What’s The Difference Between Linux Desktop Environments? [Technology Explained]

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linux desktop environmentsIf you’ve been introduced to the world of Linux, it probably didn’t take too long to notice that it doesn’t have a single “face”. Linux can sport all kinds of desktop environments, or none at all. That alone is one of the great benefits of Linux among many more.

But while that’s impressive, it leaves a very important question for you to decide: What desktop environment should you choose? In this article, we’re going to break down what makes up each desktop environment so you will know what’s best for you and your system.

Please note that the choice of Linux desktop environment shouldn’t affect the stability and structure of your system. That will depend more on which distribution you are using rather than the desktop environment itself. If you do have an unstable experience with a desktop environment, I would rather try the same environment on a different distribution before jumping ship. Also, you may do well to check out our awesome guide to Linux.

GNOME

linux desktop environments
GNOME is currently the most popular desktop environment, although those numbers have been slumping slightly since the release of GNOME Shell (pictured above). It isn’t meant to be lightweight nor heavy and flashy, so most people can use it just fine. Its new design is supposed to reinvent the way one uses his/her computer, but that has been received with mixed opinions.

I find it to be a good interface after you get used to it, but that may take some time. It is definitely not similar to the Windows user interface, so if you would like to find a more similar alternative GNOME may not be for you. However, the GNOME environment offers plenty of popular applications by default, with many more that use its framework. You’ll find the most support for GNOME as well, considering its large userbase.

Unity

linux desktop
Unity is an Ubuntu-only desktop environment that is based off of GNOME. Everything is the same as in GNOME except that the actual desktop looks different with a dock on the left side and a custom dash rather than the “Activities” screen. The rest of the experience is virtually identical.

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KDE

linux desktop
KDE is the second most popular desktop environment, and with good reason. KDE used to be the top dog “back in the day” before KDE 4 came out with a completely updated desktop. However that new desktop had many rough edges, and has taken a couple of releases to smooth them out. During that time, a good number of people switched to GNOME because it worked and was stable.

But now, KDE is very stable and packs a powerful punch with the loads of features and desktop effects that it offers. Low-powered machines might have a hard time running KDE (especially with desktop effects enabled), but if you have a more powerful machine that can do more than just browse the web, you should be in good shape.

By default, KDE offers some popular applications as well, though GNOME equivalents are slightly more popular (since more people use it). KDE also has its own framework for applications, so GNOME and KDE application don’t mix together perfectly (but still good enough, in my opinion). KDE also offers plenty of support through its large userbase.

XFCE

linux desktop environments
XFCE is the last of the big three, coming in as our “lightweight” alternative. And I put lightweight in quotes because it is not the lightest environment you can find (if you want to go as light as possible, don’t use a desktop environment). However, I like XFCE for a few reasons.

First off, for a full-featured, traditional desktop environment, it is impressively lightweight, usually clocking in between 100-200 MB of total used memory, which includes the desktop environment as well as any system background processes.

Second, XFCE is still visually appealing when compared to other lightweight environments. I usually find myself more productive when I’m not distracted by the ugliness of a desktop environment.

Third, XFCE is more similar to the old GNOME before GNOME Shell came out, so XFCE is a good alternative to go to if you don’t like the new GNOME.

Finally, XFCE uses the same application framework as GNOME, so you can easily install a GNOME application and have it seamlessly integrate into your desktop.

Conclusion

Of course, there are many more Linux desktop environments out there, but some are either similar to the three I mentioned above, or are too complicated for me to flat out recommend to people. In the end, it’s up to you to choose which desktop environment you’d like. If you’re not sure from just the descriptions above, it’s always best to try each one out and decide that way. No matter what you choose, you’re not making a bad decision because you choose what you want to use. That’s the beauty of it all.

What desktop environment do you like? Why? Let us know in the comments!

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Comments (32)
  • Kyrealtor45

    Agree.  Let me add that LXDE has almost as many features as XFCE and only needs 128MB RAM.

  • Gt

    those wallpapers are cool

  • Danny Stieben

    Neat! I’ve always though KDE 3 was left behind to die, completely forgotten.

  • Paul

    I liked and used Ubuntu
    until it came out with Unity and abandoned Gnome (11.10). I need to
    say I do not like Gnome 3 either because it is ugly and reminds
    Unity. KDE is too resource hungry.

    Now I am moved to XFCE but
    there are some stupid default settings related to icons. Why icon
    text is visible only one row for non-active icons? No any other GUI is
    showing them this way. The icon text should be all visible, center
    justify and not any solid color boxes in background.

  • mvario

    I’m not a fan of using a tablet style desktop on a full computer so I’ve moved to Xfce (Xubuntu) and I am extremely happy with it.

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For more details, please read our disclosure.
Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.