Tyler Voll

Writer - System Admin

When compared to the fixed proprietary desktop environments of Windows and MacOS, Linux has plenty of different graphical environments to choose from, which allow users to better tailor their own computing experience. While some of these options have been built upon since the mid-90s, a lot of the environments are far more recent to the Linux scene. In this brief review, I will go through the most influential desktop environments along with some prominent new contenders that have recently joined the scene and are being implemented in many different Linux Distrobutions. While a lot of desktop environments, while not be shown in this list, are only absent because I personally don't have much experience working with them. This does not mean that those DEs have not been deployed any noteable distro releases.

This overview won't go into the specific technologies which enable the Desktop Environments to properly operate within Linux, but instead in this article we will focus on specific visual differences and what each Desktop Environment tries to accomplish. With that said, this article will not focus on any revision history for any of the desktop environments mentioned.


I'm still relatively new to Linux (only running Linux as my daily driver for a little over 2 years), but when starting out new to Linux, playing with the different desktop environments was one of my favorite things to do and it really helped Linux stand out to me. I hope this article can help others unfamiliar with these desktop environments to try them out and find a new love for your Linux install.


Here is the list of Desktop Environments that I will be going over:
Gnome
KDE
Xfce
LXDE
Unity
Mate
Cinnamon
Budgie
Pantheon

Gnome Shell

 Initially released in 1999 by the Gnome Project, which is part of the GNU Project, the Gnome Shell is a widely used DE that focuses on productivity and a unified User Experience. The current version of the Gnome Shell allows for easy customization with Extensions and the Gnome Tweak Tool. By default, the experience has always reminded me a bit of Mac OS X, just because of the default theme which sports a nifty Dash/Dock that has an option to open your application drawer. In newer versions of Gnome, the Gnome Shell also provides a classic mode for those who prefer a traditional desktop experience (similar to older versions of Gnome). Popular Desktop Linux Distros that use the Gnome Shell by default include Fedora, Debian, and the most recent versions of Ubuntu.


KDE

 Wanting a desktop environment that promoted consistency between how applications looked and felt, Matthias Ettrich founded the K Desktop Environment while he was a student at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen. KDE offers a ton of customization right out of the box, allowing users to change the entire look and feel of the desktop enivornment without having to connect to the internet. While by default, KDE is a slick traditional desktop experience, it can be easily formed into something perfect for any niche.


Over the years, the overall design of KDE has greatly improved. The first time I encountered KDE was in one of the computer science labs at the College I attended. The lab had an older version of KDE, which at the time looked quite out of place. The icons didn't match with the theme and the quality of a lot of the default icons looked like they were created by a kindergartner.

Thankfully, some big updates over the years have made KDE one of the nicest looking DEs out there! Linux Distros that use KDE by default include Kubuntu, KDE Neon, and openSUSE. Also, the KDE mascot is a cute Green Dragon!

Xfce

 Started as a Linux version of the Common Desktop Environment (a Unix desktop environment), the Xfce project was started in 1996 by Olivier Fourdan. Xfce is a flexible desktop environment that is also very lightweight when using resources. I have enjoyed using Xfce, especially on older computers that don't have a lot of computing power. While Xfce doesn't consume a lot of system resources, that doesn't mean that the desktop environment is limited. I've found it fun and easy to customize the environment to meet my own needs.


Popular Linux Distros using Xfce by default are Xubuntu, MX Linux, and Linux Lite.

LXDE

 Created in 2006 by a programmer named Hong Jen Yee, LXDE is a fast and energy-efficient desktop environment. It has scored in the past as consuming the least amount of memory when compared to the DEs listed above. With that said, it's no wonder why LXDE was used as the goto environment for the Raspberry Pi's featured Linux Distro Raspbian. While in my experience, it doesn't have a lot of customizable options, it is an easy to use environment that feels quite traditional.


Other popular Linux Distros using LXDE by default arex, Lubuntu, Knoppix, and Peppermint Linux OS.

Unity

 Originally developed for Ubuntu by Canonical, Unity is a shell for the GNOME Desktop Environment. The initial release of Unity was in 2010. Unity provides a powerful and sleek desktop experience. Ubuntu with Unity was my first Linux experience and I was always impressed with the subtle animations and overall feel of Unity. Unity is primarily seen on versions of Ubuntu that are 16.04 and older. Ubuntu is now transitioning to use the GNOME 3 desktop instead.


MATE

 Named after the South American plant yerba mate and tea made from the herb, mate, the MATE Desktop Environment was released in 2011 as a fork of the Gnome desktop environment. Branching off of the traditional Gnome Desktop environment, MATE adds new features on to a traditional desktop experience.


Popular linux distros using MATE by default are Ubuntu MATE, Parabola, and Trisquel.

Cinnamon

 Derived from GNOME 3 but following the traditional desktop experience, Cinnamon, like MATE, strives to enhance the traditional desktop experience on Linux that was popularized with earlier versions GNOME.


A lot of Windows users will find Cinnamon easy to use. There have been numerous times where i've talked with employees at Best Buy or certain Computer Repair shops and whenever Linux comes up, they also mention using Linux Mint (which uses Cinnamon).

Other than Linux Mint, other distrobutions that include Cinnamon by default are Cubuntu, and Cr OS Linux.

Budgie

 Giving a experience that is similar to Android, Budgie focuses on elegance and ease of use. It does utilize certain GNOME Technologies, and is developed by the Solus project.


Popular Distrobutions using Budgie by default are Solus and Ubuntu Budgie.

Pantheon

 Advertised as a 'fast' & 'open' replacement for Windows and MacOS, the Pantheon desktop environment is primary used on Elementary OS and looks a lot like MacOS. It offers a unified experience built on top of the GNOME software base. Elementary OS is also Ubuntu-based so it is compatible with all of its repositories and packages. Pantheon is also deeply integrated with the applications present within Elementary OS.



All of these Desktop Environments can be loaded on other Linux Distrobutions, but the distros mentioned above along with their respective DE tend to be the ones that focus on giving you the best experience with that specific desktop environment. Plenty of Linux Distrobutions offer customization of the Desktop Environment while installing the Operating System, while others offer flavors that you can download (like a lot of the Ubuntu flavors stated earlier).

While there are some Desktop Environments that are featured in more distrobutions of linux than others, some DEs such as Cinnamon, Budgie, and Pantheon offer their best experience on the distro that they were originally made for (Linux Mint, Solus, and Elementary OS).

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