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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.


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 Need A Fresh Desktop Environment for Linux? Try Openbox Or xmonad Need A Fresh Desktop Environment for Linux? Try Openbox Or xmonad Read More we have written about, Enlightenment (a very different looking desktop environment You Can Have It All: Enlightenment Is A Light Linux Desktop Environment That Looks Good You Can Have It All: Enlightenment Is A Light Linux Desktop Environment That Looks Good Enlightenment deserves a little more attention because it's a worthy Linux desktop environment that could fit the needs of many people. Read More ), LXQt (which you can try out yourself LXQt: A Lightweight Linux Desktop Environment Built With KDE Technologies LXQt: A Lightweight Linux Desktop Environment Built With KDE Technologies Do you like the look of KDE, but wish it were less resource-hungry? With LXQt, your wish has finally been granted. Read More ), 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 is being tested with Lubuntu, the official LXDE-powered Ubuntu spin Lubuntu: A Lightweight Version Of Ubuntu [Linux] Lubuntu: A Lightweight Version Of Ubuntu [Linux] Love Ubuntu, but feel skeptical about 11.04's new Unity interface? Try Lubuntu 11.04, an extremely lightweight alternative to the main branch of Ubuntu. You'll find the menu-driven interface familiar and the resources hit remarkably low.... Read More . 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 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 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 is being tested with Xubuntu, the official Xfce-powered Ubuntu spin. Xfce has always wanted to be one of the leaner desktop environments 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 , 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 is being tested with Ubuntu MATE, the official MATE-powered Ubuntu spin. MATE is a fork from the old GNOME 2 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 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

  1. Eetu
    August 18, 2016 at 9:14 pm

    Well, different distros (even if they are all spin of ubuntu) may load different startup programs, therefore effect the boot time and this may not be related to desktop environment at all. So, the article is kind of useless..

    • Phil Mulley
      October 16, 2016 at 10:48 am

      That seems harsh. The reviewer was trying to compare the 3 desktops using the same base so that the comparisons would be valid.

  2. Dietz
    August 12, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    Love the article. Still prefer KDE because of the 'bloat'. I use most of the 'K' apps/programs as I find them more stable than most other apps/programs out there. And, yeah, it's like owning a Lamborghini but only driving it in the city. Still, I have the power when I need it. Been testing Linux distros for years and found that the few seconds longer KDE takes is worth it.

  3. Jorge Sanchez
    July 23, 2016 at 12:14 pm

    KDE was supposed to be the feature-rich heavy-resource DE, but suddenly around 3.5 the other DEs started getting heavier while KDE managed to include pretty much every useful feature imaginable without increasing the footprint. I was a lifelong slacker until kde went plasma (vista anyone?), since then I've been primarily a lubunt, but I still dream of being reunited with a full, actively developed KDE 3 system. In my opinion Trinity Desktop Environment currently provides the best combination of speed and power features on older and newer systems alike...but it is a challenge to integrate into a distro, usually requiring you to strip down a plasma install. Q4OS is the only actively developed distro I know of that is centered around TDE, but it is more of a linux newbie slanted distro than even the buntus. Anyways, TDE has way more configurability and simple power than any of these and on all of my systems it feels quicker than mate, cinnamon, and xfce, with no noticeable responsiveness variance between TDE and LXDE on a system with a gig of ram and any post 2010 GPU or even APU: so if your main purpose is to save resources for efficient work and power use of desktop applications, you may, like me wish for a tubuntu or a matured Q4OS in the near future... Anyone who wants a look for themselves can download a kubuntu 14.04 converted to TDE from the TDE site or try out the latest Q4OS...

    • Frank Rizzo
      October 1, 2016 at 6:57 am

      Thanks for the tip on TDE. I miss KDE 3.5

  4. Frank
    July 14, 2016 at 7:11 pm

    Kde was once quite lite and nice. now it is a peace of bloated software.
    Unite is a totaly useless DE. Just made to waste your time trying to work with it.
    Mate, XFCE, and Gnome2 use 2 bars reducing the usable display area, old stile stupidity.
    XFCE is quite fast, still one remark not to forget....
    After all this useless turbulence with DEs you are left with almost only one left, LXDE. The DE which saved us from all this bloated useless software which the DEs became in the Linux environment.
    If you need a fast system to run your applications go for LXDE, you will be on the right path.
    Greetings to all.

  5. Stacey
    July 11, 2016 at 11:41 pm

    Xubuntu runs faster on my Late 2009 iMac than Ubuntu MATE did that's for sure. And there are absolutely NO freezes when using the Nouveau open source driver (screen tearing is horrid with proprietary graphics drivers for the NVIDIA Geforce 9400 card in my system).

    Xubuntu is snapper than every other Linux OS I've ran on this machine and when I get my custom built system, I'm gonna opt for reinstalling Xubuntu using a SystemBack full restore image.

    Xubuntu FTW!

  6. Josef
    June 14, 2016 at 9:06 pm

    LXQT is best for me

  7. Adam
    June 14, 2016 at 8:27 pm

    I like Xfce, there seems to be a maturity and stability to it. You can install it on Ubuntu variants to Fedora and it's variants. I just deployed a Centos server and I want a light a Desktop on it, fully functional for the other non-linux admins. Load on Xfce and off to work. Can't find any sources to load on the LXDE Desktop however much I wanted it.

  8. David
    May 31, 2016 at 2:03 am

    That is exactly the reason I stopped using Cinnamon/Mint in general, do not take me wrong I love Mint, but am running a low resources machine, Celeron1.2, 4Gb Ram, shared video.
    It was painful to even try to do light coding in Windows (having notepad++, filezilla, and FF, was so slow), Nevermint trying to listen to music or God forbid open another program.
    Switch to my beloved Mint XFCE, better although not so much, Lubuntu and sweet life now, am reading news in one browser, atom working, ftp mounted in files-system, Musique, Thunderbird and if I want to i can just fire up GIMP and things will still run just fine.
    If only drivers where not a issue anymore. I wish someday GNU/Linux communities will realize how powerful we are united and stop forking all software, instead focus and polish one to make a more centralized almighty Linux Operative System. Meanwhile great post lest keep spreading the love.

  9. jojo
    May 11, 2016 at 1:16 am

    Do we still use "low fancy DE", YES.
    my system a Thinkpad T530, i7-3520, 2.9Ghz, 12M. Ram, standard Intel HD4000 GPU.
    running OpenSuse 42.1 leap with LXDE as DE. stable as a rock.

    My opinion, an OS should give as many resources back to your applications as possible, and support you with an "easy to go" interface.

    Drop all this fancy stuff with 3D, Flipping A to B or what ever ......!! just eat up your CPU, GPU power for nothing.

    I guess most of us are buying a PC so we can run our Applications !

  10. John O'Shaughnessy
    April 18, 2016 at 4:26 pm

    somebody mentioned i3..... I have it but don't always use it. However I could imagine getting hooked on it... I tiles the windows in a very nice way and makes all applications easily accessible without delay. It works really great with dmenu and cuts down the amount of clutter on your screen

  11. Ben
    April 7, 2016 at 10:01 pm

    If you want to invest a little time, to get really efficient in interacting with your machine, i would highly recommend i3. I am using it for quite some time now, and i cant imagine myself going back to any other environment. :) The level of efficiency i3 provides is awesome. Give it a try!

  12. jymm56
    March 21, 2016 at 11:19 am

    I have found Mate to be the best for myself. It seems as fast as XFCE and customizes much easier and how I want my desktop to look than eihter XFCE or LXDE. I was a Gnome guy until Gnome 3, then switched to LXDE and now Mate with which I am the happiest.

  13. agent
    March 14, 2016 at 8:28 pm

    I agree with the fact that for lightweight lxde is better than others. Xfce is much more mature than mate and lxde if you want a full easily customizable desktop.

  14. UnhappyGhost
    March 12, 2016 at 9:04 am

    to check the usage of the RAM on Xubuntu, you could open the terminal and run this command
    watch -d "free -m"
    and it would show you the usage of the RAM "continuously"

    • Jeff C
      June 2, 2016 at 8:22 pm

      You could do that,.....or you could put Conky on your desktop and never need to open a terminal to know what is going on.

      Not that opening a terminal is wrong, but why put yourself to any extra trouble or effort?

      • joshua.pettus
        June 14, 2016 at 2:03 am

        If you are on linux and don't have a terminal open at all times anyway, you're doing it wrong :p

        • Jeff C
          June 14, 2016 at 8:32 am

          I use a terminal that slides down from the top and slides back up out of the way when I am done.

          Why would I want to leave it constantly in my way?

        • joshua.pettus
          June 14, 2016 at 8:34 pm

          and I minimize/maximize, doesn't matter as long as you have quick access to it.

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