The 8 Best Linux Desktop Environments

These popular DEs offer varying degrees of resource use and aesthetic appeal

A desktop environment is a suite of applications and software libraries that provide a graphical user interface for your Linux system. The components of a desktop environment include some or all of the following tools:

  • Window manager: Manages themes and window behavior.
  • Panels: Contains the system tray, menu, and quick-launch icons.
  • Menus: Facilitates access to apps and controls.
  • Widgets: Display information like weather, news snippets, or system information.
  • File manager: Manages and organize files.
  • Browsers: Access the web.
  • Office suite: Create documents, spreadsheets, and presentations.
  • Text editor: Create simple text files and edit configuration files.
  • Terminal: Offers access to the shell from within the GUI.
  • Display manager: Adjusts your screen and graphics settings.

Linux offers many different DEs, each of which offer a mix of aesthetic appeals and tweakable features, but in exchange for varying amounts of system resources.

Choosing a desktop environment depends a lot on your personal taste. The list that follows does not appear in a specific order.

A Stylish Desktop: Cinnamon

Cinnamon Desktop Environment
What we like
  • Familiar to Windows users.

  • Great style.

  • Many features.

  • Can be customised.

What we don't like
  • High memory use.

  • Many features not as customizable.

  • Can be buggy at times.

The Cinnamon desktop environment is modern and stylish. The interface is familiar to people with experience using Windows 7, Vista, or XP.

Cinnamon is the default desktop environment for Linux Mint and it's one of the main reasons why Mint is so popular. It delivers a single panel at the bottom, a beautiful menu with several quick-launch icons, and a system tray in the bottom right corner. This DE offers many visual effects and keyboard shortcuts.

Cinnamon can be customized and molded to work the way you want it to. Change the wallpaper, add and position panels, and add applets to the panels. Desklets optionally provide news, weather, and other key information. 

Loaded with Apps: GNOME

GNOME Desktop

 Lifewire

What we like
  • Modern desktop.

  • Many core applications and a development kit.

  • Lots of keyboard shortcuts.

  • Great search features and filtering.

What we don't like
  • High memory usage.

  • Fairly rigid with minimal customisation.

  • Not as many features as other desktops.

  • Poor extension management.

The GNOME desktop environment contains a single panel. It provides a core set of applications, but there are also many other applications specifically written for GTK3 (the under-the-hood framework for GNOME-compliant applications).

The core applications include:

  • Graphical shell
  • Control Center (like the Windows control panel)
  • Tweak tool (for customizing GNOME)
  • Chat, IRC, Contacts, and Mail
  • Files, Documents, and Photos
  • Music and Videos
  • Transfers
  • Boxes (virtual machines)
  • Credentials
  • Disk Utility and Disk Usage Analyser
  • Software (package manager)
  • Clock
  • Maps and Weather
  • Web (Web browser)
  • Calculator and Calendar
  • Dictionary
  • Notes and Gedit (text editor)
  • Gitg (front end for GIT)

GNOME isn't hugely customizable but the sheer range of utilities makes for a great desktop experience. It includes a set of default keyboard shortcuts, too.

GNOME is a standard, major DE that's well-developed and visually coherent, although it requires more modern computers given its memory requirements.

Looks Like Windows: KDE Plasma

KDE Plasma Desktop
What we like
  • Instantly familiar to people used to Windows.

  • Provides a great set of default applications.

  • Can be heavily customised.

What we don't like
  • High memory usage.

  • Some components are very complicated.

  • No easy backup and restore.

KDE Plasma provides a desktop interface similar to Cinnamon but with a little bit extra in the guise of Activities.

This desktop follows the more conventional route with a single panel at the bottom, menus, quick launch bars, and system tray icons. You can add widgets to the desktop to access information like news and weather.

KDE comes with a large array of applications by default. There are too many to list here, but some key highlights include:

  • Akonadi: Personal Information Manager
  • Ark: Compression utility
  • Dolphin: File manager
  • Gwenview: Image viewer
  • KAccounts: Accounts
  • kCalc: Calculator
  • Kdenlive: Video editor
  • Kontact: Contact manager
  • kMail: Mail
  • Akregator: RSS reader
  • Kopete: Instant Messenger
  • Kate: Text editor
  • Konqueror: Web browser

The look-and-feel of the KDE applications are all very similar, they have a huge array of features, and are highly customizable.

KDE is great for modern computers.

Light and Functional: XFCE

XFCE Whisker Menu
What we like
  • Lightweight compared to most desktop environments

  • Highly customizable.

  • Lots of good widgets.

What we don't like
  • Looks outdated compared to other desktops.

  • Not as many default apps as GNOME or KDE

XFCE is a lightweight desktop environment that looks good on both older computers and modern computers. The best part about XFCE that it is highly customizable. Everything can be adjusted so that it looks the way you want it to.

By default, it offers a single panel with a menu and system tray icons, but you can add docker style panels or place other panels at the top, bottom, or sides of the screen. XFCE supports quite a few widgets that insert directly into the panels, as well.

XFCE comes with a window manager, desktop manager, the Thunar file manager, the Midori web browser, Xfburn DVD burner, an image viewer, terminal manager, and a calendar.

It's an ideal choice, given its low resource requirements and long development history, for older machines or for people who really enjoy tweaking their desktops.

Great for Pros: MATE

Ubuntu MATE
What we like
  • Moderate memory usage

  • Lots of customizable features

  • Developer kit is available.

  • Strong history, based on GNOME 2

What we don't like
  • Doesn't look as good as more modern desktops.

  • Not as lightweight as XFCE or LXDE.

  • Not very user friendly.

MATE looks and behaves like the GNOME desktop environment prior to version 3. It is great for older hardware and contains panels and menus in much the same way as XFCE.

MATE is provided as an alternative to Cinnamon as part of the Linux Mint distribution.

The MATE desktop environment is highly customizable and you can add panels, change the desktop wallpaper and generally make it look and behave the way you want it to.

Good for Old Computers: Enlightenment

Enlightenment
What we like
  • Very lightweight.

  • Everything can be customized

  • Very fast and efficient.

What we don't like
  • Many undocumented features.

  • Looks old and dated.

  • Can feel a bit quirky when compared to other desktops.

Enlightenment is one of the oldest desktop environments and is very lightweight.

Absolutely every part of the Enlightenment desktop environment can be customized and there are settings for everything, which means you can really make it work how you want it to.

Virtual desktops feature prominently as part of the Enlightenment philosophy such that you can easily create a massive grid of work spaces.

Enlightenment doesn't come with many applications by default because it started life solely as a window manager, not as a full-fledged DE.

Work of Art: Pantheon

Pantheon
What we like
  • Lightweight yet looks great.

  • Smooth animations.

  • Simple to use.

What we don't like
  • Few configuration options.

  • May be too simple for some users.

  • Known to by somewhat buggy.

The Pantheon Desktop Environment was developed for the Elementary OS project. The term pixel-perfect springs to mind with Pantheon. Everything in Elementary has been designed to look great and therefore the Pantheon desktop looks and behaves brilliantly.

You'll find a panel at the top with system tray icons and a menu. At the bottom appears a docker-style panel for launching your favorite applications.

Functionality-wise it doesn't have the customizable features of XFCE and Enlightenment and it doesn't have the applications available with GNOME or KDE, but if your desktop experience is merely launching applications such as a web browser, then this DE is definitely worth considering.

Looking for Basics: Trinity

Q4OS

 Lifewire

What we like
  • Lightweight.

  • Familiar for Windows users.

  • Highly customizable.

What we don't like
  • Looks outdated.

  • No modern features.

  • Missing basic functionality.

Trinity is a fork of KDE before KDE went in a new direction. It is incredibly lightweight. Trinity comes with many of the applications associated with KDE, although older or forked versions of them.

Trinity is highly customizable and the XPQ4 projects have created a number of templates that make Trinity look like Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7.

Or, Make Your Own Desktop Environment

If you don't like any of the desktop environments available you can always make your own.

You can create your own desktop environment by combining your choice of window manager, desktop manager, terminal, menu system, panels, and other applications.