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.
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.
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.
|GNOME||Simple, elegant and well designed desktop environment|
|KDE Plasma||KDE's lightweight, simple, but very robust and full featured desktop|
|MATE||The continuation of GNOME 2 with traditional metaphors|
|Cinnamon||Derives from GNOME 3 with traditional desktop metaphor conventions|
|Xfce||Aims to be a fast and lightweight desktop environment|
|Enlightenment||Desktop environment when used with the EFL|
|Deepin DE||Desktop environment of the Deepin Linux distro|
|Budgie Desktop||Familiar, modern and functional experience. Home for Solus OS|
|LXQt||Next generation of LXDE|