Linux desktop environment guide

July 24, 2020

Released in 1991, the Linux operating system has come a long way since then and has become quite a popular choice for developers and computer users alike. It’s open-source and has a plethora of system options & configurations for all kinds of purposes. The most appealing aspect of this OS is probably the fact that you can freely customize its interface, which led to various communities and IT firms to build their own desktop environments. It might seem like just a neat perk, but the type of Linux GUI that you choose can significantly impact your experience and make work either easier or harder, depending on whether you’re new to this or not. It doesn’t matter if you just want a new look or need it for your Linux VPS, everyone deserves to have a great experience. Let’s look at some of the most popular Linux desktop environments on the market.

 

GNOME

GNU Object Model Environment, or GNOME for short, is probably one of the most popular desktop environments out there, and it’s not surprising why. It’s designed to be compatible with both mobiles and desktops and is easy to use and customize, and maybe that’s why many top Linux distributions set it as their default option. Its goal is to provide simplicity for users and encourage productivity. Furthermore, GNOME integrates seamlessly with all the latest software and hardware.

This Linux GUI uses the X Window System display server but is also compatible with the Wayland display protocol. Another notable feature is the ability to switch between workspaces & windows via the Activities button. It also supports native GTK-based applications, and you can download additional extensions to extend your desktop’s functionality via GNOME Shell Extensions.

On the other hand, it’s not really a lightweight desktop environment, making it not the best choice for older machines that have less than 4 GB of RAM. Those accustomed to the usual Windows interface might also have some trouble getting used to the layout as it’s noticeably different.

 

Xfce

Aimed for machines with lower hardware resources, this Linux GUI is pretty lightweight and doesn’t include any flashy animations or special effects, yet the interface remains quite visually appealing. While it cuts back on resource usage, it doesn’t neglect to provide users with handy features, and you can browse and download various applications and plugins, such as:

  • Text editors;
  • Application finders;
  • Terminal emulators;
  • Image viewers;
  • CD & DVD burning applications, and more.

Another notable thing about Xfce is that it supports several UNIX platforms, such as OpenBSD, FreeBSD, Solaris, macOS X, and so on. Ubuntu even has an official flavour called Xubuntu that features this desktop environment.

Those that value high customizability might find it a bit lacking as it doesn’t have advanced customization options. But if you need a simple and easy to use Linux GUI, this is a suitable option to try out.

 

KDE Plasma

KDE Plasma, or just KDE, is one of the most customizable graphical desktop environments out there, and it’s very lightweight, too. You can move, change, or delete everything you see on your screen and add even more widgets to create the perfect interface. Some Linux distributions use it as the default GUI, such as Kubuntu, KDE Neon, Manjaro KDE, and openSUSE.

It has KDE Applications, which includes all the tools and utilities you might need and the Okular document viewer with the Dolphin file manager. You can preview image files directly from the KDE Konsole terminal, and KRunner can be used as a mini command line to execute shell commands. You can also wirelessly access your Android and Blackberry devices via the KDE Connect application. You can use this to access your storage, check the battery status, and see the device’s notifications.

While the numerous customization options are the selling point for most users, it might be a bit overwhelming for first-time users. So, if you want to use this Linux GUI, be ready to sit down and get familiar with every tool.

 

LXQt

This is a derivate of LXDE, another lightweight desktop environment, and an alternative to Xfce. Just like other low resource environments, it also aims to provide the best experience possible without being too hard on the system. As with Xfce, LXQT sacrifices the flashier bits and the smooth look and feel for performance. The official Ubuntu flavour, Lubuntu, uses it as default.

This is a great choice for older machines or for those that want extremely fast performance. But if you value appealing interfaces and customizability, you might find this Linux GUI a bit disappointing.

 

Cinnamon

Initially, this was supposed to be a forked graphical shell for GNOME 3, but as the project progressed, it turned into a complete desktop environment. It values looks, so the interface is quite sleek and polished, and has various animations and effects. The GUI is quite traditional looking, too, making it one of the most suitable choices for those that are migrating from Windows to Linux.

You can easily design your ideal environment as there are plenty of tools and themes to work with called “spices”. When it comes to performance, while it isn’t the most lightweight desktop out there, it is significantly fast, proving Cinnamon to be a balanced choice for many. Linux Mint ships it by default, and other distributions have also adopted this Linux GUI, such as Fedora, Manjaro Linux, EndeavorOS, and Ubuntu Cinnamon Remix.

 

MATE

Just like Cinnamon, MATE, which stands for MATE Advanced Traditional Environment, also forked out from GNOME 2 and its developers aimed to provide features that the GNOME 3 shell lacked at that time. This is another lightweight desktop environment that comes with essential applications and offers various built-in tools and conventional applications. While the interface is quite simple and smooth in appearance, you can quickly customize it whichever way you want.

Some popular Linux distributions offer MATE, such as Linux Mint, Manjaro Linux, Debian, Fedora, and it even has its own official flavour called Ubuntu MATE. It’s one of the best options for those that run budget machines and need a Linux GUI that doesn’t eat away at the resources yet is easy to use.

 

Budgie

Maintained by the Solus Project, Budgie is one of the youngest desktop environments currently out there. It offers a simple yet sleek interface, and it takes most of its early inspiration from mobile apps and Chrome OS. While the desktop appears to be pared down, it still manages to feel quite modern & elegant even though it implements a traditional user interface.

It uses Raven, a special panel that includes customization options, widgets, and notifications. You can use it to control your volume options, access the calendar, the power options, and so on. Since Budgie is fairly new, not a lot of major distributions support this Linux GUI. Currently, Ubuntu Budgie flavour features it by default, so anyone who wants to try this environment should either try Ubuntu Budgie or Solus OS.

Multiple Linux desktop environments exist because everyone has different needs and purposes for it – there is no singular ultimate choice. Some users prefer elegant designs and high customizability, while others prioritize performance and resources. Just try out different ones and settle on a GUI that feels the best for you.