In Linux, there are so many choices, and this includes the desktop environments and window managers. The most popular desktop environments in Linux are GNOME, Unity, Cinnamon, MATE, KDE, Xfce, and LXDE. All of them offer sophisticated point-and-click graphical user interfaces (GUI) which are on par with the desktop environments found in Windows and Mac OS X. When you ask different people which of these are the best, you will likely get many different answers. So which is the best? Well..... it is largely a matter of opinion, and the capabilities of your computer hardware can also be important in deciding. For example, users with older computers will be better served to choose Xfce or especially LXDE, while users with newer hardware can get more desktop effects by choosing KDE, Cinnamon, or GNOME. Another consideration when choosing a desktop environment is your preference for customizing it. If you like to have a lot of options to customize and tweak your desktop, then KDE will by default give you the greatest flexibility to do this. Xfce comes next, and then LXDE, while Unity and the default GNOME 3.x shell offer relatively few options in the way of desktop customization. Personally, I like all of them, and if you have the time and are a bit adventurous, then I recommend you try each of the major desktop environments described below, as well as others such as Enlightenment and Razor-qt and decide which of them works best for you. GNOME, Unity, Cinnamon, MATE, KDE, Xfce, LXDE, Enlightenment, and Razor-qt are all excellent and are definitely worth consideration.
A Brief Description of GNOME, Unity, Cinnamon, MATE, KDE, Xfce, LXDE, Enlightenment, and Razor-qt:
GNOME  - The GNOME (GNU Network Object Model Environment) has been redesigned with the most recent GNOME 3.x and is a wide departure from the traditional GNOME 2.x desktop (click here to see a screenshot). The newly released GNOME 3.x with its GNOME Shell user interface is a drastic change from the "classic" GNOME 2.x shell. While the GNOME 3.x shell is fairly intuitive, for someone who is accustomed to GNOME 2.x, or any other desktop environment for that matter, there will be a considerable amount of adjustment. In the GNOME 3.x shell, there is only one panel located at the top of the desktop, and there is no longer a traditional menu. To open programs, users can either press the Windows key, or they can click on "Activities" found on the left side of the panel. This gives the options of a program launcher that appears on the left side of the desktop, an "Applications" option found on the upper left part of the desktop (which is the closest thing to a Debian, and Fedora are major distros which use some form of GNOME in their main editions.
Click on the pictures above
to see larger screenshots of the the default GNOME 3.x desktop shell in Fedora 17.
It should also be mentioned that GNOME has a wealth of applications which are designed for its desktop, but they can also be used in the other desktop environments as well; click here to see a list of them . Following are a few applications and components of GNOME:
File Manager: Nautilus
Music Player: Rhythmbox
Video Player: Totem
CD/DVD Burner: Brasero
Widget Toolkit: GTK+
Recommended System Requirements for the GNOME 3.x shell in its default mode
You can click here to read an informative article about the GNOME 3.x Fallback Mode and how to make it your default desktop . Click on the picture to the left to see a larger screenshot of GNOME 3.x in the Fallback Mode running in Fedora 16. Ubuntu users can have this option by installing a package called "GNOME-Session-Fallback." In the future to be released GNOME 3.8, the Fallback Mode will not be included, so this is really not a long-term solution.
Another option is to install extensions to GNOME 3.x such as GNOME Shell Frippery, which turns the GNOME 3.x Shell into an even more GNOME 2.x-like experience than the Fallback Mode .
Unity  Originally designed by Canonical for use on netbooks, Unity has (beginning with Ubuntu 11.04) replaced GNOME 2.x as the default desktop shell in Ubuntu. Starting with Ubuntu 11.10, Unity runs on top of GNOME 3.x. In essence, Unity like the GNOME 3.x shell is a move away from a menu-driven desktop to a text and search-based desktop with its "Heads-Up Display," aka HUD, which will anticipate your queries in a manner similar to a Google search. Unity requires more system resources than the GNOME 3.x shell or KDE, not to mention all of the other popular Linux desktop environments. In Unity, there is one panel and it is always at the top of the desktop. Additionally, there is a dock-like program called the "launcher" which is always on the left side of the desktop. In appearance, Unity very much resembles a Mac OS X desktop where the dock has been positioned on the left side. In my opinion, Unity is a very nice looking desktop, but it is still in some ways a step backward in the area of customization compared to the traditional GNOME 2.x desktop. However, Unity has excellent compatibility with touch screen technology and seems to be the way things are going in computing. While there are many people who have criticized Unity, the direction Canonical has taken with it makes sense in light of such endeavors as Ubuntu for Android, which is available with the release of Ubuntu 12.04. Basically, Ubuntu for Android is an app for dual core Android phones, which allows users to dock their phones to a keyboard and monitor to have the full Ubuntu desktop. Unity has improved significantly since it began, and it has grown on me and I like it much more now than when I first began to use it.
Click on the picture aboveto see a larger screenshot of the Unity desktop in Ubuntu 12.04 LTS.
Recommended System Requirements for Unity
Unity does not have a "traditional" menu like GNOME 2.x, but programs can be easily accessed by clicking on the Ubuntu symbol on the upper part of the launcher, or by pushing the "Windows" button found on most PCs. This opens up a box called the "dash" where users can search by typing in the name of desired programs to open them. Click on the picture to the left to see a screenshot of Ubuntu's search filter mode found in the dash, which is the closest thing to a traditional menu in Unity.
Cinnamon  After the change from GNOME 2.x to 3.x, Cinnamon was forked from GNOME 3.x as a desktop which is more traditional and truly in line with the essence of older Linux Mint desktops, while utilizing the newer technologies found in GNOME 3.x. Unlike MATE, which is a fork of GNOME 2.x, Cinnamon is based on GNOME 3.x. In a relatively short period of time, Cinnamon has quickly become a very solid desktop and a major force in the world of Linux. In my opinion, Cinnamon easily rivals the KDE desktop in visual beauty and appeal. Currently, Cinnamon along with MATE are the default desktop choices for Linux Mint. Also, Cinnarch uses Cinnamon as its default. Cinnamon is available to be installed on Ubuntu, Fedora, OpenSUSE, Arch Linux, Gentoo, Manjaro Linux, Sabayon, and Snowlinux.
Click on the picture aboveto see a larger screenshot of the Cinnamon 2.2 desktop in Linux Mint 17.
To the left is a screenshot of the default menu in Linux Mint running Cinnamon.
Recommended System Requirements for Cinnamon (probably similar to Linux Mint's requirements)
Following are a few applications and components of Cinnamon:
Window Manager: Muffin
File Manager: Nemo
MATE  A fork of GNOME 2.x, MATE looks and acts just like the traditional GNOME 2.x shell which was replaced with the release of GNOME 3.x. As shown in the screenshot to the left, MATE is essentially a return to the much loved desktop found in older versions of Linux. While using MATE in Linux Mint, I felt very much at home with the desktop, and I highly recommend MATE to anyone who misses GNOME 2.x. In my own experiences, MATE seems much more like the old GNOME 2.x than Cinnamon. Currently, MATE, along with Cinnamon are the default desktop choices for Linux Mint beginning with version 13. Linux Mint, Fedora, Manjaro Linux, Sabayon, and Salix OS include MATE in their official repositories, and MATE packages are available to be installed into Arch Linux, Debian, Slackware Linux, OpenSUSE, and Ubuntu by adding repositories.
Click on the picture aboveto see a larger screenshot of MATE 1.4.2 running in Ubuntu 12.04 LTS.
To the left is a screenshot of default MATE menu.
Recommended System Requirements for MATE (My guess is that they should be similar to the GNOME 2.x shell)
Following are a few applications and components of MATE:
Window Manager: Marco
File Manager: Caja
Text Editor: Pluma
Graphics Viewer: Eye of MATE
Document Viewer: Atril
Archive Manager: Engrampa
Terminal Emulator: MATE Terminal
KDE  - In many ways, KDE (K Desktop Environment) in its default configuration is very similar in appearance to Microsoft Windows and Windows users will likely feel very much at home when using it. KDE is arguably the most powerful, versatile, smoothly integrated, and visually pleasing of all the Linux desktops and has more point-and-click customization options and "eye candy" than any of the various GNOMEs, Xfce, LXDE or any other Linux desktop. With its Plasma Workspaces, users can easily add a variety of widgets to the desktop. While KDE is the most polished in appearance when compared to other Linux desktops, it can be quite resource-hungry with its many desktop effects. However, when the desktop effects are turned off, KDE is fairly energy efficient. Typically, KDE requires less CPU resources than Ubuntu's Unity and less RAM than the GNOME 3.x shell. OpenSUSE, PCLinuxOS, SolydXK, Mageia, and Chakra are some major Linux distros running KDE in their main editions. Kubuntu is the KDE version of Ubuntu. In summary, KDE is an outstanding desktop environment that is most definitely worth consideration.
Click on the picture aboveto see a larger screenshot of KDE 4.8.2 in Kubuntu 12.04 LTS.
To the left is a screenshot of the default KDE menu in Kubuntu.
Like GNOME, KDE includes a large number of applications which are designed to be used in its desktop, many of which have a name that begins with the letter "K." For example, Konqueror is a web browser and file manager, and KStars is a desktop planetarium. Also like the GNOME applications, the KDE applications can be used in other desktop environments. You can click here to see a list of KDE applications . Following are a few applications and components of KDE:
Window Manager: KWin
File Manager: Dolphin
Office Suite: KOffice
Music Player: Amarok
Video Player: Dragon Player
CD/DVD Burner: K3b
Terminal Emulator: Konsole
Games: The KDE Games Center
Education: KDE Edu
Widget Toolkit: Qt
Recommended System Requirements for KDE
One option in newer versions of KDE is to run it in the "Search and Launch" mode, which in some ways is similar in appearance to the GNOME 3.x shell and to Ubuntu's Unity. This mode with its large icons and search can be used with a touchscreen, and is great for smaller devices such as netbooks and tablets. While the Search and Launch mode is an option in KDE, it is not the default like it is in the GNOME 3.x shell and in Unity. The Search and Launch mode is easily activated or deactivated by clicking on the "Show Activity Manager" button found on the desktop panel, next to the "Application Launcher Menu." Click on the picture to the left to see a larger screenshot of the KDE 4.7 Search and Launch mode.
Xfce  - Less resource-hungry than GNOME or KDE, Xfce is a great choice for older computers and it is still a full-fledged desktop environment that offers a great deal to the user. In my opinion, Xfce provides a nice balance between functionality and conservation of system resources, while still having a beautiful desktop. In its default appearance, Xfce very much resembles Mac OS X with its dock-like panel found at the bottom of the desktop. Users can drag their favorite applications from the menu (found on the left side of the upper panel) and place them on the bottom dock/panel in a similar manner as can be done in Mac OS X. Just like GNOME 2.x and KDE, Xfce may easily be customized to more closely resemble Windows, or to be configured otherwise as desired. SolydX is the Xfce version of SolydXK. Also, Xubuntu is the Xfce version of Ubuntu, and Mythbuntu has Xfce as its desktop. VectorLinux uses Xfce as its default desktop, and many other Linux distros offer Xfce versions as well. In many ways, Xfce looks and acts much like GNOME 2.x, and for those who like the GNOME 2.x desktop and are not completely satisfied with the changes in the GNOME 3.x shell or Unity, Xfce could be a great fit.
Click on the picture aboveto see a larger screenshot of Xfce 4.8 in Xubuntu 12.04 LTS.
To the left is a screenshot of the Xfce menu in Xubuntu.
Following are a few applications and components of Xfce:
Window Manager: Xfwm
File Manager: Thunar
Media Player: Parole
CD/DVD Burner: Xfburn
Task Manager: Xfce Task Manager
Widget Toolkit: GTK+
Recommended System Requirements for Xfce
LXDE  - When compared to GNOME, KDE, and Xfce, LXDE (Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment) is the least resource-hungry, which makes it an outstanding choice for older computers. Additionally, it will run extremely fast on newer computers. Even with its super-efficiency, LXDE is still a nice and feature-rich desktop environment that has menus which are simple and straightforward and very easy to navigate. In its default appearance LXDE resembles older versions of Windows (such as Windows 98 or 2000), with a single panel at the bottom of the desktop and a menu found on the left side of that panel, but like GNOME 2.x, KDE, and Xfce, it can be customized in a variety of ways. Lubuntu (the LXDE version of Ubuntu), Peppermint OS, and Knoppix are popular distros which have LXDE as their default desktop environment. Many other Linux distros offer LXDE versions as well. In 2013 it was announced that LXDE will be merging with Razor-qt, which is another lightweight desktop. The plan is for LXDE to eventually move from the GTK+ 2 toolkit to qt, which is used by KDE and Razor-qt .
Click on the picture aboveto see a larger screenshot of LXDE in Lubuntu 12.04.
To the left is a screenshot of the LXDE menu in Lubuntu.
Following are a few applications and components of LXDE:
Window Manager: Openbox
File Manager: PCManFM
Task Manager: LXTask
Terminal Emulator: LXTerminal
Widget Toolkit: GTK+
Recommended System Requirements for LXDE
Enlightenment  - Though Enlightenment (a.k.a. "E") is a window manager, it can also be considered a desktop environment, and the project has grown to encompass a number of libraries which are together known as EFL . One very nice feature of Enlightenment is its flexibility, which among other things allows it to run on a wide variety of devices that includes mobile phones, game systems, laptops, and powerful desktop computers. Enlightenment requires less system resources than the GNOME, KDE, Xfce Razor-qt, or even LXDE, yet it also is quite visually appealing and offers a lot of "eye candy," which is amazing given its very small footprint. The Enlightenment desktop is somewhat unique in its appearance, and users can simply click anywhere on it to access the menu. Bodhi Linux is a popular distro that uses Enlightenment as its default desktop.
Click on the picture aboveto see a larger screenshot of Enlightenment running in Bodhi Linux 1.1.0.
To the left is a screenshot of the Enlightenment menu in running in Lubuntu.
Following are a few applications and components of Enlightenment:
Window Manager: Enlightenment
File Manager: EFM
Web Browser: Eve
Terminal Emulator: Eterm
Widget Toolkit: Elementary
Recommended System Requirements for Enlightenment (E17) to be fully functional on a netbook, laptop, or desktop
Razor-qt  - A relative new-comer to the world of desktop environments for Linux, Razor-qt is still very much in its fledgling stages. As it says on the Razor-qt website, it is "tailored for users who value simplicity, speed, and an intuitive interface." A nice feature of Razor-qt is its ability to run with a variety of window managers such as Openbox, Metacity, or KWin. At this point, Razor-qt does not yet have its own file manager or other applications (other than a clock widget), but perhaps it will have more applications in the future. Overall, it is a clean interface, which to me is reminiscent of older versions of KDE. It is planned that Razor-qt and LXDE will be merged together.
Click on the picture aboveto see a larger screenshot of Razor-qt running in Lubuntu 12.04.
To the left is a screenshot of the Razor-qt menu running in Lubuntu.
Currently, Razor-qt does not have its own applications.
Widget Toolkit: Qt
At this point, there are not any recommended system requirements for Razor-qt that I can find, but based on my own tests, it appears that the system requirements for Razor-qt should probably be something similar to Xfce. So the Recommended System Requirements below are the same as those for Xfce.
Popular Window Managers in Linux:
A Comparison Desktop Environment / Window Manager RAM and CPU Usage:
Below are the results of an ongoing "unscientific" test I began conducting (out of my own curiosity) in 2011 with various desktop environments and window managers. In the most recent round of this test, I ran Unity in Ubuntu, the GNOME 3.x shell in Fedora, and all of the other desktop environments and window managers in Lubuntu. All systems tested were 32-bit. Each of these were installed and ran through VirtualBox. In all of the desktop environments and window managers I opened the LX Task Manager (lxtask) to record the RAM and CPU usage numbers, while each system was at idle after a fresh boot with no other open applications. As a side note, to "compare apples and oranges," I opened Windows 7 on a newer HP laptop and recorded the system usage numbers. While Windows 7 used 0% of the CPU at idle from a fresh boot which was slightly better than the Linux desktop environments or window managers, it used significantly more RAM at 1.13 GB which is more than four times that of the GNOME 3.x shell. Finally, it should be mentioned that this is simply a test I completed out of curiosity, and while the results are interesting, it is probably best for you to use the recommended system requirements for each desktop environment as a guide when deciding which one is best for your computer. Below are my most recent results (ranked in order from highest RAM usage to the lowest) for the Linux desktop environments and window managers:
Because the GNOME desktop environment has become splintered into a variety of forms, I have included the most popular shells for GNOME in my tests above. One thing which surprised me was that MATE used more RAM than Cinnamon in my tests.
Interchangeability / Flexibility of Linux Desktop Environments and Window Managers:
GNOME Games can also run in KDE, Xfce, or LXDE while KDE Games can likewise run in GNOME, Xfce, and LXDE. It should also be mentioned that many major Linux distros offer versions in multiple desktop environments / window managers, which includes all four of the desktop environments described above, and it is even possible to have any combination of GNOME, KDE, Xfce, LXDE, Enlightenment, or other desktop environments / window managers installed simultaneously on your Linux system. However, when installing multiple Linux desktop environments / window managers on the same computer, it is important to know that there will be may redundancies between similar applications (system tools, games, etc.) found within each.
Another outstanding feature of Linux desktop environments / window managers is their flexibility, which gives users the ability to Click here to see a larger screenshot of the Xfce desktop in Xubuntu which has been made to look similar to Mac OS X, using Docky. Like other software in Xubuntu, Docky can be downloaded and installed from the Ubuntu Software Center or the Synaptic Package Manager. Zorin OS has a nice feature called "Look Changer" which allows users to choose the normal GNOME desktop, or from desktops very similar to either Mac OS X, Windows 7 or XP. Click here to see a larger screenshot of Zorin OS in the Windows XP mode, but without the legion of viruses. Click here to see more examples of customized Linux desktops . Below are links to websites which offer a wide variety of eye candy for the GNOME, KDE, and Xfce desktops:
Click here for a nice comparison between KDE and GNOME . Click here to learn more about the differences between the various Linux desktop environments in an article by linuxreviews.org . Wikipedia also provides an excellent comparison of the various desktop environments in an article entitled "Comparison of X Window System Desktop Environments" . Another great resource is the Windows Managers for X website .
Which Desktop Environment is My Favorite?
Since I began using Linux in 2008, I have spent a great deal of time in GNOME 2.x, KDE, Xfce, LXDE, Unity, GNOME 3.x, MATE, and Cinnamon. To a lesser degree, I have also spent some time using Enlightenment and Razor-qt. In my opinion, each of the desktops described on this page are worthy choices. My recommendation to anyone would be to try all of these desktops and decide which one(s) work best for them.
1. ^ GNOME. http://www.gnome.org/.
2. ^ "List of GNOME Applications." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_GNOME_applications.
3. ^ "Get Fedora." http://fedoraproject.org/en/get-fedora.
4. ^ "GNOME 3 Fallback Mode - Get Your Productivity Back." http://www.dedoimedo.com/computers/gnome-3-fallback.html.
5. ^ "Fedora 16 and GNOME Shell: Tested and Reviewed." http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/fedora-16-gnome-3-review,3155.html.
6. ^ Unity. http://unity.ubuntu.com/.
7. ^ "Will Ubuntu 11.04 Work on My Old PC?" http://askubuntu.com/questions/22402/will-ubuntu-11-04-work-on-my-old-pc.
8. ^ Cinnamon. http://cinnamon.linuxmint.com/.
9. ^ "Linux Mint." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linux_Mint.
10. ^ MATE. http://mate-desktop.org/.
11. ^ KDE. http://www.kde.org/.
12. ^ "List of KDE Applications." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_KDE_applications.
13. ^ "GNOME vs. KDE: The Latest Round. "http://itmanagement.earthweb.com/osrc/article.php/3930006/GNOME-vs-KDE-The-Latest-Round.htm.
14. ^ Xfce. http://www.xfce.org/.
15. ^ "Xfce System Requirements. "http://wiki.xfce.org/minimum_requirements.
16. ^ "LXDE." http://lxde.org/.
17. ^ "LXDE Waves Goodbye to GTK in Merge with Razor-qt." http://www.zdnet.com/lxde-waves-goodbye-to-gtk-in-merge-with-razor-qt-7000018476/.
18. ^ "LXDE." http://lxde.sourceforge.net/about.html.
19. ^ Enlightenment. http://www.enlightenment.org/.
20. ^ "EFL Overview." http://www.enlightenment.org/p.php?p=about/efl.
21. ^ Enlightenment-About. http://www.enlightenment.org/p.php?p=about&l=en.
22. ^ Razor-qt. http://razor-qt.org/.
23. ^ OpenBox. http://openbox.org/.
24. ^ Fluxbox. http://fluxbox.org/.
25. ^ IceWM. http://www.icewm.org/.
26. ^ JWM (Joe's Window Manager). http://www.joewing.net/programs/jwm/.
27. ^ "25 Best Linux Desktop Customization Screenshots." http://www.tux-planet.fr/25-best-linux-desktop-customization-screenshots/.
28. ^ GNOME-Look. http://gnome-look.org/.
29. ^ KDE-Look. http://kde-look.org/.
30. ^ Xfce-Look. http://xfce-look.org/.
31. ^ "KDE and Gnome Comparison." http://www.psychocats.net/ubuntu/kdegnome.
32. ^ "Desktops: KDE vs Gnome." http://linuxreviews.org/software/desktops/.
33 ^ "Comparison of X Window System Desktop Environments." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_X_Window_System_desktop_environments.
34. ^ Windows Managers for X. http://xwinman.org/.
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The content of Renewable PCs (c) by Charles E. Craig, Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.
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Updated September 4, 2014
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