What's the best Linux desktop environment for me?

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A desk illustration in grass


When you install a Linux distribution, a set of programs comes along with it. It's easy to add and delete elements of the programs that don't fit with your needs, but what about altering the look and feel of the distribution to suit you? The key is to add a second desktop environment or window manager.

This is an example of how Linux is all about freedom of the user, by the user.

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The ability to change and alter the desktop environment is just as important as being able to change and alter the underlying technical components. A few years ago Linus Torvalds complained about the GNOME 3 desktop and reportedly switched to a different one. The Unity environment for Ubuntu caused a similar reaction by users. On the other side of the proprietary divide, Microsoft Windows 8 created turmoil among users with their tiled new look. Users wanted their Start menu back and to be able to get things done as they had before.

Running Linux, changing or adding a different desktop environment is as easy as installing any other program. Just install the software, log out, and log in back again on the new environment. Keep in mind that most desktop environments come bundled with specific text editors and terminal programs—you can decide what you to keep and what to dump. And, choosing a different window manager just changes the way you interact with your Linux box, it doesn't cause you to lose new programs.

Which desktop environment is the best?

First, look at the hardware of your computer. The desktop environment can be beautiful but eat up a lot of your resources. My top four recommendations based on a balance of beauty and resources are:

  1. GNOME3
  2. KDE
  3. Cinnamon
  4. Unity

On less powerful systems, a 10-year-old desktop or netbook for example, a more straightforward desktop environment that will do a good job without pushing the cooling fan all the time is a better fit, like: MATE, XFCE, LXDE, OpenBox, or Enlightenment.

Most Linux distributions offer a default desktop environment that fits best with its overall concept. I see it an orchestra of instruments all playing nicely together. Heavy environments also provide very complete software by default. Desktops like XFCE and LXDE come with lighter programs, but still will not let you down on productivity. Of course, you can add complete suites like LibreOffice to a light desktop; that way you have a fast starting computer and file manager, but also real power for writing, calculating, and creating presentations.

Why Linux?

Desktop environments for Linux also helps reduce costs and environmental footprints for individuals, small groups, and large businesses, because you can use the hardware you already own instead of buying new and still update to the latest and greatest. The German city of Munich recently switched to Linux an officially promotes its use to reduce e-waste in the community. Also, support for Linux distros is typically good with regular updates for at least a year or two, while others keep up support for longer periods, like the LTS versions.

If changing to a new operating system sounds daunting, simply create a backup of your files before switching. Additionally, all of the well-established Linux distributions come with excellent instructions that guide you through the installation.

Tips for installing

There are over 300 Linux distros to choose from, just take a look at most popular ones! If you are unfamiliar with Linux, one of the top 10 distros is a good starting point, although Mint and Ubuntu will be a lot easier for a novice user than Arch. Mint also includes the necessary software to run videos and music. With Fedora this is more difficult because this distro only includes non-proprietary drivers. After a while you'll get used to Linux and you could try something different, like installing a different desktop environment or another distro. But, first stick to the basics as provided until you know more and feel comfortable using the system.

You can try Linux using a LiveCD of the distro of your choice. Download the .iso file and install it on a 4GB USB flash drive. UNetbootin is a program that allows you to create bootable live USB drives without burning a CD, and is available for Windows, Mac and Linux. Just try the Live version for a while before you install it on your computer. If it is not to your liking, just make a bootable Live USB with another distro. If you already use a virtual machine, you can try it from there.

Finally, Linuxers are friendly people and are able to offer help when you get stuck. The DistroWatch pages offer links to the distro specific user forums. Remember, you are not the first one trying, so a lot of questions and answers are already given.


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Linux user since 2009, stayed with Fedora ever since (and I like it!). Interested in Open Source Way of doing things, sharing ideas and solutions. Focus on human aspects rather than bits & bytes. Favour nifty tools like markdown, newsbeuter and grep. Learned the command line through breaking my system and annoying my house mates -- but also used CLI to get it running again ;-)


I thought this was going to be a run-down on differences between Desktop Environments.

Having the choice of Desktop Environments is a great asset to Linux because it also does not limit you on applications you run either. If there is a Gnome application you like, you can use it in KDE (though KDE probably has a great similar application that will do it and look like it fits in).

And the wonderful thing is that in many cases the distribution provides multiple desktops to choose from. Either it comes included in an installation DVD (Fedora, openSUSE, etc.) or different distributions with the same undercarriage (Ubuntu/Unity, Kubuntu/KDE, Xubntu/Xfce, Lubuntu/LXDE and Ubuntu Gnome/Gnome).

This mix-and-match capabilities give anybody a dizzying array of conbinations even before you add that each desktop environments enjoys a variety of customization options that just isn't available in the proprietary options (KDE Plastma Netbook, Xfce could run 100% with no panels or buttons on the desktop, etc.)

The best:Enlightenment.Almost the best:XFCE.The ugly:Unity.

If you are a new user coming from Windows, and have never used anything other than Windows, go with KDE. It's the most familiar. If you are open to new ideas, Gnome 3 is very snazzy. I can't agree with the rest. Unity is ugly and deplete of features it really should have. Cinnamon is a great desktop, but it's more for people who came from a Gnome 2 background and don't like Gnome 3.

Not new user from windows, i migrated more than 6 years on Linux.I used kde a short time but did not find him something to attract me.Cinnamon is ok but does not attract a lot, Gnome 3 i hate almost as much Unity (2 years spent with him...), Gnome 2 is a mummy :), Mate is likely to be alternative to Gnome 2 (i now is a fork), LXDE...no comment becasue i don't used.Do not want to insist on my point of view but Enlightenment for me is, beauty and fast what i like.Currently used Manjaro XFCE and are quite pleased with this GUI.

Even though KDE greatly resembles, some of the advanced settings / preferences could baffle new users at times. Although, must admit I switched from Windows a few months ago and am fine with it mostly. My essential needs are browsing (firefox / chrome), music(banshee / rhytmbox) , movies (vlc) and rudimentary docs / spreadsheet work (libreoffice) and all of which are handled well.
KDE has software applications for all possible sort of things and a very good collection of widgets. My first Linux desktop was KDE and I liked it but switched to Cinnamon 2 recently and find it modern and elegant.

Linux Mint is a good distro for beginners and i feel both all of them KDE, MATE and Cinnamon are good choices. If your system hardware is bit old, MATE is a better option. I personally prefer Cinnamon though. It is modern, intuitive, elegant and more importantly has a vibrant developer / user community that truly listens and shares. Clem and team are making it trivial to add desklets, applets, change themes. The spices site that hosts all elements like themes, applets,etc is fast evolving and have got some nice additions in the past. With Cinnamon 2.0, there are some new features like window snapping and tiling which come very handy in using big monitors. Nemo, Cinnamon's file manager is also proving to be a very nifty application and supports some nice features like extensions.

For those of you who have not given it a try, Try Mint 16 Petra and you wont regret it. Best is to use a Live USB or DVD, try it out for couple of days before installation.
I am NOT a developer, a pure desktop user and have got accustomed in Linux desktop in few weeks.

Note - I am NOT a developer, a pure desktop user and have got accustomed in Linux desktop in few weeks.

I used to hate Unity, but since having Ubuntu as the default Linux, I've gotten used to it and maybe even come to like it. I was a Linux Mint advocate for years but I found newer implementations of MATE a bit too unstable. I have to give Unity one thing; for me it has been a rock solid desktop platform.

I really recommend Cinnamon for new users. It's the closest experience to Windows 7 I've ever had in Linux. Even pressing the windows/start key on the keyboard opens the menu, which it doesn't do in KDE.

It's also very fast and pretty, and surprisingly light on resources. I found it very intuitive to learn and use, especially compared to some modern implementations of KDE.

Linux Mint with Cinnamon is my personal Linux distro/desktop and I recommend it heartily to new Linux users. Mint is #1 on DistroWatch for a reason, and Cinnamon is the #1 desktop environment for Linux Mint for a reason as well.

I prefer Linux Mint 13 with MATE -desktop because it's easy to install, easy to use, easy to learn and teach to others, amazingly stable and very nice to use. Besides you can customize MATE-desktop much, much more than that of Cinnamon.

I personally do not use a desktop environment; I find them too heavy handed in what they do and they seemingly impede my productivity on my machines.
I use a very lightweight minimalistic window manager that I wrote, which is based on TinyWM. It is approximately 30 lines of C and does everything that I need it to:
- raise a terminal emulator
- handle mouse input
- handle keyboard input
From a terminal, I can do anything that I need to on my machine. This style isn't for everyone, but I have found that it works great for me.

You missed the new kid on the block: ElementaryOS.org.

Very stable. Eye-pleasing design that actually just works.

I've been enjoying elementary for about a year now...good stuff.

I do still find myself left-clicking on the background, from my years of fluxbox.

long live fluxbox :)

And the comments show that there are choices out there.

The longer I use linux, and the more people I come across that are around the edge of the linux pool about to dip a toe in, the more I realise that the choices, and having to make decisions are actually the problem for the potential new user.

I am reluctant to suggest a distribution that "Skins" itself the same way as Windows, because that misses the point of Linux.

I'm probably KDE, but happy to use most. Least happy with unity. Most productive in OSX.

(First dipped my toe in Linux Slackware in 1995)

This article has been published in the business section, but I personally do not recognize that the article was written within the context of an organization. Logically, the comments are based on personal experience, rather than experiences of organizations that implemented Linux withing the organization. During my working experience as a business consultant for enterprises, a choice for a system is based on the stated business goals, then the technical aspects of the system to fit within an existing infrastructure, support, services, and continuity of the supplier. The choice of a desktop environment bears little relevance withing the context of an organization.

Funny thing I found when I introduced Linux to the family, with Gnome (and now Unity) looking so different from Windows, the family members have no problem going between Linux (home) and Windows (school).

I think a factor of that is that the desktop environments are so very different that you don't expect the desktop environment to act at all like the other.

When you sit down in front of a (non-modified-KDE), you are immediately of the mind set of doing things the desktop-environment way, or will have to figure out who the desktop environment accomplishes the task.

This is instead of clicking and going through the menus, expecting a setting, a program or some feature to work one way (the other desktop environment's way) and finding it doesn't work as expected. This leads to frustration and frustration leads to abandonment.

Now the kids are used to non-Windows desktop environments, they are better about not expecting any Linux environment to act like Windows.

My wife, however, takes a little longer, but she's a trooper and goes with the flow.

For developers we have found an uncluttered desktop is best. Our choice is XFCE4.

We don't like all the stuff on many of these that claim real estate.

I have tried many of them, and definitely XFCE is the only one for me. It's just like any other one, but more resource friendly, more stable and less cluttered. In 2 years of intensive use it has never crashed on me (I bet not everyone can say the same).
On the other side, I really dislike KDE, Unity and Gnome 3, because they are everything XFCE is not: efficient, stable, subtle.
But, hey, it's my opinion :)

I work with kubuntu and it's OK. Previously, I had KDE on Univention. It was also OK.

Minor detail: Openbox is a window manager, which differs slightly than a desktop environment.

I believe desktops don't affect people moving to Linux. People affect people. If someone does not want to use Linux, they will not be happy regardless of what desktop you give them and how you skin it.

Choosing the best desktop is, as this article did not mention, a matter of trying them. Try one, stick with it and learn it, then try and learn another, and then another. It's a long process, because you can't learn to hate something overnight. I started with Gnome because it looked prettier, but eventually migrated to KDE and have stuck with it ever since. Take your time to find one you really like.

Hello, everything here is just a matter of like / no like... so I just add my rock and say I prefer now Xfce on HandyLinux.org. What confuse me is that all desktop have their + and - and they're so different one from another that is hard to compare.

I love Gnome 3 , best ever DE , KDE is like Windows 7 , boring and outdated, Gnome 3 has nice interface but still buggy , hope they fix all issues .

Gnome 3.16 is what I use, I have tried all DE's but I like Gnome as it is modern , beautiful, easiest to get work done and fast too.

I am using Linux since redhat 7 and never liked any desktop then gnome2 was stable but boring as it had same interface as windows , KDE was buggy , crashy and ugly , finally arrived Gnome 3 as what a pleasant surprise it was , what a beautiful design, I dont understand why people were critical about it, it is the most beautiful DE i have seen and used, work is done faster and easier on Gnome 3 than any other env.

I use Linux as my primary OS, My distro is Arch 64bit, Gnome 3.16 is my DE, everything works fine in Gnome and i love the black theme hope they keep it that way.

I have installed Linux in my school in Bangladesh and preferred Gnome 3.14 as it is stable compared to others and students love the interface , simple to use .

i like to use lxde with animations disabled, feels really snappy and doesnt eat up memory for the sake of looks. its also quite customizable if you think outside the box and can be tweaked to look like other desktops such as unity, mate and xfce

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