24 Linux desktops you need to try

Gotta catch them all!
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182 readers like this
Top 5 Linux pain points in 2017

Internet Archive Book Images. Modified by Opensource.com. CC BY-SA 4.0

One of the great strengths of the Linux desktop is the choice it affords its users. If you don't like your application menu in the lower left of your screen, you can move it. If you don't like the way your file manager organizes your documents, you can use a different one. Admittedly, however, that can be confusing for new users who aren't used to having a say in how they use their computers. If you're looking at installing Linux, one of the choices you're going to have to make is which desktop you want to use, and the best way to do that is to try a few different ones until you find the one that feels right for you.

The defaults

opensource.com

As the default on Fedora, Ubuntu, Debian, and several others, the GNOME desktop is probably the most popular desktop for Linux. It's an intuitive and modern interface, with little nods to mobile design so it feels natural even on a touch screen.

Some distributions of Linux opt for something different, though, including KDE Plasma, Pantheon, Cinnamon, and Mate.

Traditional Unix

Window Maker running on Fedora

Unix, the progenitor of modern operating systems and the direct inspiration for Linux, has a surprisingly rich history of desktops. Most people aren't familiar with Unix desktop design because Unix computers were considered specialist machines common to academic, scientific, and film settings rather than the household. If you were a Unix, IRIX, or NeXT user, then you might have fond memories of desktops like CDE or NeXTStep. You're in luck because the tradition lives on:

  • Windowmaker: the NeXT interface reborn
  • Enlightenment: a modernized and improved Windowmaker-style desktop
  • Fluxbox: thinking outside the box
  • Openbox: improving the usability of the box
  • TWM: the timeless sample desktop bundled with X11
  • Fvwm: TWM improved

Lightweight desktops

XFCE in 2019 on Mageia Linux

You might wonder why Linux has so many desktops to choose from. While you can chalk a lot of it up to personal preference and a low tolerance for inefficiency, there are technical benefits to optimizing an interface. For instance, old computers struggling to keep up with an update to its UI [can be given new life](https://opensource.com/article/20/2/macbook-linux-elementary) with a lightweight desktop. Alternately, you may simply want to allocate CPU cycles to everything *but* your desktop, so keeping your primary UI minimal just makes sense. Whatever your reason, there are several you can try:

Experimental desktops

Unix Desktop Environment

One of the things that happens when it's relatively easy to create and integrate a desktop into a system is that you get interesting proof-of-concepts and experimental projects. Some are more polished than others, and some aren't terribly easy to install. These probably aren't destined to be your permanent desktop, but they can be fun to experience:

Choose your desktop

If you're overwhelmed by choice, then keep in mind that desktops are meant to be optional. There's no obligation to try more than the one that ships with your distribution.

Many a power user of Linux settles for whatever desktop their distribution puts in front of them. The important thing is to get a Linux install that works with your computer, and spend time with it to learn how it works. Ultimately, all desktops are only meant to do the same thing: help you organize and manage your important data. As long as you know how your desktop works, that's all that matters. But if you've learned everything you need to know about your default desktop, you now have plenty of options to try out on the weekend. Have fun!

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Seth Kenlon
Seth Kenlon is a UNIX geek, free culture advocate, independent multimedia artist, and D&D nerd. He has worked in the film and computing industry, often at the same time.

51 Comments

Manjaro i3wm, or just any manjaro

where is deepin desktop?

The articles about each desktop were done as an "Advent Calendar" style countdown, so I had to choose 24 and no more than 24. After covering several traditional desktops, I felt the need to move on to different styles. I flipped a coin and wrote about Budgie instead of Deepin. Another one I didn't cover was Pop_OS! from System76. There are probably others.

In reply to by met (not verified)

dwm

I also like stumpwm but in the end it is hard to beat such a minimalistic but very flexible window manager.

Deepin Desktop Environment

dwm

Why don't you include Deepin?

I voted GNOME... but only after a 20+ year ride through many different desktop window managers and environments. :)

i3wm is my go-to for a daily driver

DDE

I voted for XFCE because I don't want to burn a lot of CPU cycles on my desktop. I used to go even more miminal, running Fvwm, but that has become problematic since USB storage devices became popular.

Having a desktop that can (via dbus and a daemon) auto-mount USB devices is really convenient. Older window-manager-only desktops make you install software for that - it's something I could do, but I'd rather not bother.

But most of the time, I don't bother with any desktop. My Linux systems boot to a text console. I will type "startx" when I need to run a GUI on the console, but most of the time I log in remotely from some other computer (typically a Mac or Windows PC) that is running its own X11 server (XQuartz on macOS or Cygwin/X on WIndows). This way the Linux PC running my app doesn't burn any CPU cycles maintaining a desktop - all that overhead is consumed by the computer I'm logging in from instead.

This article shows why linux will never be a mainstream desktop. 2 is too much it has 24 win managers.

I tried to clarify at the end of the article that this is largely an optional choice. Most users don't have to make this choice: they can install 1 of several popular distributions and get a Gnome or Gnome-derived desktop.

There are many reasons Linux is not a competitor to Windows in the market, and while I'm not an economist, I'd wager they're similar reasons to the reason that even macOS and Chrome OS lag behind Windows. The problem isn't the number of desktop choices.

In reply to by Ali (not verified)

Firstly, who cares whether it will become mainstream? The article isn't titled 24 desktops that will make Linux mainstream.

Secondly when did choice become a bad thing? I have 4 laptops at home, all of differing spec and age, one being an old MacBook that was out of date and unusable in the modern world. I have installed Linux on each of these laptops with different desktops and they all work well now and are usable which means my kids get to use a laptop to help with school work and one is learning to code on. In your '2 options is too much' world, these laptops are in a landfill somewhere and my kids don't get to experience using a computer at home. If this scenario is you perfect world, I find that very sad.

So actually, yes please - the more flavours of Linux and the more options to run different DMs and configurations, the better.

In reply to by Ali (not verified)

I just want to echo Si's comments.

In a period of ~5 years I reconditioned & handed out 10 laptops to kids of family members who: 1) didn't have the $ and; 2) didn't have the tech background to provide an option.

These were households where, either they were using malware-riddled pirated copies MSWin or they had nothing. Afterwards, they had solid, updated and speedy equipment.

They're adults now and, today, they're on a combination of Windows, Chrome OS or MacOS. Who cares?

The experience taught me two things:
*everything they learned while on Linux transferred seamlessly to other environments (no tech gap)
*it actually meant something to them /as children/ that their equipment was legitimate (i.e. no pirated stuff)

That last point speaks volumes to me about the importance of F/OSS and the distinction of "free as in free speech." On a lighter note: I spoke with one of the nieces, a couple of years back. She insisted missing the "good old days" when updates weren't such a nightmare.

Here's to choice.

-C

In reply to by Ali (not verified)

sway

I3wm

Yall missed KDE. Please don't give me the license stuff. That issue was solved in 99

KDE is listed in both the poll and the article (twice, if you count Trinity). KDE now calls its desktop Plasma, so any mention of Plasma also refers to KDE (the community that makes Plasma).

In reply to by James (not verified)

sway

Arch + i3wm

Agree with your judgements overall. There are many NOME re-skins from Deepin, Pop!OS & Ubuntu. These re-skins disagree with the official GNOME upgrades, and modify them accordingly.
The gap between the older "window managers" (WM) & the full "Desktop Environments" (DE) is non-existent, IMHO. According to one website, there are supposed to be 51 User Interfaces (UI). That one web site does not know the difference between WM & DE, probably because Linux itself is confused. A genuine DE uses the desktop metaphor, relying on the Xerox WIMP metaphor. Some advanced Linux users like pretending that keyboard use is the main way to use any operating system; hence the popularity of Unity & GNOME, where the dresktop discourages usage.
Of the supposed 51 UI, some are not living, and some are forked again into a new UI not on the list. Changes are very rapid & frequent, but few can bother to keep track.

olvwm !
Extra light, great for VMs.
And true virtual desktop, a must have for devs who want to check 4k gui at 100% on, say, full hd only screen.

I3-gaps

Zorin OS?!?!

Zorin's really neat! Zorin is a distribution, though, not a desktop. In fact, Zorin lets the user choose between a Mac-like or Windows-like UI so that the user can choose the most comfortable interface for themselves.

In reply to by Vinikey (not verified)

No IceWM on the list :(

Where is Pop_os! Switched from mint to Ubuntu to pop. Loving it

I wanted to cover Pop_OS! but ultimately ran out of days (the original articles were written in a "sprint" throughout Advent). Maybe next time...

In reply to by Levi aku (not verified)

lxde, awesome, i3

Gnome and Sway ;)

dwm from suckless, there should be way more tiling window managers (I know they aren't technically "complete DE").

i3wm.

Zorin os

I3 wm on raspbian. I guess that I've gone over to the dark side.....

One not obvious and likely not popular with Linux users, but one that may have increasing use is MS Windows !

While we would all prefer Linux running on bare metal to Linux running in Windows, we should probably be encouraging as many Windows machines as possible to have MS's Linux installed ...

Manjaro KDE the best!

I primarily use XFCE nowadays on laptop and desktop PCs because it's somewhat light but still has good hardware integration (USB, etc). I do miss the original Motif Window Manager (mwm). And still rock a HP 700/RX X-terminal running mwm straight off the ROM. It's still in use right now. But due to lack of modern extensions, 4MB of RAM, and only 256 colors, it shows its age and is mainly only useful for running a bunch of xterm terminal windows. When connecting to a bunch of servers all at once, this is all I need. And it shows xload and bar graphs just fine, so it's a great terminal device for simple graphics that I leave running 24/7.

While I've tried quite a few desktop environments?...to me Gnome is the one I go with every time. It just "Makes Sense" to me...and yeah there are people who will come down on it...saying its klunky or limited in its offerings for customization features?...but to me its perfect.

That's the great thing about open source: user choice. You can find the perfect (from your perspective) interface, and happily run it regardless of what other people use. I think it's difficult for people not using Linux to grasp this until they experience it.

In reply to by Edward G OConnor Jr (not verified)

I like wayland so plasma and gnome are OK but heavy. Enlightenment and Sway are more lightweight. Lxqt will maybee work with wayland in the future.

How is Unity not in the list?

Unity, as such, no longer exists. UBPorts appears active, so it's worth a look, but there are many gnome-like desktops on this list as it is, and I feel like Unity falls into that category.

In reply to by Rudra (not verified)

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