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 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.
Gnome 3 features Gnome Shell, a new paradigm for a computer desktop. 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 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.
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 is a much lighter desktop environment 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 is arguably the lightest option available for a desktop environment, 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 is the default desktop for Ubuntu, 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.
Cinnamon is another alternative to Gnome. 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 is a continuation of the Gnome 2 codebase. 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.
Is LXDE not light enough? Give Openbox a try. It steps away from the traditional desktop paradigm and operates on completely minimalistic principles. 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 are the last two desktop environments I’d like to mention. They are both tiling window managers, 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.
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!