Sometimes you need to get the most out of an old PC. Other times you have a high-performance system and want to dedicate all of that power to the task at hand. Either way, keeping everything as slim as possible is key. When you install Linux, there’s not a whole lot that you can easily modify in order to cut down on crud—except for one thing: your desktop environment.
If you want a lightweight Linux desktop, you need to choose the right environment.
What Is a Desktop Environment?
A desktop environment is the interface you see on screen. It’s the panel across the top and bottom. It handles how you switch between apps and manage windows.
Some desktop environments come with niceties that require more system resources, such as animations and transparent windows. Others try to provide a lightweight Linux desktop with as little impact to system resources as possible.
The Best Lightweight Linux Desktop Environments
There are several desktop environments that don’t require much to run and to run well. Let’s look at some of your best options.
Xfce is the oldest of the popular lightweight Linux desktop environments. It uses the GTK+ toolkit, just like the more popular GNOME interface that serves as the default for Ubuntu and Fedora (two of the largest Linux-based desktops out there).
Xfce is an environment you can scale up or down to fit your tastes. You won’t find animations here, but if you like transparent windows, shadows, and similar niceties, you have the option.
Xfce hasn’t changed much over the years, so increased system requirements are often due to the size of default apps. Mozilla Firefox is more bloated than it was back in the day. Yet this will be true regardless of which lightweight Linux desktop environment you choose.
Here is a more in-depth look at the Xfce desktop.
MATE is a fork of GNOME 2 that formed when GNOME was transitioning to version 3.0. If you’ve ever used a version of GNOME from before 2011, then you’ve essentially used MATE. Some things have changed, but the fundamentals remain the same.
MATE is slightly glossier than Xfce, but not by much. Back in the GNOME 2 days, Xfce was considered a lightweight alternative. GNOME 3 has changed and added so much since then that the distance between Xfce and GNOME 2 seems much smaller.
Here is a more in-depth look at the MATE desktop.
LXQt (Formerly LXDE)
A few years ago, LXDE was considered the lightest graphical desktop environment around. It launched in seconds and only used a couple hundred megabytes of RAM. You could revive a Windows XP machine with an interface that felt very similar.
LXDE is so light that the Raspberry Pi makers used this code to create Raspbian, the device’s official operating system.
LXDE uses GTK+ 2, which is now very dated code. The lead developer took issue with GTK+ 3 and decided to switch to Qt instead. He combined his efforts with the RazorQt team to create LXQt, to replace LXDE which is being discontinued.
LXDE and LXQt use interchangeable components with very few dependencies (background components required for software to function). A lightweight app with many dependencies can still slow your system down; this is why the apps you run matters nearly as much as your choice of desktop environment.
Here is a more in-depth look at the LXQt desktop.
Need help deciding between any two of the above desktop environments? If you want the most lightweight desktop, it’s hard to beat LXQt or LXDE. But there are reasons many people prefer one of the alternatives. Here are things to keep in mind when comparing two of these interfaces directly.
LXQt/LXDE vs. Xfce
LXQt and LXDE are lighter than Xfce, but that’s only part of the story. Put bluntly, LXDE looks basic. With enough effort, Xfce can feel like a more modern desktop environment. The primary difference between LXQt and Xfce is that LXQt uses Qt rather than GTK+. If you prefer GTK+, you’re better off using Xfce.
Installing GTK+ apps on LXQt will require downloading some dependencies that come as part of Xfce that aren’t already part of LXQt.
LXQt/LXDE vs. MATE
LXDE is lighter than MATE, but MATE is a more feature complete desktop. Newcomers may find that MATE is easier to grasp. While neither desktop is hard to use, MATE presents apps and information in a way where less technical knowledge is required to find your way around.
Again, with LXQt vs MATE, the primary different again comes down to Qt vs GTK+. What kind of apps do you prefer? If you prefer Qt software and you want a lighter desktop, then LXQt is a no-brainer.
Xfce vs. MATE
Out of the box, MATE has a few more bells and whistles than Xfce, but it’s also a little less customizable. You might find that it feels a little bit more put together. Xfce uses fewer resources, but this advantage begins to erode as you install and run apps that depend on GNOME libraries. Really, when it comes to MATE vs Xfce, you’re kind of splitting hairs.
Your Lightweight Linux Desktop Could Be Even Lighter
If you know your way around Linux, then you can build your own system using whatever components you want. Rather than installing a full-blown desktop environment, you can opt for a window manager. Openbox and fluxbox are two options. If you want to try a tiling window manager, consider i3, Xmonad, and awesome. Then there’s dwm, which is more of a jack of all trades.
But there’s only so much you can do. LXQt uses Openbox, and you will be hard pressed to find lighter background components than the ones LXQt provides. So your machine won’t get much lighter unless you stick entirely to the terminal. The most straightforward option for less technical or busy users is to install a lightweight Linux desktop distribution.