The 12 Best Linux Desktop Environments
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You can tell whether a screenshot is Windows or Mac from a mile away, and that’s because both commercial operating systems only have one desktop environment. Windows has the Start Menu and the Taskbar, while macOS has its iconic Dock and Menu Bar.

But search for Linux and you’ll see images that look strikingly different from one another:

Linux desktop screenshots

This diversity stems from the fact that Linux offers far more than one desktop environment. This is part of what makes Linux exciting to use, but the breadth of choice can make it difficult to pick the one that’s right for you. That’s why we’ve compiled this list of the best Linux desktop environments.

1. GNOME

The GNOME desktop environment
Image Credit: GNOME

GNOME is currently the most popular Linux desktop environment GNOME Explained: A Look at One of Linux's Most Popular Desktops GNOME Explained: A Look at One of Linux's Most Popular Desktops You're interested in Linux, and you've come across "GNOME", an acronym for GNU Network Object Model Environment. GNOME is one of the most popular open source interfaces, but what does that mean? Read More . It’s the default in several major Linux-based operating systems such as Ubuntu and Fedora.

GNOME has a design that simultaneously suits both touch-based devices and traditional PCs. A single panel sits at the top of the screen much like on a mobile device. Rather than a dock or window list, users interact with windows by opening an Activities Overview that displays apps, open software, and virtual desktops. GNOME’s developers use the GIMP Toolkit (GTK+), which may come up when you’re deciding which apps to install.

Want a good look at GNOME? Check out Fedora.

2. KDE Plasma

The KDE Plasma desktop environment

KDE Plasma is the arguably the most customizable interface KDE Explained: A Look at Linux's Most Configurable Desktop Interface KDE Explained: A Look at Linux's Most Configurable Desktop Interface What does Linux look like? Sometimes, Unity; other times, GNOME. Oftentimes, though, Linux runs KDE. If you're not using the erstwhile K Desktop Environment on your Linux PC, now is the time to change! Read More available for any desktop operating system. Every on-screen component is a widget that you can move, resize, or delete. With enough tinkering, you can configure the Plasma desktop to look and feel like any other desktop interface.

Software designed for KDE tends to come with an abundance of options. These apps are among the most powerful the Linux desktop has to offer. Side note: KDE developers use Qt, rather than GTK+.

Want a good look at KDE Neon? Head to out neon.kde.org.

3. Cinnamon

The Cinnamon desktop environment

Cinnamon is the default interface for Linux Mint, one of the most widely-used versions of Linux out there. It began as a fork of GNOME at a time when that interface was undergoing drastic changes. Cinnamon preserves a more traditional experience that will make long-time Windows users feel at home Cinnamon Explained: A Look at One of Linux's Most Windows-Like Desktops Cinnamon Explained: A Look at One of Linux's Most Windows-Like Desktops When you see a screenshot, what you think is the "operating system" is more likely to be the "desktop environment" -- and Linux has a bunch of them, including this one called Cinnamon. Read More .

Many love Cinnamon for its combination of familiarity and ease-of-use. The project strikes a blend between adopting new ideas and preserving the old way of doing things. MintInstall, for example, feels like a blend between a mobile app store and a traditional Linux package manager Linux App Stores Compared: Which One Is Right for You? Linux App Stores Compared: Which One Is Right for You? Windows users are being guided to an app store. macOS has had one for a while. Linux, meanwhile, has had an app store-style experience for years. But which one is right for you? Read More .

Want a good look at Cinnamon? Check out Linux Mint.

4. MATE

The MATE desktop environment

At a time when the Cinnamon project was forking GNOME, the MATE community formed to preserve what already existed MATE Explained: A Look at One of Linux's Most Enduring Desktops MATE Explained: A Look at One of Linux's Most Enduring Desktops Unlike commercial operating systems, Linux lets you change your desktop environment. One of the most popular is MATE, but how good is it, and should you install it on your Linux PC? Let's find out. Read More . If you didn’t want to transition to GNOME 3.0, MATE offered a way to continue using 2.x.

The MATE developers have invested time and effort into updating the background code, but on the whole, this still feels like the desktop environment many people fell in love with a decade ago. The lack of change hasn’t curtailed adoption either. Newcomers often approach MATE as a more lightweight and traditional alternative to the likes of GNOME, a role also occupied by the next desktop on this list.

Want a good look at MATE? Check out Ubuntu MATE.

5. Xfce

The Xfce desktop environment

Xfce, whose mascot is a mouse, has long existed as a speedy interface for Linux-powered computers Xfce Explained: A Look at One of Linux's Speediest Desktops Xfce Explained: A Look at One of Linux's Speediest Desktops If you've recently switched to Linux and are finding things a bit slow going, you probably need a lighter desktop environment. One good option is Xfce. Read More . It isn’t based on GNOME, but it does use the same toolkit.

These days Xfce feels like a comparable alternative to MATE. Its developers continue to place an emphasis on keeping the interface light, even if that means foregoing the latest bells and whistles. With a relatively small development team, a lot of time often passes between updates. The result is that Xfce, like MATE, hasn’t changed all that much over the years.

Want a good look at Xfce? Check out Xubuntu.

6. Pantheon

The Pantheon desktop environment

Pantheon is the desktop environment of elementary OS Pantheon Explained: A Look at the Minimalist Elementary OS Desktop Pantheon Explained: A Look at the Minimalist Elementary OS Desktop Considering Elementary OS, or just want to install the Pantheon desktop on your current version of Linux? Here's everything you need to know about the most popular minimalist desktop for Linux, Pantheon. Read More , and it’s one of the few Linux interfaces so explicitly tied to one Linux-based OS. At first glance, it may resemble macOS. There’s a panel at the top and a dock at the bottom, with apps offering a stylish and unified design. But much of Pantheon’s design language The Differences Between Linux's Human Interface Guidelines The Differences Between Linux's Human Interface Guidelines Ever encountered a Linux app that looks ugly and seems unusable? It's why desktops have human interface guidelines. Windows and macOS have these guidelines. What about Linux? Read More actually comes from its founder’s original experience developing for GNOME.

With the elementary project’s innovative pay-what-you-want payment scheme, Pantheon has become a hotbed for new Linux apps. These apps, like the desktop itself, are a departure from the traditional Linux way of doing things. Pantheon is not very customizable or extensible. That is arguably its biggest strength and its greatest weakness.

Want a good look at Pantheon? Check out elementary OS.

7. Budgie

The Budgie desktop environment

Budgie is a relatively young desktop environment What Is Budgie? The Linux Desktop Environment That Feels Like a Chromebook What Is Budgie? The Linux Desktop Environment That Feels Like a Chromebook Of the many desktop environments available for Linux, the increasingly popular Budgie desktop stands out for its simplicity and similarities to Chrome OS. Read More born out of the Solus project. It offers a pared down interface that, perhaps in contrast to MATE and Xfce, still manages to feel modern. The design language goes more for the new, even as some of the old desktop paradigms remain in place.

Much of the inspiration for Budgie comes from Chrome OS and mobile apps. Unlike many of the other environments on this list, Budgie remains in a state of flux, with major design changes slipping in from one update to the next.

Want a good look at Budgie? Check out Solus.

8. Unity

The Unity 8 desktop environment
Image Credit: UBports

Unity is the former default interface for Ubuntu Unity Explained: A Look at Ubuntu's Default Desktop Environment Unity Explained: A Look at Ubuntu's Default Desktop Environment If you're switching to Linux from Windows, you might choose Ubuntu. But despite it's versatility, Ubuntu comes with an unusual desktop environment, Unity. Don't be discouraged: it's simple to use! Read More , the most popular version of desktop Linux. With Ubuntu 17.10, Canonical ceased development of Unity and started providing the GNOME desktop instead.

There remain many Unity fans out there and many machines still running the aging interface. And while Canonical may longer support the project, the code still exists for others to adopt and use as they wish 5 Projects That Prove Unity Is Far From Dead 5 Projects That Prove Unity Is Far From Dead Struggling to come to terms with Unity's abrupt end? You're in luck. These projects will help you get the most from Canonical's abandoned desktop environment for years to come! Read More .

Want a good look at Unity? Check out older versions of Ubuntu.

9. LXDE

The LXDE desktop environment
Image Credit: Lubuntu

LXDE exists to be a fast, lightweight, energy efficient desktop environment. Based on GTK+, it’s an option to consider if even Xfce runs slowly on your machine, or alternatives simply feel too bloated for your tastes.

LXDE is modular, meaning it isn’t all or nothing. You can swap out the default window manager, which is OpenBox, for an alternative. Whether it’s the session manager, the network manager, or the sound server, it’s free to go in exchange for something else.

Want a good look at LXDE? Check out Lubuntu up to version 18.04.

10. LXQt

The LXQt desktop environment
Image Credit: LXQt

There are a handful of desktop interfaces based on GTK+. Fewer are built with Qt apps in mind. If you find KDE Plasma to be a bit much, LXQt might be more your speed.

LXQt was born from the merger between the Qt port of LXDE and Razor-Qt. The latter no longer exists. The plan is for LXQt to replace LXDE someday, but for now the two exist side-by-side.

Want a good look at LXQt? Check out Lubuntu starting with version 18.10.

11. Enlightenment

The Enlightenment desktop environment
Image Credit: Enlightenment

Enlightenment began over a decade ago as an interface for desktop computers. It hasn’t gained much adoption among Linux users, but it remains available and functional. The art style is more skeuomorphic than the cartoony images often seen in other free desktops.

Today Enlightenment has expanded to mobile devices, wearables, and televisions. Enlightenment is the window manager and compositor used in Tizen.

Want a good look at Enlightenment? Check out Elive.

12.Sugar

The Sugar desktop environment
Image Credit: Sugar on a Stick

Sugar is a desktop environment designed for use in schools. It is decidedly simple, not in the minimalist sense, but in terms of complexity. Young children are the intended users.

Sugar comes from Sugar Labs, a non-profit run by volunteers. The project not only provides a desktop environment but simple apps to go with it. These tools are in place so that educators can acclimatize children to computers even in areas with few economic resources.

Want a good look at Sugar? Check out Sugar on a Stick.

Have Fun With Your Linux Desktop Environment

While I’ve suggested different ways to try out each desktop, these are hardly the only methods. Most Linux-based operating systems allow you to swap out the default desktop for another. Many offer variants that provide a different interface out of the box.

The options don’t end here either. Between desktop environments and window managers Should You Use a Window Manager as Your Desktop Environment? Should You Use a Window Manager as Your Desktop Environment? The Linux desktop is hugely configurable, from themes to a whole new environment. And if you want a lightweight desktop experience, you can even use a window manager as your desktop environment. Read More , Linux offers so many ways to change the way apps and content appear on your screen.

Image Credit: Ikonoko123/Wikimedia Commons

Explore more about: Budgie, GNOME Shell, KDE, Linux Desktop Environment, LXDE, Ubuntu MATE, Xfce.

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  1. dragonmouth
    October 21, 2018 at 1:35 pm

    I agree with Heimen Stoffels. I prefer Trinity, even KDE 4.x to Plasma. Both Trinity and KDE 4.x are easier to configure. Plasma has eliminated some settings that were present in the other two, or moved them to some arcane locations.

  2. Heimen Stoffels
    October 20, 2018 at 9:52 am

    "KDE Plasma is the arguably the most customizable interface available for any desktop operating system."

    Arguably, yes. 'Cause it's not true. I love Plasma and I'm typing this from Plasma, but it's not the most customizable of *any* desktop OS. AmigaOS 4's Workbench is way more customizable than Plasma will ever be, followed by TDE (Trinity Desktop Environment) for Linux, then Enlightenment, then Plasma.

  3. Atto
    October 18, 2018 at 6:23 am

    Still for cinnamon desktop

  4. gazoo
    October 18, 2018 at 1:37 am

    Good coverage of what's out there. I don't have lots of experience with Desktop Environments except a few. I started, in earnest, my Linux journey with Cinnamon. I found that it took all the best features of the Desktop and put them to work effectively. Lots of little touches that can only be appreciated when used everyday.

    XFCE is a new one for me. My aging laptop needed a pick me up and I settled on MX-17.1 after lots of (live-environment) testing. I'm a few days in and my entire system has been snappy so far. Everything feels so responsive now. These guys (antiX and MX) have also done a remarkable job on documentation. It's integrated everywhere. The install was one of the best experiences I've ever had with lots of built-in help, advice and suggestions. It even gave me control over what daemons would start up.

    Then there's Knoppix's implementation of LXDE. From the voice command letting you know that the system initiated to the flashy (but not overbearing) Desktop effects... this was/is a system that I would use to show-off Linux to anyone. Period! Nothing (out of the box and in my limited experience) I've come across comes close in terms of generating excitement and loaded with software for normal users. Nothing! Sadly... the live image is not meant for a hard drive install at all. I wish someone would put together a 'Knoppix for Desktop' variant (with updates).

    btw, Would love to see your take on Knoppix, Bertel. Maybe a future review?

    Lastly... I briefly played around with LXQt while testing Porteus. In fact, I tried all the Porteus variants - so it gave me a chance to get a feel of the different DEs. Porteus loads into RAM and so everything was fairly responsive (not "puppy-like" but close enough). Out of all the DEs I used with Porteus, it was LXQt that felt the snappiest in RAM.

    • dragonmouth
      October 21, 2018 at 1:18 pm

      If you wish to check out more Desktop Environments and/or Window Managers, play around with LinuxBBQ. It comes with 76 DEs and WMs.

      • Jake U
        October 22, 2018 at 7:30 pm

        LinuxBBQ is dead.
        One page on DistroWatch and Wikipedia.
        No Home Page ( dead link )
        No User Forums ( dead link )
        No Screenshots ( except 2 on DistroWatch )
        You can still find downloads on SourceForge, but why bother ?

      • gazoo
        October 25, 2018 at 8:10 pm

        Thanks, dragonmouth! Jake U is correct - even the domain is gone but his comment led me to sourceforge. I was hoping to find a single (epically:-) large distro with tons of DEs/WMs already tested and built into the login. It would have made a great test-bed/showcase.

        I gave Porteus a shot because it's built to run in RAM and because it's slackware-based. I don't have any experience with slackware systems and the combo of RAM/slackware seemed like a good way to experiment.

        • dragonmouth
          October 25, 2018 at 10:06 pm

          Sorry 'bout that. :-(

          I "collect" distros. It is hard to keep track of 30 or 40 of them. If I see a new version on DistroWatch, I download it and delete the old one. The last version of BBQ I downloaded was 12/2016. I just assumed the devs were slowly working on the next one. My bad.

  5. Bob H
    October 17, 2018 at 4:33 pm

    That this article exists, shows how fragmented the Linux ecosystem is on desktops.

    • Danny
      October 18, 2018 at 1:26 am

      Really? Because this article didn't give any love to icewm, jwm, herbsluft, openbox, blackbox, fluxbox, and whatever that haiku thing was, among others.

      • Heimen Stoffels
        October 20, 2018 at 9:53 am

        Lolwut? Haiku has nothing in common with Linux. Nothing at all.

    • Ray
      October 18, 2018 at 6:30 am

      It's called choices. People who want to find fault in the things they don't use need help.

    • Jim
      October 19, 2018 at 10:26 am

      Then try Microsoft Windows, It gives you one choice, so you won't have to worry about even making a choice, they already did it for you!

    • Dragonbite
      October 19, 2018 at 12:36 pm

      Funny thing about it, though, is that regardless of what desktop environment you use the apps will work on it. Even KDE apps works in Gnome though like trying to use Android and Windows systems, they don't work as well as all-Gnome or all-KDE.

      Linux is about choice, so there is no "one" Linux to be fragmented. I like to think of it as "diversified" rather than fragmented because I can pretty much do one one Linux system everything I do on another and usually using the same application.

    • Mike Walsh
      October 20, 2018 at 12:38 pm

      Jee-zus. What a mindless, moronic comment. Obviously a Windows or Mac fanboi.....never even tried Linux in his life.

      Quote from Ray:-

      " People who want to find fault in the things they don't use need help."

      Says it all.....

    • dragonmouth
      October 21, 2018 at 1:29 pm

      @Bob H:
      That is a very narrow minded attitude. Do you also advocate one brand for each product on the market? Toothpaste, bread, car, cigarettes, etc, etc, etc. I'm sure that in your daily life you insist on choice. So, obviously, you are not anti-choice, just anti-Linux.

    • Knighthawk5193
      October 29, 2018 at 8:10 am

      What you call fragmentation we in the Open Source community call "freedom" while you might be "handcuffed" into using either Windows' desktop or Apple's iOS?....we have the freedom of choosing whatever we want to use as a desktop. You should give the Linux experience a try before making comments about it being fragmented. Have you ever TRIED Linux...or were you too afraid of the choices you'd have? You'd be surprised just how liberating it is to not only be able to choose your desktop environment, but your icons, your mouse pointer, the size and font of your own choosing for the desktop, the taskbar / dock etc. I guess if you are locked in to whatever system you use?...then stay there and be "Comfortably Numb"