Desktop Environments

Best Linux Desktop Environments: Strong and Stable

A desktop environment is a collection of disparate components that integrate together. They bundle these components to provide a common graphical user interface with elements such as icons, toolbars, wallpapers, and desktop widgets. Additionally, most desktop environments include a set of integrated applications and utilities.

Desktop environments (now abbreviated as DE) provide their own window manager, system software that controls the placement and appearance of windows within a windowing system. They also provide a file manager which organizes, lists, and locates files and directories. Other aspects include a background provider, a panel to provide a menu and display information, as well as a setting/configuration manager to customize the environment.

Ultimately, a DE is a piece of software. While they are more complicated than most other types of software, they are installed in the same way.

DEs are sometimes synonymous with a specific distribution. For example, Cinnamon is developed by the Linux Mint team, and Budgie Desktop with the Solus distribution. But regardless of the origin of the DE, it’s not necessary to hop to an alternative distribution to experience a different DE. If you want to experiment with different desktops, we recommend you create a new user for each environment. This is because some DEs don’t always fully cooperate, particularly GNOME and KDE.

Some seasoned Linux enthusiasts contend that there is no best desktop environment. Of course, like any piece of software, users will be swayed by personal preferences, the software they need, how well the environment integrates with the rest of the ecosystem, and so on. But there are still objective ways of assessing the environments, and the situations where they are best suited.

Let’s put features under the microscope first.

Desktops-Features

All of the DE provide the core functionality we’d expect from this type of software. Out of the DEs, KDE Plasma offers arguably the most feature-rich environment. And the features are beautifully integrated. A few of the highlights are KDE Connect, exceptional file management with Dolphin, Vaults to password-protect folders, fractional scaling, and much more. You’ll need to invest some time and patience to get to master the environment. It’s like the marmite of DEs, you’ll either love it or hate it. KDE has a great range of Qt based full-featured applications available.

Recent releases of GNOME have focused more on removing features than adding new ones. But simplicity is a virtue. The Activities Overview makes it easy to access basic tasks, and offers a dock, a window picker, an application picker as well as search functionality. GNOME Shell is the graphical shell of the environment, and it’s noted for versatility – it powers both desktop and portable computers. There’s a good range of official applications bundled with the DE, and an awesome range of third-party software. And its online account integration is rather special.

If GNOME 3 is too much of a departure from traditional metaphors there’s the MATE Desktop Environment. It’s official applications are forks from GNOME, and are making good progress. Atril, its document viewer, is excellent. There’s support for HiDPI displays, and its panel is a highlight. With the Brisk menu, MATE has caught up with other DEs having a menu that’s instantly searchable.

Cinnamon also retains many of the interface features that users appreciated about the GNOME interface. There’s a useful panel and multiple workspaces. Cinnamon uses Nemo as its default file manager. It’s a fork of Nautilus that is integrated into the environment.

Budgie Desktop Environment also uses GNOME technologies (although Budgie 11 will be Qt-based). It tightly integrates with the GNOME stack. Budgie applications generally use GTK and header bars similar to GNOME applications. There’s a good selection of default apps. Its highlight is the Raven sidebar. Users can configure elements without accessing settings applets.

Enlightenment started out purely as a window manager, but with the Enlightenment Foundation Libraries (EFL), it qualifies as a DE. EFL provide main-loop, to graphics, scene graphs, networking, widgets, data storage, IPC and much more. Their libraries are used in the desktop’s applications which include a video player, image viewer, terminal emulator, and Edi (Enlightenment’s IDE). They are portable and easy to use.

LXQt is still in an early stage of development, and is missing some useful functionality particularly in the integration stakes.

Deepin features its own desktop environment called Deepin Desktop Environment (DDE), which is written in Qt.

The Xfce desktop and its core components are simple and uncluttered with fluff. Thunar, Xfce’s default file manager, is fairly basic but sufficient for most people. There’s a panel, session management, settings manager and more. There’s a web browser, media burner, terminal emulator, simple calendar, and an image viewer, but they’re fairly basic. Xfce puts more focus on stability than features.

While you can mix-and-match software from different DEs, many applications rely a lot upon their underlying libraries. So if you do mix-and-match, you can pull in lots of dependencies. This may be an important factor if disk space or memory is at a premium.

Next page: Page 2 – User Experience

Pages in this survey:
Page 1 – Features
Page 2 – User Experience
Page 3 – System Resources
Page 4 – Extensibility
Page 5 – Documentation & Support
Page 6 – Development / Closing Thoughts


Learn more about the features offered by each desktop environment. We’ve compiled a dedicated page for each desktop environment explaining, in detail, the features each offers together with screenshots.

Desktop Environments
GNOMESimple, elegant and well designed desktop environment
KDE PlasmaKDE's lightweight, simple, but very robust and full featured desktop
MATEThe continuation of GNOME 2 with traditional metaphors
CinnamonDerives from GNOME 3 with traditional desktop metaphor conventions
XfceAims to be a fast and lightweight desktop environment
EnlightenmentDesktop environment when used with the EFL
Deepin DEDesktop environment of the Deepin Linux distro
Budgie DesktopFamiliar, modern and functional experience. Home for Solus OS
LXQtNext generation of LXDE
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23 comments

    1. Zach: Your comment has no validity because it is unsubstantiated.

      Why not tell the world why, in your opinions, Unity is superior to all other desktop environments?

      What is most significant about the desktop development described in the article is the shift of more and more desktops from being based on GTK/Gnome libraries to Qt libraries.

      And does Trinity Desktop (“KDE3.5 lives on”) deserve not even a mention or has it died from obsolescence?

      1. You didn’t read the article very carefully, as Trinity Desktop gets a mention.

        There isn’t a general shift to Qt, only one is moving over.

        And people are entitled to form an opinion, they don’t have to justify their opinion. In any event an opinion is neither right nor wrong.

        1. “Trinity Desktop gets a mention”

          Yes I missed that reference at the very end on page 6.

          “And people are entitled to form an opinion”

          Of course they are entitled to form and opinion and express it, but if the opinion is expressed without justification, then the opinion has no merit.

          As to whether opinions are “neither right nor wrong” you must therefore accept that an opinion consisting of

          “All persons with the surname Mortimer must be put to death for the good of the country”

          is neither right nor wrong.

          Or consider the opinion that

          “Free speech (including all opinions) must be banned by law and a constitutional amendment made to enforce this.”

          Would you consider a politicians who espoused that opinion to be neither right nor wrong in holding that opinion?

          Opinions have consequences …

          Look no further than the opinions of GNOME desktop developers and the change from classic GNOME 2 to the flatland of GNOME 3.

  1. In my opinion, Xfce is the best. Thunar file manager with his custom actions replaced most of the apps for me.

  2. LXDE is the lightest and snappiest functional DE you can install.

    Esthetically Plasma wins hands down, XFCE has the best mix of all.

  3. “Desktop environments (now abbreviated as DE) provide their own window manager[.]”

    It’s not important for the definition of a desktop environment if it provides ‘its own’ window manager. The important thing is that it includes one. For example, LXDE and LXQt use Openbox as their window manager, which is an independent project.

    “Ultimately, a DE is a piece of software.”

    Well, a desktop environment (in the sense of a desktop application suite, like KDE, GNOME, Xfce etc.) is rather a collection of programs, which are, ultimately, pieces of software.

    “Atril […] is excellent.”

    I’m afraid it isn’t, because contrary to Okular, its full-text search won’t recognize a search word whenever it is split on a line break. (Tested with Atril 1.20.3 vs. Okular 0.26.1.)

    “In many situations, using software in an alpha or beta stage of development is perfectly acceptable.”

    I don’t think so. But maybe someone can name a few of those many situations (especially concerning alpha software). Seriously, the only situation in which it is “perfectly acceptable” to use alpha or beta software, is when someone is testing that software.

    “It’s uncommon for a software crash to affect other running applications.”

    That is, unless these applications are running on top of the software that crashes. For example, if an X server crashes, or something goes wrong when waking a laptop from hibernation – which are both not exactly uncommon, in my experience –, that is going to have a lot of impact on other applications (though they’re admittedly not running ones in the latter case).

  4. I Think Wayland is important and hopefully we will have 7 desktops working with Wayland in the autumn 2020. Gnome, Plasma, Enlightenment, Lxqt, Mate,Sway and Budgie.

  5. Cinnamon is not derived from Gnome 2 as the author states. It is based on Gnome 3 technologies with heavy modification so that it resembles the original Gnome 2 desktop paradigm.

  6. “documentation is generally awful, people hate writing it”

    I have wanted to write some docs many times but the DEs and distros wikis where I tried didnt permits to write original content in other lenguage than english; one has to send his work in english and then translate to his lenguage if he wants. O_O

    First of all most people on the Earth DOESN’T speak english, and the mayority if the others, do it very badly, as you can verify in most english post all over the internet, starting with this post of me. So, if I want to write in a non too vomitive english I have to consult dictionaries and grammar guides all the time, making the tedious task of writin documentation, 4 or 5 times more tedious and time consumer and irritating.

    But is even worst that being GNU/Linux a free, libre, project; being an initiative that wants to democratize the tecnology; being KDE and Gnome and the mayority of the desktop environment writen by non americans nor other english speaking countries it is absurd and imperialist to obligate the people that ofers to write documentation, to do it in a foreign lenguage. Excuse me, but if I give my time for free to write something that I already know, for the benefit of others, I do it in my damn lenguage; and if you dont understand, just dont read it or f*king go to Deepl and copy-paste the text to translate it and then, if you are nice and generous enough with your time, post that translation, previous revision, in the english language section of the documentation wiki!
    But no, they prefer that milliards of potential users that are of chinese, hispanics, arabics, french speakers, rusians, etc, dont have documentation in their lenguages if americans dont have it first. Well, dear DE “dictators”, f*k off!

    Sorry to be so rude, but it’s the plain and simple truth. There is no good and updated documentation in big part because of the fault of that “gringophilic” dictators of the majority of the software development and documentation projects.

    I have nothing against the english lenguage, I am using it right now (if one can call “english” this), but if I can write quickly, with clear, precise and correct grammar and rich vocabulary in my native lenguage whuy the hell I have to do it in other lenguage that I cant manage well nor write it correctly even spending 4 times the time I spend writing in my mother lenguage? Why I have to work to make the world a place less diverse and more culturaly colonized? No, thanks.
    All my colaborations in this sense have gone to Wikipedia. Big parts of most articles in my lenguage’s Wikipedia, about Mate, Gnome, KDE Plasma, Gimp, Krita, and several other programs I use a lot and think that could be considered “power user” have writen by me, at least originally, of course in WP colaborates a lot of people that modifies what others have writen previously. Wikipedia is not a documentation site and the articles have to be rasonably short and not very profound, but is a place where nobody is going to forbid me to write in whatever lenguage I wat.

    So, dear documentation systems rulers, keep on telling good will people that we have to write in english or nothing, and the response will be “nothing”, and the documentation in Linux world will keep being a sh*t forever.

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