE, Cinnamon, and argurable the most beautiful DE at present.

  14. ASFwqjhnfkqwn
    May 21, 2014 at 9:49 am

    XDE used in XUBUNTU or game consoles, light, functional and for what I experienced more stable than XFDE.

    Enlightnment also mentioned in other comments is quite an important mention, no so widely known or used but its technology is worth a look.

    A new kid is the experience made by Elementary OS.

  15. RedHat
    May 19, 2014 at 11:31 pm

    I'm very tempted to try Openbox. I'll have to read up on it some more, but thanks for suggesting it.

    While you did include Mate I think Gnome2 should be on this list too as it really is a totally different environment from Mate or Gnome3, and is still one of the best DEs available to date. While it may have been superseeded it's not outdated, merely abondoned, and with it's users lead away at gun point. #IfItAintBrokeDontFixIt

  16. John S
    May 18, 2014 at 11:40 pm

    It will be interesting to see how Enlightenment 19 works out. As a long time user I find the (still beta) E19 to be different animal: it is a less quirky and behaves like a real operating system. And it still runs great on 10-year-old PCs. Unlike Gnome, Cinnamon or KDE I don't find myself wishing I had 8 cores.

  17. Raptor
    May 18, 2014 at 7:14 am

    I would like to know why Enlightenment was never mentioned. It is also a great choice with all the eyecandy while being lightweight at the same time.

    • dragonmouth
      June 11, 2014 at 8:05 pm

      You won't see any mention of E17 or E18 until Ubuntu starts using it, then all the bloggers and pundits will fall all over themselves reviewing it. But don't hold your breath. The way Canonical is trying to differentiate Ubuntu from all other distros, it is highly unlikely they will ever consider using Enlightment, unless they can develop their own proprietary version of it.

  18. JL
    May 17, 2014 at 12:28 am

    Good overview. I personally like XFCE the best and have used most of the desktops mentioned on occasion. What is nice about these options is not whether one likes or dislikes a specific one but often one has the option of choosing between 3 or 4 with most distros. One is not stuck with one with few minor tweaks.

    I was not very familiar with Openbox, Xmonad, and awesome. As one commetor mentioned Enlightenment is not mentioned which has some very interesting ideas about UI.

  19. KT
    May 16, 2014 at 10:37 pm

    Cinnamon and MATE are my faves. Never got into Unity.
    You ought to see the 6 screen UI on the Full Monty. It's way more than I'll ever use, but my wife likes it. It's absolutely different, but still functional. Like Dragonmouth said, different doesn't mean bad.

  20. Kelalole
    May 16, 2014 at 5:24 pm

    I, too, would like to know why Enlightenment wasn't mentioned. It's both beautiful and lightweight. I'm using Bodhi on my primary laptop and can't imagine working with a different DE everyday. I've also used E17 on my Arch laptop plus I had MacPup installed on a usb drive.

  21. dragonmouth
    May 16, 2014 at 4:57 pm

    There is no mention of Enlightenment and RazorQT, which are distinct desktops but there is mention of three variants of Gnome.

  22. Burt P
    May 15, 2014 at 9:04 pm

    I really like MATE and Xfce. Maybe as was suggested, because I am also a Windows user.
    Changing a UI is a big decision. You are asking your users to learn something new. Microsoft had the right approach until Windows 8. Windows has changed over the years, but if you look at a Windows 95/98 desktop and compare it to Windows 7, you can see that the core design and function remains the same.
    Windows 8 was Microsoft's arrogant attempt at saying "you must now use a tablet or touch screen monitor! And, we are hiding all the controls for the desktop. If you don't want to swipe your finger around the screen, too bad, you're out of luck - go read the manual!".
    Powerful UIs have customization built-in because people like choice, because they work differently. Customization allows users to optimize the way they use the computer.
    Radical change like Unity and Gnome 3, and the latest KDE is unproductive. As a computer user accustomed to having controls readily and obviously available, moving to a UI where the controls are hidden is like moving back to MS-DOS where you have to remember commands. Users today are accustomed to point and click. UIs where point and click is not readily available will face a lot of resistance. Point and click made computers information appliances. If Microsoft had stayed with MS-DOS computers would be in very few homes today.

  23. JayH
    May 15, 2014 at 8:34 pm

    I keep going back and forth on my preferred desktop environment. I guess if I was forced to pick it would be XFCE, since it is such a solid balance of features and minimal memory usage. Cinnamon would probably be next. I find it very attractive and easy to use. While not my favorite, I don't understand all the abuse thrown at Unity. I would much rather use it than Gnome 3 or KDE.

    • Danny S
      May 31, 2014 at 10:30 pm

      That's the "downside" of choices, isn't it? Sometimes it's hard to choose. ;)

  24. Don Gateley
    May 15, 2014 at 8:07 pm

    Thanks for this great summary of the options. Bookmarked.

  25. Bill
    May 15, 2014 at 4:14 pm

    Same E17 was left out, as it often is.

    • techno
      May 15, 2014 at 7:42 pm

      E17 is seriously underrated and under reported. I'd really love to see some more love given to this desktop, but I don't think it's one of the "top 10". It's absurdly beautiful and powerful, works on lower end devices, is snappy as heck and delivers plenty of eye candy. It's also hard to develop for because until recently there wasn't much in the way of documentation, had the appearance of a dead piece of software for a while, and aside from Agust, hasn't had a lot of themers who can really bring out the beauty of the DE with.

    • Danny S
      May 31, 2014 at 10:30 pm

      You're right, I should have added it. Heck, I even wrote an article about it a while back: http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/you-can-have-it-all-enlightenment-is-a-light-linux-desktop-environment-that-looks-good/

  26. Rajaa Chowdhury
    May 15, 2014 at 3:11 pm

    There are so many negativity against it, but I personally like the clean interface of Unity, Canonical's choice of Desktop for Ubuntu.

    • Robbie
      May 15, 2014 at 7:20 pm

      As do I, it's like Windows 8, in my opinion, everyone complains since its "different"

    • techno
      May 15, 2014 at 7:39 pm

      You know I think it's more that Canonical took some rather drastic and closed approaches to the Unity development. Any time you drastically change a desktop paradigm it's going to get detractors, when you couple that with an appearance of aloofness from the developers, then you get exactly what Ubuntu has received from the community. I personally don't like it as I think it's bloated and wasteful, but if it works for you why would, or should, you change?

    • dragonmouth
      May 16, 2014 at 4:47 pm

      The pushback from Unity and Metro is not so much because they are so much different from other desktops but because the developers (Canonical and M$) tried to make them be one-size-fits-all and then ram them down the users' throats. The problem was the "we know better" arrogance of the developers.

      Unity and Metro were designed for touch screens of phones, tablets and phablets. Touch screens, as well as Unity and Metro, are counter productive on desktop monitors.

    • Danny S
      May 31, 2014 at 10:29 pm

      I agree that Unity isn't nearly as bad as people think it is. It's definitely better than it used to be, but those early troubles created enough reason for fanboyism/anti-Unity that still exists.

      • Carl Vancil
        November 2, 2016 at 4:10 pm

        [I know that this is a 2 year old article, but it's still very relevant, as is your comment]

        I totally agree. Unity had a rough start, but it's not a bad desktop at all for those who take the time to learn to use it. I run it on 1 system to keep current on new developments with Ubuntu's core distros, and I must say that after spending about 15 minutes to learn the keyboard shortcuts that I really like the work-flow I get out of it. It handles really slick! :)

        But... that said, my favorite desktop environment is Mate. Over the past 3 years, I've been moving more of my Linux usage to Raspberry Pi 2/3 boards, and other embedded systems. On RPi3, I've come to prefer using a clean install of Raspbian-Lite (Jessie) coupled with LightDM, Mate, x11vnc, xinetd, and vnc4server --the end result of which is a system that allows me to use Mate locally or remotely at a fast speed, with the ability to use either a direct console connection (via x11vnc) or an isolated XDMCP based session via vnc4server+xinetd+lightdm (configured to allow xdmcp)+Mate. I wrap the VNC engines through another VM that's running Ubuntu 16.04.1 server (no desktop) + xrdp, which in turn is configured to talk to every system behind my firewall (xrdp is an RDP gateway solution that incorporates both RDP and VNC backend protocols). I also use Guacamole-Tomcat on another VM, which takes all of the systems I have configured within xrdp and mirrors that through a web based system, wrapped in TLS. The upshot is that I can call to a single HTTPS site, and securely manage every system I own, whether they are physical or virtual machines.

        I have yet to test Unity with this configuration, but from past experience I'd say that it might be a mixed bag. Unity prefers direct hardware acceleration for best performance, and unfortunately, OpenGL doesn't work really well over a remote connection... something that I think is due for improvement, all things considered. Mate, on the other hand, does really well over this type of connection because its requirements are pretty low overall, so over even Guacamole-Tomcat (HTML5-Based RDP) it still performs well enough that it's just slightly slower than direct local access... but not so much slower that it hampers usability. To put it into perspective, I shelled in over SSH last week, and after reconstructing Guacamole-Tomcat on a fresh VM, using the newest stable release, I completed the build out of a couple of dozen other services, as well as a full development server over that connection. The connection never dropped once unexpectedly, and the performance was high enough that I never found myself waiting on the remote machine to catch up with the buffer of commands I had sent its way.

        All that said... (whew!)... I plan to reload a laptop this coming weekend with Ubuntu 16.10 so I can check out what they've done with Unity v8, which is just about to come out of beta (finally). I watched a video on it a few days ago, and I must say that I'm highly impressed with what they've done with it. It actually looks like it might have lower resource requirements now. :)

    • Kevan
      June 7, 2014 at 8:59 am

      Unity is ok, if you can use it... When it was first released (I forget the actual Ubuntu release but a few years ago) I tried to install it with a middle of the road PC. It just wouldn't work so I couldn't get to say I liked or disliked it, at the time. Having seen screenshots over the last few releases I have to say I wouldn't bother now even with a PC capable of running it. There is just something I don't like about it. I am not knocking it as many do very much like it and that's the great thing about Linux, choice :) My preferred desktops are Mate for a lower powered Pc I have running Fedora 20 and Cinnamon on Mint 15 & 16 (netbook and laptop respectively.

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