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The desktop environment is usually the core of your Linux desktop system for how it looks/feels. If you don’t get a good user experience, it will be difficult to use a Linux distro on your desktop, right?
So, which is the best desktop environment available?
Trying out each and every desktop environment is a very time-consuming and tiring task.
So, here, we’ve created a list of the best desktop environments available for Linux distros along with their pros and cons for you. We tried them so that you don’t have to.
Just to mention, this list is in no particular order of ranking.
KDE is one of the most popular desktop environments out there. You may also refer it as the “Plasma” desktop. Even though it’s not my primary choice, it is highly customizable and extremely lightweight.
Yes, it looks like KDE has managed to beat XFCE as one of the lightest desktop environments. Not just limited to Jason’s test, you will find numerous benchmark comparisons and tests that point to the same result.
KDE also makes it easier to connect your phone with your Linux system using KDE Connect. You will also find Plasma’s browser integration that connects your phone directly to your browser for establishing quick communication.
Overall, it looks like KDE is an incredibly lightweight desktop environment while being one of the most flexible as well.
Some Linux distros using KDE as the default are openSUSE, Kubuntu and KDE Neon. You may also refer to one of our tutorials to install KDE on Ubuntu, if that’s what you want.
MATE Desktop Environment is based on GNOME 2. MATE was initially developed for the users who were disappointed with the latest iteration of GNOME shell — GNOME 3.
Even though it’s based on the good-old GNOME 2, the MATE team has improved the desktop environment on a lot of grounds. To get some idea, you might want to check out what Ubuntu MATE 20.04 has to offer.
If we take the example of Ubuntu MATE 20.04, MATE desktop is suitable for almost everyone. And, of course, especially for the ones who loved GNOME 2 but hate the new GNOME. In addition to the user experience, it is also worth noting that it is a lightweight desktop environment as well.
MATE comes with a collection of basic applications and includes a number of built-in useful tools.
Ubuntu MATE is one of the official flavors of Ubuntu that utilizes the MATE desktop. Some other popular Linux distributions like Linux Mint, Manjaro, etc, also offer MATE editions of their distributions.
GNOME is arguably the most popular desktop environment out there. Many of the popular Linux distros use GNOME as their default desktop environment and it has some popular forks, such as Cinnamon.
GNOME is designed to be easy to use and customizable. The user interface aims to provide a unique experience (kind of tailored for both mobile and desktops).
Unfortunately, GNOME isn’t a lightweight desktop environment. So, it’s not a great choice to go with if you are looking to install a Linux distribution on older computers or systems with less than 4 Gigs of RAM.
It’s good to see that GNOME is also focusing on the performance side of things with their recent GNOME 3.36 release.
So, if you want a good user experience with something that looks different from the likes of a traditional Windows layout, GNOME should be the perfect pick.
Some major distros using GNOME are Debian, Fedora, openSUSE and Ubuntu. Not to forget Pop OS 20.04 also features many good things along with GNOME desktop environment.
Cinnamon, a fork of GNOME 3, was initially developed to be and is the default desktop environment for Linux Mint. It is known for its similarities with the Windows user interface which helps new Linux users get comfortable using easily.
Cinnamon tries to present itself as a modern desktop environment while offering a traditional user interface. And, being somewhat light on resources makes Cinnamon a balanced choice for many Linux users.
Budgie desktop has been developed by the Solus project. In case you didn’t know, Solus is an independently developed Linux distro where they utilize GNOME technologies such as GTK to develop the Budgie desktop environment.
It’s a mixed bag of modern UI and a traditional user interface. It’s not exactly resource heavy but not a complete lightweight desktop environment either.
Ubuntu Budgie — an official Ubuntu flavour features the Budgie desktop as the default. Not a lot of major distributions support Budgie desktop environment out of the box. So, you’d be better off using Solus or Ubuntu Budgie for the most part.
LXQt is a lightweight Qt desktop environment. When compared to LXDE, it’s safe to say that LXQt is indeed a lightweight desktop environment while providing a better user experience than LXDE (in terms of its look and feel).
Not just theoretically, but we also found it to be a great replacement to LXDE on Lubuntu 20.04.
Even though LXQt tries to present a modern look without comprising the performance, it is still not the most intuitive experience out there. Of course, if you need performance over the look and feel, LXQt is an impressive choice.
Xfce is one of the most lightweight desktop environments out there. Unlike LXQt, you will find a lot of major Linux distributions support XFCE editions.
Xfce is light on resources but proves to provide a feature-rich user experience. If you need a performance-centric desktop environment without needing advanced customizations, Xfce is a great choice to go with.
To give you an example, I’d recommend you check out our initial impressions on Zorin OS 15 Lite which includes Xfce desktop environment as the default.
Major Linux distributions like Manjaro Linux, Xubuntu, MX Linux, Zorin OS Lite, and several others feature Xfce as the default desktop environment.
Sometimes it’s not enough to offer customization options or being light on resources. There’s a lot of users who prefer an eye candy user interface by compromising the performance of the desktop environment.
That’s when the Deepin desktop environment comes to the scene. It may offer a macOS-ish interface in a way but because of the animations and the layout, the looks and feel of Deepin desktop environment is something to appreciate.
Originally, it was only available on Deepin OS, but it is now gradually being added to some other distributions as well. Recently an interesting project (UbuntuDDE) has managed to incorporate it on top of Ubuntu. It isn’t fairly new but it is being slowly adopted by other Linux distributions.
The reason why different desktop environment exists because there’s no ultimate desktop environment. Every user has a different set of requirements. Some look for a fast experience while some drool over an eye candy UI.
Even though we’ve already mentioned the best available in this article, there are a few other desktop environments that deserve the mention. Some of them are:
What desktop environment do you prefer and why? Feel free to let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
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A passionate technophile who also happens to be a Computer Science graduate. You will usually see cats dancing to the beautiful tunes sung by him.
Lot of nonsense in this article, sorry to say so! 💚
First of all: KDE Plasma is very Beautiful (I really like it for that), but also HEAVY. NOT lightweight at all!
Just try it on a few older machines or in a VM, especially with a limited GPU. It’s only super fast with a good enough GPU, otherwise it’s a complete drama, with a lot of lagginess and regular crashes.
Especially the Application Launcher (the start menu) is problematic.
My experience is that it’s currently quite buggy anyway (running on an Arch Linux system). And sddm (which is actually not the desktop, but KDE’s default display manager anyway), refuses to exit when rebooting / shutting down directly from within KDE, so that systemd waits 1:30 minutes before it eventually forcibly terminates it.
And don’t even try to run the X11 version of it. It really needs Wayland, otherwise it’s a drama anyway. But I know that’s also a problem of the X Window system so I won’t blame KDE for that. Wayland is the future.
Second: I do also not agree that GNOME is not lightweight. Once again, try some older systems or virtual machines, and you will notice that it’s a lot more usable there than KDE Plasma. Graphically less demanding and with a much shorter startup time.
But again: also GNOME is not free of the problems. Most parts are very responsive, but again also GNOME 3 knows it’s issues with it’s laucher for applications as well. All those flying icons through your screen of it where crazy, they first appeared and then the started flying again from bottom left over the screen, and all very, very laggy as well.
But GNOME 40+ does a much better job and is very smooth (they removed that terrible way of how the icons appeared, just using a simple sliding screen now).
But again, also GNOME is doing clearly better on Wayland.
This is all why I mostly use Xfce.
Because it does not need animations and transitions but just works. Keep It Simple.
But don’t go for the default theme as it’s quite ugly out of the box. Choose a nice theme and configure everything how you like.
And here we arrive at my third criticism: “No advanced customizations”.
Xfce is VERY customizable. That’s it’s big secret. It has options, a lot of options.
For me it feels like Xfce simply wants you to customize it. It’s like a call for creativity.
But that’s probably why I choose my entire system like that: Arch Linux. Also a fan of FreeBSD (not a Linux, but BSD, very good stuff). And I have even done things with Gentoo Linux, and I compiled my own kernels on Ubuntu.
But I was already a software developer anyway, so not it’s a surprise.
GNOME is customizable? What?
Why no unity in the list
Because it is not developed anymore.
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