Note: Our best Linux desktop round-up has been updated. This feature was first published in November 2013.
The desktop is a critical aspect of your Linux experience, providing you with a user-friendly way to interact with your computer. Unlike Windows or Mac, Linux doesn't tie you to a single desktop. Switching desktop environments is incredibly straightforward – just install a new one, log out and choose it from the login screen. You can install as many desktop environments as you like, although you can only use one at a time.
In this guide, we've rounded up seven of the most popular desktops, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses. Before you dive in, however, take some time to think about what you want from your desktop.
A desktop environment is more than the wallpaper which appears when you log in. It also includes a window manager and usually a set of utilities. It 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.
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 environment to keep that familiar look and feel. Even when desktop environments come as part of a pre-assembled package, they may vary between distributions. KDE, in particular, can look radically different depending on your chosen flavour of Linux.
Functionality is another key concern. What features does the desktop offer, both in terms of the desktop itself and any core apps it bundles, such as 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?
If you have an older or slower machine, also consider how responsive your chosen desktop will be. Your PC may benefit from a lightweight environment such as LXDE rather than one with many visual effects such as KDE.
Ultimately your chosen desktop environment is a matter of personal taste and what your machine can handle. Take some time to explore the options listed here. If none of these seem to fit, we've also listed a few alternatives for good measure.
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LXDE (Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment) is a desktop environment specially designed for older machines and those with few resources. Similar to the Cinammon desktop environment, the default layout is one panel at the bottom of the screen. You can also launch applications with a menu button at the bottom-left, exactly as you would in classic versions of Microsoft Windows. Emphasis has been placed on efficiency above all else. This is reflected in the choice of OpenBox as the default window manager.
This all makes for a fast and very memory-efficient desktop. Pixel, the desktop environment of choice for the Raspberry Pi operating system, is a modified version of LXDE. LXDE is also the desktop environment of choice for 'Lubuntu' – a lightweight version of Ubuntu. This is one of the main benefits of choosing LXDE as it's highly customisable. After installing the desktop, you can choose to install new wallpapers, icon sets and even certain desktop themes using the specially designed LXAppearance.
Other core applications designed specifically for use with LXDE are extremely efficient too. The file manager (PCMan) opens quickly and supports dual panes. You can also run commands via the ultra-lightweight LXTerminal.
As it's designed for barebones efficiency, any unnecessary features such as complex window effects or visually rich themes have been stripped away from LXDE. This may make for a rather stark desktop if you're used to environments with more features such as widgets and animations.
Gnome 3 is a revamped version of its predecessor (imaginatively named Gnome 2). The key user experience revolves around the new 'Gnome Shell' – the graphical part of the desktop environment. The shell does away with the old system of navigating via panels and menus in favour of a sidebar for quickly launching programs, an application 'switcher' and support for widgets.
When you arrive at the Gnome desktop, you'll see a sparse top panel – click Activities to reveal a launcher, shortcuts 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 highly configurable, although you'll need third-party apps such as the Gnome Tweak tool 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 more adeptly.
If you don't spend much time at the desktop and want to focus on your apps, then Gnome 3 will appeal, but it's not for those who prefer a more traditional interface.
Cinnamon – the official desktop for Linux Mint – is forked from Gnome 3 with the focus very much put back on the desktop user. It utilizes 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 recognizable, 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.
If you like the idea of the traditional desktop look, but want something that'll run on slower or older machines, then Mate (pronounced ‘Ma-tay’, after the South American plant) is a potentially excellent alternative to Cinnamon. The developer website for Mate describes the project as an attempt to keep alive the classic Gnome 2 desktop.
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 flavors 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 customizable parts of Mate itself (look under Appearance for options on switching and tweaking the theme). For maximum customization, 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…
Xfce has been around since 1996 and like Gnome is based on the GTK toolkit. It's designed as a fast desktop environment which is low on system resource usage, but is rather eclipsed by LXDE, which is slightly more efficient while managing to look that bit more modern.
Nevertheless, Xfce has still got enough about it to stand apart: the main panel sits at the top of the screen by default, and we like the way its Application menu can be clicked easily from the top-left. The file manager Thunar has recently been enhanced and responds with lightning speed when opening folders or performing searches, although by default it doesn't support more advanced features such as dual panes.
There's little in the way of configurable options here, but where Xfce may win fans is with its highly customizable panels (via xfce4-panel). Right click on any panel to add more items such as a CPU monitor or mail notifier. The xfce4-panel utility also supports multiple panels, so you can have one at the bottom of the screen or on the side as a 'deskbar' if you wish. Control is granular: you can define the width, height and exact placement of each panel.
The window manager Xfwm is ultra-sleek and even includes its own compositing manager. It runs at similar speeds to other super-efficient window managers such as OpenBox, but is much more user-friendly.
Other bundled applications include the awesome graphical calendar app Orage, and Xfburn which can be used to author DVDs. You can also run commands via Xfce-Terminal which while being very sleek, also supports color modes and even a dropdown interface similar to more advanced programs like Guake.
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.
Other Linux Desktops to Consider
There's no way to hide the fact that Enlightenment 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 outset of this article that a desktop environment is a tricky thing to define. Openbox (pictured above) is a perfect example of the reason why. A number of the other desktop environments, such as LXDE, use Openbox as a window manager. However, with some configuration, it can be turned into a desktop environment in its own right – which is 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 many people find that endearing rather than 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.
So far we have explored a range of lightweight desktop environments for Linux, almost all of which use the GTK toolkit. This can cause problems for those environments based on GTK 2 as development has shifted to the newer, bulkier GTK 3.
Many people also prefer the look and feel of Qt. LXQt attempts to fill this particular gap. The current incarnation of LXQt is a culmination of the original project and code from an older project known as RazorQT. The stated goal of both projects is using the same Qt toolkit as KDE but without any bloat.
At present there aren't many bundled applications, although it does incorporate its own terminal. There are also third-party tools such as the 'lxqt_wallet' password manager which you can install after downloading the desktop environment itself.
LXQt currently doesn't come with a window manager, but the project’s Github page reassures users that it will work with any arbitrary one such as Openbox, or Xfwm4 (the window manager for Xfce). The software is still in its early stages but is certainly one to watch.
Linux Desktop review summary
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 favorite 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.
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.
If you're unafraid of new and avant-garde desktops, Gnome 3, with its upgraded graphical shell, is a clear winner. Although the initial desktop seems to be stripped bare, you can easily arrange windows into separate workspaces and launch different applications. Gnome also supports switching themes and adding widgets, though not to as great an extent as KDE (see below).
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.
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).