The 05 Best Linux Desktop Environments

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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 display 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 around 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.

Cinnamon

Cinnamon

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.

Memory Usage: 

Around 175 megabytes

Pros: 

  • Instant familiarity to anybody who has used Windows.
  • Looks great
  • Lots of features
  • Lots of desktop effects
  • Keyboard shortcuts
  • Can be customised

Cons:

  • Uses a lot of memory compared to other desktops
  • Not as many customization features as other desktops

Unity

 

UnityUnity 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.

Memory Usage: 

Around 300 megabytes

Pros:

  • Modern
  • Integrates applications into the desktop such as audio, photos and videos
  • Lots of keyboard shortcuts
  • Great search features and filtering

Cons:

  • High memory usage
  • Fairly rigid with minimal customization

GNOME

GNOMEThe 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 GNO.ME 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 customising 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

Memory Usage: 

Around 250 megabytes

Pros:

  • 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

Cons:

  • High memory usage
  • Fairly rigid with minimal customization

KDE Plasma

KDE Plasma

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.

Memory Usage: 

Around 300 megabytes

Pros:

  • 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

Cons:

  • High memory usage

 

XFCE

 

XFCE

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

The best part about XFCE is the fact that it is highly customisable. 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.

Memory Usage: 

Around 100 megabytes

Pros:

  • Lightweight compared to most desktop environments
  • Everything can be customised
  • Lots of good widgets

Cons:

  • By default looks old compared to other desktops (although can be customised to look great)
  • Not as many default applications as GNOME or KDE

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.

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