Note: Our best Linux desktop round-up has been fully updated. This feature was first published in November 2013.
The desktop is certainly a critical aspect of your Linux user experience, providing you with a more user-friendly way to interact with your PC. Unlike Windows or Mac, Linux doesn't tie you to a single desktop, and switching desktops is incredibly straightforward – just install a replacement desktop, log out and choose which desktop you want from the login screen.
If you're struggling with your distro's default desktop, then it's time to make a change. But rather than simply experiment with different desktops until you find the one you're looking for, it pays to form an idea of what you specifically want from a desktop, then narrow down your choices to two or three alternatives before trying them all and finally settling on one (or even two) you prefer.
We've rounded up seven of the most popular desktops in this feature, highlighting the good, bad and ugly about each. But before you dive in, what exactly should you be looking for when evaluating desktops?
The phrase desktop environment is notoriously slippery. We're taking the view that a desktop environment is a collection of things: it's the window manager plus a set of utilities. This may come in the form of a pre-assembled package, such as Gnome or KDE, or it may be assembled by the distro maintainer, such as CrunchBang's Openbox or Puppy's JWM.
There's the first impression of course – does it look attractive (or at least not offputting)? Most desktops can be tweaked and skinned to look radically different, so if you like your current desktop's look, but not much else, you can probably customise (or even source a special version) of another desktop to keep the familiar look and feel.
And even when it comes in a pre-assembled package, a desktop will vary between distributions. KDE, in particular, can seem like a different desktop environment in each distro.
Another key criterion is – of course – functionality: what features does the desktop offer, both in terms of the desktop itself and any core apps it bundles, like a file manager or text editor? User-friendliness is another – how easy is the desktop to use? Are items laid out logically to your liking? Do you find yourself having to perform more clicks to access the key parts of the system?
It's also important to think about how flexible the desktop is – what aspects can be customised to your tastes, and how easy is it to do so? Last, but not least, there's the question of performance. How responsive and quick will a replacement desktop be with your setup?
We've asked ourselves all these questions – and more – while evaluating these desktops, but ultimately it's down to what your tastes are and what you're looking for. Read on to find out which desktop or desktops will best suit your needs – and if none of our seven appeal, we've rounded up some alternative choices for you to explore too…
Unity is Ubuntu's own exclusive desktop theme, so for many it's the starting point against which other desktops will be compared. What you'll find is that – love it or hate it – Unity very much stands alone, despite superficial resemblance to Gnome 3. It's not quite as minimalist as the new Gnome, but it's still relatively sparse, with just the Launcher – fixed to the left-hand side of the screen – and a top panel to contend with.
One of Unity's strengths is the Dash, a tool for quickly finding just about anything from media and files to programs and web links – it also provides a handy shortcut to recently used items. It's a step forward from Gnome's version in that it offers lenses, which allow you to focus on specific areas like online video or Wikipedia.
Another big plus is the HUD – tap [Alt] to invoke it. This provides an alternative to clicking menus by allowing you to type what it is you're looking to do, such as save or print. As you type, suggestions pop up – fuzzy searches are fully supported.
There are annoyances too. First, you can't reposition the Launcher, although it can be hidden. Window controls are also placed in the top left rather than the top right of windows. Its notification system is also poorly implemented and – like much of Unity – can only be tweaked using third-party tools.
Unity is a solid choice for those who take the time to learn it, and will particularly appeal to those experimenting with Ubuntu on smaller displays thanks to its convergent-friendly features, but if you're struggling to adapt or are frustrated at its lack of configurability, don't panic. There are many alternatives out there.
Best for: Big icons and web apps
Avoid if: You like menus and panels
Try on: Ubuntu
In a nutshell: Innovative and bold
The days of Gnome dominating the Linux desktop landscape are gone, thanks in part to the marmite effect of Gnome 3's minimalist shell. It's designed to focus you on whatever task it is you're doing by eliminating potentially distracting desktop furniture, but for those used to navigating through a series of panels, menus and other paraphernalia, you might want to look away now – or otherwise give the Gnome Classic shell a whirl, which provides a desktop more in common with Gnome 2.
When you arrive at the Gnome desktop, you'll see a sparse top panel – click Activities to reveal a launcher, shortcut to all the apps on your system and a Search box. It won't take you long to master this – ultimately one of Gnome's strengths is its user-friendliness. On the other hand, it lacks features found elsewhere, and its quest for minimalism has led to core apps like the file manager losing key functionality such as split-screen views for easy file transfers.
Gnome is more configurable than Unity, although again you'll need third-party apps to get the most from it. It also supports shell extensions, but you can only install these through your browser, and they often break when Gnome gets a major update – other desktops handle such add-ons much better.
If you don't spend much time at the desktop and want to focus on your apps, then Gnome will appeal, but if you want a more traditional user interface, try Gnome Classic instead. Or read on…
Best for: Minimalism
Avoid if: You like to see what's going on
Try on: Fedora
In a nutshell: Less is more
Cinnamon – the official desktop for Linux Mint – is forked from Gnome 3 with the focus very much put back on the desktop user. It utilises the underlying technology of Gnome, including forked versions of its core applications to ensure that they remain more functional than the native Gnome versions.
This ensure it's able to deliver a polished desktop that's immediately recognisable, particularly to users switching from Windows, with a menu button, app shortcuts and a system tray all packed into a panel that runs along the bottom of the screen.
It's also highly configurable through a series of "spices": themes, extensions, applets and floating desklets (Cinnamon's equivalent of KDE's widgets), all of which are managed directly through its own System Settings tool.
Although Cinnamon has made great strides in souping up its performance (the most recent release uses a pre-load mechanism to start swiftly after booting, for example), its reliance on Gnome 3 means it's still relatively resource-heavy, while it has also acquired a reputation for being slightly buggy, although recent releases have steadily improved its robustness.
For our money, though, if you're looking for a polished, instantly accessible desktop that takes the best bits of Gnome and wraps them up in a traditional setting, then Cinnamon is the desktop to try.
Best for: Hipsters
Avoid if: You have an older machine
Try on: Mint
In a nutshell: A traditional desktop
If you like the idea of the traditional desktop look, but want something that'll run on slower or older machines, then Mate is a potentially excellent alternative to Cinnamon.
It's also forked from Gnome, but in this case, Mate is based on the older Gnome 2 release. This helps reduce its overheads, but you're given a choice of flavours to install, including a "core" build with little in the way of extras to bog your system down, although all the key features are still covered (including Caja – a twin-paned file manager forked from Gnome's Nautilus).
Mate opens with two panels – top and bottom – and you can add more, plus place them on either side of the screen. By default the bottom panel displays open windows while a series of menus in the top left-hand corner provides handy shortcuts to key parts of your system. Panels can also be extended via a number of additional applets, such as task launcher, power button, weather and so on.
A handy Control Centre shortcut gives you access to most system settings, including the few easily customisable parts of Mate itself (look under Appearance for options on switching and tweaking the theme). For maximum customisation, Ubuntu users might even want to try Ubuntu Mate, a specially built version designed to more seamlessly integrate with Ubuntu.
Ultimately Mate offers a reasonable compromise between the configurability of Cinnamon and the no-frills approach of lighter desktops like LXDE and Xfce – speaking of which, if Mate is still too rich for your PC's tastes, read on…
Best for: Older computers
Avoid if: You like GTK 3
Try on: Mint
In a nutshell: Gnome 2 lives!
LXDE and Xfce
This pair of desktops are firmly targeted at those looking for a basic, low-end desktop, with memory consumption being just a third of heavyweights like KDE Plasma and Unity. Both look a little flat and dated compared to rival desktops, but are by far the best choices for slow machines such as the Raspberry Pi.
LXDE shares the same basic layout as Cinnamon – just a single panel at the bottom of the screen that resembles Windows 95. It's not exactly attractive, but it's perfectly functional and helps keep the desktop clutter to a minimum. And like Mate it can be extended with a select number of plug-ins. The core apps are lightweight too, but still have neat little touches, such as dual-pane support in the file manager. A 'Customise Look and Feel' tool makes it incredibly easy to customise large aspects of the desktop to your taste too.
Xfce was the first low-powered desktop for those railing against Gnome 3, but has since been eclipsed by the likes of LXDE, which is slightly lighter on system resources while managing to look that bit more modern.
Nevertheless, Xfce has still got enough about it to stand apart: its main panel sits at the top of the screen by default, and we like the way its Application menu is laid out too. There's little in the way of configurable options here, but where Xfce may win fans is with its launcher panel (xfce4-panel), which sits at the bottom of the screen and provides handy shortcuts to various items. Also keep an eye out forXfce Goodies, which allows you to do even more with it.
Best for: Low resource use
Avoid if: You like graphical effects
Try on: Lubuntu
In a nutshell: A great desktop for older machines
Best for: Not too minimalist minimalism
Avoid if: You like a high level of configurability
Try on: Xubuntu, Debian
In a nutshell: Aims for simple, but not too simple
KDE Plasma 5
If you want to exert complete control over your desktop then KDE Plasma 5 is the desktop to choose – in some ways it's more like a framework for building your own custom desktop than an actual desktop, although version 5 does ship with sensible defaults that give you something to start from. Note that some distros still offer version 4 by default, so be prepared to source it yourself (for example, via the kubuntu-ppa/backports repository).
Once started, the world's your oyster – you're presented with a single panel at the bottom of the screen and a handy tool box button in the top right-hand corner. From here great things can be made. KDE is largely based around widgets, which can be pinned to panels or left floating on the desktop itself. A large number are provided, but you can easily download more through the desktop too.
KDE also makes use of "activities", which resemble virtual desktops, allowing you to customise your desktop for specific purposes – say when browsing the web or editing images.
KDE is unique among desktops in this roundup in being built on the Qt toolkit rather than GTK – this means it's a little more resource intensive, particularly when updating; you may also find your existing apps don't share KDE's elegant look.
As a result, those searching for a fuss-free desktop with not too many bells and whistles will be better served looking elsewhere, but if you're itching to build a desktop from scratch, then KDE should be first on your list.
Best for: Customisation
Avoid if: You like GTK
Try on: OpenSuse, Rosa or Mageia
In a nutshell: Tweaker's heaven
A few unusual alternatives
Are you still searching for the perfect desktop? Try these alternatives…
There's no way to hide the fact that Enlightenment (pictured above) is about eye candy. Things fade, pop and shimmer with glee any time you do anything. Some people find all these distractions and window dressing (sic) a bit too much, but for others it adds a sense of humour to their computing.
Enlightenment describes itself as a desktop shell, which means it's a desktop environment without any applications supplied. Since the styling is so different from the others (from which you'll need to take software) this means the result is a system that looks inconsistent. However, if you like desktop effects, but don't like KDE, Enlightenment may be for you.
When Nicholas Negroponte founded One Laptop Per Child, the project kicked off with extremely limited hardware, so the developers set about creating a desktop environment that was both very light on resources and very child-friendly. Given that most of their target users had never seen a computer let alone used one before, it had to be easy to use as well.
Sugar is the result of this. It's a little too simplistic for most uses, but it's excellent for kids with its big blocky icons and a high-contrast colour scheme that make it great for their first digital steps. Try a Fedora spin here.
We said at the start that a desktop environment is a tricky thing to define. Openbox is a perfect example of why. A number of the other desktop environments use Openbox as their window manager of choice (such as LXDE and razorQT). However, with some configuration, it can be turned into a desktop environment in its own right, and that's exactly what the developers of CrunchBang have done.
It's a stripped bare environment that perhaps has something in common with Gnome 3, though not quite to that extreme. Its minimalism has endeared it to sysadmins and hardcore users who appreciate the lack of desktop bloat.
This distro has built a desktop environment around JWM, a slim window manager that's not used in many other setups. As you may be able to guess, this is one designed to be frugal with resources. The end result is pleasant, though not spectacular, and works admirably on older hardware.
Puppy Linux is designed in the traditional fashion and does a good job of just staying out of the way. It can look a bit dated when compared to its more resource-intensive cousins, but as many people find that endearing as annoying. Not many folks would pick this for a new machine, but it does a great job of keeping PCs running that would otherwise be scrapped.
If there's one desktop environment that stands out from all the others we have here it's this one. Before you start using it, it's best to forget everything you think you know about how a desktop should work. Right, have you done that?
The desktop in Xmonad is split into tiles, each of which contains an application. You can shuffle the tiles around, change their size, and focus. You can also use the mouse within the tiles, but not to sort out the desktop like you would with windows. The result looks a little peculiar, but it is surprisingly usable once you get used to the new layout.
As we've seen, there's a large range of lightweight desktops for Linux. However, almost all of them use the GTK toolkit which could cause problems as development has shifted to the less lightweight GTK 3. (LXDE has started work on a Qt version, but it could be some time before it's ready for mainstream use).
Many people also prefer the look and feel of Qt. RazorQT was created to fill this particular gap. It's built using the same Qt toolkit as KDE, but without any of the bloat. As yet, it doesn't have many applications, but works with the KDE ones. It's still young when compared to most of the other efforts in this roundup, and we expect it to improve and start to challenge the other lightweight environments soon.
If you ask ten computer users what they want from a computer interface, you'll get ten different answers, so why should they all use the same desktop environment? The answer is simple – they shouldn't.
Because of this, we're not limiting ourselves to a single 'best desktop' because we don't think there is one, but we're not completely copping out. We're going to pick our favourite desktop in four categories: traditional, new style, tweakers and outlier. We feel this recognition of different styles of computer use has become especially important in the past couple of years as the desktop possibilities in Linux have diversified significantly.
There has always been a range of desktops, but now, more than ever before, there are a range of good desktops. Not all of them will suit everyone, but everyone, we think, will be able to find a desktop that works well for them.
For the traditionalists
We have to say that there are no bad choices in the category at the moment. Xfce, LXDE, Mate, Cinnamon and KDE are all great desktops. They all have good and bad points, but we think that most traditionalists would be happy with any of them. However, there has to be a winner, and we're picking Mate for the way it continues the Gnome 2 feel through to the present day.
For the brave new world
This one comes down to Gnome 3 and Unity. Plenty of people hate both, but there's definitely a demand for much bolder desktop designs. We're going to go with Unity as our top desktop for the brave new world simply because we can't align ourselves with Gnome's stripped bare design. We like a little bit more activity on the desktop. Yes, sometimes it distracts us, but that's not always a bad thing.
For the tweakers
Let's be honest, there was only ever going to be one winner here and it's KDE. Although an honourable mention should go out to Cinnamon now that it includes desklets. Enlightenment is another option, though we feel it doesn't match KDE as a complete desktop environment. Maybe next time, KDE will have a challenger.
For the outliers
We're going to pick the desktop that adds the most to the world of desktops. That is, the one that has the most useful features that can't be done in any common environment. The winner offers a radically different way of doing things that we found surprisingly usable. In fact, we were tempted to switch. Hats off then to Xmonad (pictured above).
- Also check out: 10 best Linux distros: which one is right for you?