The Best Lean Linux Desktop Environment: LXDE Vs Xfce Vs MATE

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For some Linux users, performance is king. Whether they’re using a computer that’s old and slow and just need to get the most out of it, or if they’re using a brand-new, high-performance system and want to dedicate all of that power to the task at hand, keeping everything as slim as possible is key. In a fresh Linux installation, there’s not a whole lot that you can easily modify in order to cut down on crud — except for one thing: your choice of desktop environment.

kde5_desktop

Just as there are super flashy yet resource-intensive desktop environments such as KDE (shown above), there are some that try to provide a usable interface with as little impact to system resources as possible. Today we’ll be looking at three of them: LXDE, Xfce, and MATE.

Before we start, I’m sure there’s a bunch of our Linux pros that are already yelling at me as there are definitely choices that are even leaner than the three that I picked to compare. Openbox, Xmonad (both of which we have written about, Enlightenment (a very different looking desktop environment), LXQt (which you can try out yourself), and even i3 all come to mind. However, these desktop environments aren’t very friendly to Linux newcomers (despite what some of you might think), as they don’t offer a familiar desktop setup that such users are probably used to from Windows or Mac OS X.

So instead, I’m sticking with the most popular options for the “lighter” end of Linux desktop environments to help others come to a quick decision for a relatively easy and functional desktop. It also helps that there are official Ubuntu spins available for each desktop environment so we can keep most other variables the same for the fairest comparison among the various environments — we’ll be using these.

In order to really compare these three desktop environments, we’re going to measure them on a few different metrics. These include:

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  • Time to boot the default Ubuntu image with the corresponding desktop environment, measured from when the BIOS is done loading and the OS starts loading, to when the desktop is fully loaded and ready for use. The time will vary on everyone’s individual system, of course, but such a test is fine when running them all on the same system.
  • The amount of RAM each desktop environment uses with no programs open (besides System Monitor). This is another way to quantitatively measure how much system resources a desktop environment uses. Although not all three distributions are exactly the same without a desktop environment, by using the same Ubuntu base we’ll be able to keep them as similar as possible than, say, using one Ubuntu-based distribution, one Fedora-based one, etc.
  • The overall responsiveness, including when several programs are open. This is a lot more subjective, but I still think it should be an included metric because sometimes it doesn’t matter what the numbers say — if it doesn’t feel responsive, then you won’t think it is.

LXDE

lubuntu_1510
LXDE is being tested with Lubuntu, the official LXDE-powered Ubuntu spin. Unlike the other two, this distribution isn’t just lean thanks to its choice of desktop environment, but it’s also lean by the choices made for included programs. Instead of LibreOffice, you’ll see Abiword and Gnumeric as replacements for word processing and spreadsheets, respectively. LXDE has been historically praised for being bare-bones while still providing a familiar interface with a toolbar at the bottom and an application launcher a la Start Menu.

It took Lubuntu 26 seconds to boot into the desktop for me. I’m sure the majority of that time was spent loading the operating system rather than just the desktop environment (as you’ll see from the other results, these times are only slightly different). Immediately after the desktop finished loading, I opened the System Monitor to check how much RAM was being used. Impressively, only 209 MB of RAM were being used. That means you could reasonably run Lubuntu on a system with only 512 MB of RAM if you stick with ultra-lightweight applications, especially when it comes to your choice of browser.

Once I recorded the amount of used RAM, I began opening various applications and clicking around randomly — switching between applications, minimizing/maximizing them, moving them around the screen, and interacting with the applications themselves while others were running in the background. Lubuntu felt extremely responsive at all times — everything I wanted it to do occurred almost instantaneously. I have a decently-powered system so it’s hard to tell exactly how it would perform on a very slow system, but its responsiveness was nonetheless impressive.

Xfce

xubuntu_1510
Xfce is being tested with Xubuntu, the official Xfce-powered Ubuntu spin. Xfce has always wanted to be one of the leaner desktop environments, but I don’t think it’s ever wanted to be the leanest. You can tell this is the case because the interface feels a bit more polished, and a bit less bare-bones. Either way, Xfce still touts itself as a lighter alternative to the other most popular desktop environments: KDE, GNOME, and Unity.

It took Xubuntu about 28-29 seconds to boot (it takes the brain a few fractions of a second to realize when the desktop has finished loading, so that’s why I couldn’t be exact), which is not bad. Again, most of that time is surely taken up by loading the operating system rather than the desktop environment, but it is still 2-3 seconds longer than Lubuntu. And since they’re both running off of the same base, it’s pretty safe to assume that the extra seconds are caused by the different desktop environment. After Xubuntu finished loading, I checked the System Monitor to see how much RAM it was using and I got a pretty unhelpful fluctation of 7-8% — no actual measurement in MB. So, since I had 4GB of RAM in my system, I calculated that it was using somewhere between 286.72-327.68 MB of RAM. That’s still not bad, and it might not seem like a big difference at first, but that’s roughly 50% more than Lubuntu was using — that actually is a lot more.

Xubuntu’s responsiveness was still excellent, but if I had to nit-pick I’d say that it was slightly less responsive than Lubuntu. A lot of times it just seemed like there was an extra quarter of a second delay to several things that I wanted to do — maybe that was because of animations, but perception is everything. So while Xubuntu wasn’t laggy at all, I do think Lubuntu was marginally better.

MATE

ubuntu_mate_1510
MATE is being tested with Ubuntu MATE, the official MATE-powered Ubuntu spin. MATE is a fork from the old GNOME 2 desktop environment after the GNOME team pretty much abandoned it in favor of GNOME 3. GNOME 2 was much lighter and simpler than GNOME 3, so one of MATE’s focuses is to maintain that leanness. MATE also has a pretty good following as there were quite a few people who did not approve of the transition to GNOME 3 and wanted to stick with what they know and love (hey, if it works, good for them!).

It took Ubuntu MATE about 27-28 seconds to boot, which is roughly on par with Xubuntu. MATE also doesn’t feel quite as bare-bones as Lubuntu, and people who have used GNOME 2 before will recognize it immediately and feel right at home again. After the desktop finished loading, I opened the System Monitor and noted that 310 MB of RAM were being used — also about the same as Xfce.

Responsiveness is also similar to that of Xubuntu — quite excellent, but still just a tad bit less responsive than Lubuntu, at least as perception is concerned. I actually find that a little strange because Xfce was usually seen as the lighter desktop environment option even back when GNOME 2 was still widely used, but it seems like both are roughly equal in all performance aspects.

LXDE Wins…For Now

So in the end, who wins? Both by qualitative and quantitative measures, LXDE seems to be the clear winner in this comparison. If you need to squeeze as much performance out of your system as you can, Lubuntu is the way to go while still having a very functional and intuitive desktop interface. Of course, both Xfce and MATE are wonderful choices for a lightweight desktop. But there can only be one winner, and that title goes to LXDE. It’ll be interesting to see how LXQt turns out when it becomes a finished and polished product once Lubuntu adopts it as the replacement for the GTK2-based LXDE. We may do another comparison test then to see just how much better it is.

What’s your favorite lightweight desktop environment? Do you typically use them even on high-performance systems? Let us know in the comments!

Image Credit: KDE

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