The 10 Best Linux Desktop Environments

Introduction To Cairo Dock
Introduction To Cairo Dock.

A desktop environment is a suite of tools which make it easier for you to use your computer. The components of a desktop environment include some or all of the following components:

  • Window manager
  • Panels
  • Menus
  • Widgets
  • File Manager
  • Browser
  • Office Suite
  • Text Editor
  • Terminal
  • Display Manager

The window manager determines how application windows behave. Panels are usually displayed on the edges or the screen and contain the system tray, menu, and quick launch icons.

Widgets are used to display useful information such as the weather, news snippets or system information.

The file manager lets you navigate through the folders on your computer. A browser lets you browse the internet. 

The office suite lets you create documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. A text editor lets you create simple text files and edit configuration files. The terminal provides access to the command line tools and a display manager is used for logging into your computer.

This guide provides a list of the most commonly used desktop environments.

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Cinnamon Desktop Environment
Cinnamon Desktop Environment.

What we like

  • Instant familiarity to anybody who has used Windows.

  • Looks great

  • Lots of features

  • Lots of desktop effects

  • Keyboard shortcuts

  • Can be customised

What we don't like

  • Uses a lot of memory compared to other desktops

  • Not as many customisable features as other desktops

Memory Usage: Around 175 megabytes

The Cinnamon desktop environment is modern and stylish. The interface will be very familiar to people who have used any version of Windows prior to version 8.

Cinnamon is the default desktop environment for Linux Mint and it is one of the main reasons why Mint is so popular.

There is a single panel at the bottom and a stylish menu with quick launch icons and a system tray in the bottom right corner.

There are a range of keyboard shortcuts that can be used and the desktop had lots of visual effects.

Cinnamon can be customised and moulded to work the way you want it to. You can change the wallpaper, add and position panels, add applets to the panels, Desklets can also be added to the desktop which provide news, weather and other key information. 

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Learn Ubuntu - The Unity Dash
Learn Ubuntu - The Unity Dash.

What we like

  • Modern

  • Integrates applications into the desktop such as audio, photos and videos

  • Lots of keyboard shortcuts

  • Great search features and filtering

What we don't like

  • High memory usage

  • Fairly rigid with minimal customization

Memory Usage: Around 300 megabytes

Unity is the default desktop environment for Ubuntu. It provides a very modern look and feel, dispensing with a standard menu and instead providing a bar containing quick launch icons and a dash style display for browsing applications, files, media, and photos.

The launcher provides instant access to your favorite applications. The real power of Ubuntu is the dash with its powerful search and filtering.

Unity has a range of keyboard shortcuts which makes navigating the system incredibly simple.

Photos, music, videos, applications, and files all integrate neatly into the Dash saving you the trouble of actually opening individual programs for viewing and playing media.

You can customize Unity to some extent although not as much as with Cinnamon, XFCE, LXDE, and Enlightenment. At least now though you can move the launcher if you wish to do so.

As with Cinnamon, Unity is great for modern computers.

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GNOME Desktop
GNOME Desktop.

What we like

  • Modern

  • Has a large number of core applications and a development kit making it easy for developers to create rich applications

  • Lots of keyboard shortcuts

  • Great search features and filtering

What we don't like

  • High memory usage

  • Fairly rigid with minimal customisation

Memory Usage: Around 250 megabytes

The GNOME desktop environment is much like the Unity desktop environment.

The main difference is that the desktop by default contains a single panel. To bring up the GNOME dashboard you need to press the super key on the keyboard which on most computers shows the Windows logo.

GNOME has a core set of applications that are built as part of it but there are a huge number of other applications specifically written for GTK3.

The core applications are as follows:

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

As with Unity GNOME isn't hugely customisable but the sheer range of utilities makes for a great desktop experience.

There is a set of default keyboard shortcuts which can be used to navigate the system.

Great for modern computers.

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KDE Plasma

KDE Plasma Desktop
KDE Plasma Desktop.

What we like

  • Looks instantly familiar to people used to Windows operating systems

  • Provides a great set of default applications including web browsers and mail clients

  • Lots of widgets

  • Can be heavily customised

What we don't like

  • High memory usage

Memory Usage: Around 300 megabytes

For every ying there is a yang and KDE is definitely the yang to GNOME.

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

Generally speaking it follows the more traditional route with a single panel at the bottom, menus, quick launch bars and system tray icons.

You can add widgets to the desktop for providing information such as news and weather.

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

  • 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 and they all have a huge array of features and are highly customisable.

KDE is great for modern computers.

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XFCE Whisker Menu
XFCE Whisker Menu.

What we like

  • Lightweight compared to most desktop environments

  • Everything can be customized

  • Lots of good widgets

What we don't like

  • By default looks old compared to other desktops (although can be customized to look great)

  • Not as many default applications as GNOME or KDE

Memory Usage: Around 100 megabytes

XFCE is a lightweight desktop environment which looks good on older computers and modern computers.

The best part about XFCE is the fact that it is highly customizable. Absolutely everything can be adjusted so that it looks and feels the way you want it to.

By default, there is 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.

There are a number of widgets that can be added to the panels.

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.

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What we like

  • Very lightweight and great for very old and lower range computers

  • Lots of customizable features

What we don't like

  • Looks old (although can be made to look better)

  • The menu system isn't as good as the Whisker menu which is part of XFCE

  • Not many default applications and the ones that are available aren't as good as for other desktop environments

Memory Usage: Around 85 megabytes

The LXDE desktop environment is great for older computers.

As with the XFCE desktop environment, it is highly customizable with the ability to add panels in any position and customize them to behave as docks.

The following components make up the LXDE desktop environment:

  • PCManFM - File Manager
  • Panels
  • Session Manager
  • Theme Changer
  • Window Manager
  • GPicView Image Viewer
  • Leafpad Text Editor

This desktop is very basic in its nature and is therefore recommended more for older hardware. For newer hardware XFCE would be the better option.

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Ubuntu MATE
Ubuntu MATE.

What we like

  • A good middle of the range desktop environment in terms of memory usage

  • Lots of customizable features

  • A developer kit is available for developers to write rich applications

  • Has a strong history as it is based on the old GNOME 2

What we don't like

  • Doesn't look as good as modern desktops such as Cinnamon

  • Not as lightweight as XFCE or LXDE

Memory Usage: Around 125 megabytes

MATE looks and behaves like the GNOME desktop environment prior to version 3.

It is great for older and modern 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.

The components of the MATE desktop are as follows:

  • Caja - File Manager
  • Pluma - Text Editor
  • Atril - Document Viewer
  • Engrampa - Archive Manager
  • MATE terminal - Terminal Manager
  • Marco - Window Manager
  • Mozo - Menu Item Editor
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What we like

  • Very lightweight. Great for older and low powered computers

  • Everything can be customized

What we don't like

  • Many of the features are undocumented especially when it comes to customizing the desktop

  • Looks old and dated

  • Can feel a bit quirky when compared to other desktops

Memory Usage: Around 85 megabytes

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 absolutely everything which means you can really make it work how you want it to.

This is a great desktop environment to use on older computers and is one to consider over LXDE.

Virtual desktops feature prominently as part of the Enlightenment desktop and you can easily create a massive grid of workspaces.

Enlightenment doesn't come with many applications by default as it started out as a window manager.

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What we like

  • Lightweight yet looks great

  • Smooth animations

What we don't like

  • Not really customizable beyond the basics

Memory Usage: Around 120 megabytes

The Pantheon Desktop Environment was developed for the Elementary OS project.

The term pixel perfect springs to mind when I think of Pantheon. Everything in Elementary has been designed to look great and therefore the Pantheon desktop looks and behaves brilliantly.

There is a panel at the top with system tray icons and a menu.

At the bottom is a docker style panel for launching your favorite applications.

The menu looks incredibly crisp.

If desktop environments were a work of art then Pantheon would be a masterpiece.

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 is definitely worth using.

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What we like

  • Lightweight

  • Provides a familiar look and feel for Windows users

What we don't like

  • Looks very old

  • No modern features such as snappy windows

Memory Usage: Around 130 megabytes

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.

Brilliant for older computers.

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.