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How to Choose the Best Linux Desktop for You

With Linux comes choice. Along with that choice, comes debate. Which desktop is the best? Which offers the most user-friendly experience? The questions are not only never-ending, but date back over a decade where the “war” between KDE, GNOME, and every other desktop was given voice. I would, contend, however, that there is a desktop for every kind of user to be found within the Linux landscape. To that end, I want to take some of the most popular desktops and match them to end users.

Of course, this is not science. There are no hard and fast rules, tests to take, or wizards to walk you through to your final Linux desktop destination. For most people it’s about taste and features. But if you look at each desktop long enough, you discover there is a clear connection between desktop and end user. I will examine the following Linux desktops:

  • Ubuntu Unity

  • GNOME 3

  • Cinnamon

  • KDE

  • Enlightenment

  • XFCE

  • Deepin Desktop 

Each of the above desktops has a strong following (with good reason). As well, each desktop offers a wholly unique experience with plenty of features to please anyone. However -- getting connected with the right desktop, up front, can go a very long way to ensuring an overall positive experience with the Linux desktop. With that said, let’s connect users with desktops.

Ubuntu Unity

unity

Ubuntu Unity is the ideal desktop for any user wanting a modern interface that connects them to not only their local data, but data from over 100 remote sources. Users who want to be connected and have quick access to social networks, shopping, Wikipedia, and more will find Ubuntu Unity to be a welcome environment. Ubuntu Unity should also be given serious consideration by any user who prefers to spend most of their time on the keyboard and not switching back and forth between keyboard and mouse. With the help of the Head Up Display (HUD), you no longer have to reach for the mouse to interact with application menus. Tap the Alt key and type a search string to bring up application menu options. It’s an incredibly efficient means of interacting with applications.

Best user for Ubuntu Unity: New user who wants as much information at their fingertips as possible and doesn’t care too much about a highly individual look and feel to their desktop.

GNOME 3

gnome3 desktop

GNOME 3 is a bit of an anomaly - a sort of minimalist approach to a full-featured desktop environment. On the surface, you have what looks like very little to interact with. Open the Dash, however, and you find plenty to use. Where Ubuntu Unity locks down the majority of its interface, GNOME 3 allows for a bit more tinkering. Specifically, the addition of GNOME Shell Extensions helps the end use refine the experience to better match their needs. So if you’re looking for a Ubuntu Unity-level modern take on the desktop, but want to be able to tweak it to your tastes, GNOME 3 is for you.

Best user for GNOME 3: Somewhat experienced user who wants a modern desktop but still wants to tweak the look and feel.

Cinnamon

mint

Cinnamon came to be because the Linux Mint team did not feel the direction of GNOME 3 fit in with theirs. So they forked GNOME 3 and completely reworked the interface. What came of that was an interface that seems a melding of GNOME 3 and GNOME 2. Cinnamon allows even more configuration than does GNOME 3 and does a great job of harkening back to GNOME 2, but does so with a nod to a more modern look. Even though Cinnamon has a decidedly Linux look and feel, any user would instantly be at home working within this environment. With a “start button”, panel, and system tray, Cinnamon holds strong to the desktop metaphor that has worked so well for so long. But if you don’t like that look... change it. Cinnamon can be highly tweaked in numerous ways (move panels, add desklets, add/remove effects, and more).

Best user for Cinnamon: Anyone. If you’re familiar with the standard desktop, you’ll be right at home with Cinnamon.

KDE

kde5

KDE was one of the first “full-blown” desktop environments for the Linux operating system. It’s only been through a couple of major changes (from 3.x to 4.x being the largest), so what it does... it does very well. The KDE desktop is about to flip the switch on the latest version of this long-standing environment -- a change that brings a serious speed increase to the environment. Even with the new major version releasing, you won’t find much change in the interface. KDE has always held fast with the old metaphor. This desktop lives and dies by the start menu/panel/system tray model. Even though it has a bit of modern flair, KDE always seems like a holdover from the Windows XP/7 generation. That’s not a bad thing -- especially for those that resist change.

Best user for KDE: Windows users who want the easiest transition from XP or 7 but prefer the traditional desktop metaphor over the modern look and feel.

Enlightenment

bodhi

The Enlightenment is a different beast altogether. When you use Enlightenment, you know you’re working within a different environment. It’s as vastly different as it is unique. Gone are the standard start menus and panels. In their place, you’ll find a desktop menu, shelves, and other one-of-a-kind elements. To that end, Enlightenment isn’t for everyone. But if having a desktop that is a beautiful as it is configurable sounds like your cup of tea -- this might be a perfect match. Of course, all of that uniqueness and tweak-ability comes with a price... a learning curve. Many users will find Enlightenment a bit tedious out of the box. Users who like to tinker will find Enlightenment a desktop dream come true.

One great element of Enlightenment is the vast amount of themes available. These themes don’t just change the color of the desktop -- some change the shape of windows and more.

Best user for Enlightenment: Advanced user who fancies themselves a tinkerer and always likes to change up the look and feel of their desktop.

XFCE

xfce

This is a perfect example of just one of the ways in which Linux shines. XFCE is a very lightweight desktop environment. If you have older hardware you want to keep using, XFCE might be the ideal environment. Or, if speed is your primary concern... XFCE will give you just that. But don’t think XFCE skimps on either the features of the customization -- you get both. In face, XFCE offers as much customization as any desktop available yet doesn’t sacrifice speed and stability. But XFCE isn’t for everyone. Although not nearly as challenging as Enlightenment, XFCE would present a bit of a configuration challenge for the new user.

Best user for XFCE: Moderately experienced user looking to get the most out of old hardware who just wants as much speed from their desktop as possible.

Deepin Desktop

deepin

Deepin is a new entry to the Linux landscape, but has already turned a lot of heads. The Deepin Desktop is an incredibly modern take on the interface. This desktop takes bits and pieces from some of the best desktops available and blends them into one, cohesive unit. Deepin Desktop is inspired by GNOME 3, but completely built in-house. It adds an outstanding Dock and one of the finest control panels you’ll see. With the addition of the Dock, the Deepin desktop is easily used by any skill-level user. As the new users continue exploring this new desktop, they’ll be delighted with the features and the modern approach to the interface.

Best user for Deepin Desktop: Any user looking for something different, elegant, and easy to use.

The landscape of the Linux desktop looks stellar at the moment. With so many solid choices to pick from, you’ll find there’s a desktop for anyone -- no matter your skill level, no matter your needs. Anyone who says Linux isn’t ready to take over the desktop, hasn’t spent much time working with any of these environments. Linux is ready to be your desktop of choice...which choice will you make?

 

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  • carl draper Said:

    MATE is for those who can't let go of the past ;)

  • Josh Mason Said:

    That depends on how you configure it, MATE can be configured to be fairly modern-looking, case-in-point, Mint's implementation of it, which can also be emulated in other distros, or the former Fuduntu's implementation of it, which, just like with Mint's implementation, can also be emulated in other distros. I'm currently using the Mint-style configuration on Arch, albeit with a couple tweaks to the look-and-feel: gear icon for MintMenu replaced with an Arch logo, and the "Menu" text deleted, to make it look slightly more modern than the default-style start button (gear icon with the "Menu" text beside it).

  • Travis Said:

    MATE is my default desktop because it's - stable - user friedly - you can customize it better than any others

  • Bomyne Said:

    MATE is so awesome that we just don't need to let go of the past. Not everything has to be modernized. MATE may be "the past" but it is superior to Unity, Gnome, KDE, etc. That said, i have had MATE looking like Windows 7 before. Just because i can. (PS They can keep that horrible Win8 interface though... If that's what modern is, i want no part of it!)

  • Martin Said:

    You have overlooked MATE, which is brilliant.

  • Ryein Said:

    KDE is the community. Plasma is the desktop.

  • vini Said:

    KDE: Knoppix desktop environment. Plasma is version of kde

  • jinrok Said:

    definately not Knoppix... Knoppix is named after Klaus Knopper and KDE was there before Knoppix even started.

  • Jose Luis Said:

    No, KDE was independent from Knoppix, the K was for "Kool" the later they changed to be just the K Desktop Environment.

  • Nikolas Said:

    These are *linux* desktop environments, in other words, "mostly free". Apple and Microsoft do not produce free software at all.

  • A Real Jerk Said:

    Not true. Apple supplies a lot of free and open software through Darwin. Hell, just check out opensource.apple.com Now, I don't know if Microsoft has released "free"/open source software at all, but Apple sure as hell does. And, hell, the poor fellow may have had a misconception about Darwin (Mac OS X or iOS) being derived from Linux instead of BSD and NeXTSTEP (other UNIX-likes).

  • gojul Said:

    They did. Wix is a builder for .MSI package and is open source, and many parts of the .Net framework have become open source. Now it's true that it is crapped with software patents...

  • kit Said:

    Microsoft Research also released an operating system that might be called a .NET OS. It was more of a proof-of-concept test, but if Sun can build a Java-based OS, why can't Microsoft do the same with .NET?

  • Bomyne Said:

    http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/openness/default.aspx#projects Microsoft's open source site. Those project links lead to codeplex, where Microsoft has released code.

  • Bomyne Said:

    Apple is a company. The OSX desktop (The dock) can't be used in a Linux environment any more than Explorer (Microsoft's desktop) can.

  • spg666 Said:

    Agree with you, I stumbled across the pantheon desktop and elementary OS six months ago, it now live on both of my laptops and desktop PC. Not sure you can separate the desktop from the OS though, the work as a package.

  • waqas Said:

    You wrote what I was thinking about. I think pantheon of Elementary OS is best of Ll and Uthor overlooked it.

  • christopher Said:

    Pantheon desktop is fresh, user-friendly and innovative. i am using elementary since i first saw it.

  • David Watson Said:

    Personally, I like the direction the Black Lab Linux team has taken with XFCE. It is fast, its modern and it looks cool. They do really good work there.

  • Honulele Said:

    After taking about XFCE, I'm afraid most of people will agree there's no need to talk about LXDE. And yes, I have tried both :)

  • Rob Said:

    No need to talk about LXDE? LXDE is much lighter and capable than XFCE in old/low resourses computers, and each day gets better. Just check LXLE, Peppermint, Zorin, just to name a few.

  • Arthur Said:

    Agreed. The misconception that XFCE is more resource intensive than LXDE comes from Xubuntu mostly. Their distribution uses a some outside resources, like Gnome, and adds a lot of polish to the default install that translates into more resource usage. I've done extensive testing, and LXDE and "pure" XFCE (not Xubuntu) use about the same amount of resources. If you installed a basic distro and installed just the XFCE components, it doesn't use any more resources than LXDE.

  • lunarcloud Said:

    Correction "Plasma" or "KDE's Plasma" NOT KDE or "The KDE desktop" That changed *5* years ago https://dot.kde.org/2009/11/24/repositioning-kde-brand

  • lunarcloud Said:

    Also, this was clearly written by someone who doesn't actually USE Plasma and Windows. They call it Windows-like but I've been using Windows 7 at work and the two act very different. Plasma is a lot more intuitive and gives you useful hardware controls in the system tray and it's actually simple to find things in the kickoff menu as opposed to the awful start menu.

  • lunarcloud Said:

    Also, this was clearly written by someone who doesn't actually USE Plasma and Windows. They call it Windows-like but I've been using Windows 7 at work and the two act very different. Plasma is a lot more intuitive and gives you useful hardware controls in the system tray and it's actually simple to find things in the kickoff menu as opposed to the awful start menu.

  • mlcohen Said:

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE #!/openbox on my 10 year old hand me up laptop. Elegant, and fast as lightening. I just installed CentOS to use for the Linux Foundation EdX course, and I'm continually irritated when I right click and don't get a menu (Thankfully, Alt-F2 still works in Gnome).

  • GamingPenguin Said:

    Openbox is a WM not a full featured desktop environment, still great though

  • buzzmandt Said:

    the only difference between mate and cinnamon is one is old and one is new. I'm glad the OP left off mate. It should have been noted that KDE is both the easiest to customize and has the most customization options available.

  • Mike Said:

    I disagree. While they are similar in initial layout, they are fairly different, in both use and resources. He definitely should have mentioned MATE.

  • giorgio Said:

    Gnome2 was perfect for me. Now I am using Mate.

  • Lizbeth Said:

    mate, mate, mate! Where's my mate? I love mate. +10000000000000000000000000000000000 for mate!

  • Shane Said:

    Personally I'm trying to load Linux Ubuntu alongside Windows 8.1 witch was originally on my machine. I've created the partition, but cannot find it in BIOS.

  • cnavigator Said:

    I am currently running Cinnamon on top of Ubuntu GNOME. It is clean, light and doesn't get in the way. I hope that, for the sake of Linux Desktop, Cinnamon eventually becomes the "lightweight but fully functional" GNOME, thus gathering the refugees currently using XFCE and MATE since GNOME 3 Shell came to existence.

  • Balazs Said:

    Please let that never happen! Cinnamon has serious issues on my hardware, it does not even actually work on it. It just does not start at all. Gnome 3 is the same case. Unity is horribly resource-intensive compared to the other listed options. For me it is XFCE, or for very old hardware LXDE. "Moderately experienced user looking to get the most out of old hardware who just wants as much speed from their desktop as possible."

  • Hugo Said:

    MATE! Tried the others, always get back to MATE with Mint touch...

  • Michael Said:

    This will make the deal: https://www.google.be/#q=awsome+windows+manager AWESOME will change your desktop perception and you will find an answer to the meaning of playing with linux. If you want to level up your linux skills this is the answer.

  • apurvjyotirmay Said:

    I'm not much of an experienced linux user, but I've been trying to learn it on my own and with the help of our linux community. And I believe, that it's an awesome desktop to go for. I'm a computer science student, and linux provides me with the tools I need to work with. Anyone who says linux isn't ready for the os war is just another fool. Linux is ready and heavily armed for this os war. OPEN SOURCE ROX!!!

  • Mostafa Said:

    It's disappointing to see Mate is absent from this review.

  • om Said:

    Lxde for old computers...it uses significantly less resources tham xfce in my lond experience.

  • strange1712 Said:

    This is the worst description of the "KDE desktop" I've read. KDE is far much more than a Windows-like desktop (some concepts were first implemented in KDE than in Windows) and can do most of the things featured in other desktops, by the numerous elements in plasma, not no mention KDE is more an ecosystem of programs, not just a menu and a tray. Even if KDE is easy to use by a Windows user, an advanced user can heavily customize KDE and take advantage of its lots of possibilities, so the target is not just "windows users transitioning". The current default look and feel is a little aged now, but it was modern once it was first shown in kde4.0, and many modern features were first implemented, if maybe not perfectly from the first version, In KDE, like the integrated search and execution tool, integrated file indexer, integrated desktop composition, social desktop, and the integrated notifications were there before GNOME3 or Unity were in plans.

  • Deazel Said:

    I find myself really enjoying MATE over all the other desktops I've tried, which is pretty much all of them. Openbox Fluxbox Gnome Ratposion WindowMaker Awesome JVM FVM or whatever, etc. I still go to MATE after all of those. Something about it is just so perfect. XFCE is good too, and KDE 5 looks really amazing but it's still unstable on my machine. I'll have to try the neon5 project soon though. Looks really nice.

  • Z. Said:

    My persobal Linux Os is Peppermint 5 It is lightweight and blazing fast. The system code is Based onUbuntu 14.04 Simple core ibstallation and a good cImunity suport

  • George Said:

    i use MATE at this old machine. is very nice, it should take place in this list

  • Stoycho Ganev Said:

    "Best user for GNOME 3: Somewhat experienced user who wants a modern desktop but still wants to tweak the look and feel." This whole sentence is total rubbish. Gnome 3 does not require "somewhat experienced" users. It requires totally dumb and stupid users who have absolutely no idea how a desktop environment works and what to do with it. And it is for users who DON'T want to tweak the look and feel of their desktop, because this is nearly impossible to do with Gnome 3. You get ZERO possibilities of customization. That's how I see it.

  • Shreya Dahal Said:

    I used Unity for some time and really liked it. Gnome 3 was a little difficult to get used to, but once I got the hang of it, I'm in love. I have always wanted to try KDE more, but haven't got the chance. I tried Mageia, wasn't impressed in the live session. What distro is it in this KDE screenshot? This looks nice.

  • L. Cavalheiro Said:

    Ok, but there are much more in window managers than these ones. The *boxes, good old Window Maker, i3, Ratpoison...

  • UUNET Said:

    What about OpenCDE and CDE desktop :trollface:

  • Arun Said:

    cinnamon in Mint, & Gnome 3 in opensuse .......

  • spowww Said:

    Window Maker , try http://wmlive.sourceforge.net/

  • Nongeek linuxer Said:

    I use MATE with Arch Linux on my laptop. I've made MATE look exactly like Gnome2 in Ubuntu in the good ol' days of Lucid Lynx--before the Unity abomination.

  • alecdc272 Said:

    You forgot to mention how configurable KDE is

  • Eddie G. Said:

    As much as configurability seems to be the seling point for a lot of people and the KDE desktop, I'm just looking to get things done on my machine.....not spend hours trying to get everything "Just Right". So for me XFCE....Cinnamon....Gnome....and Unity work just fine.........of those listed here I would go with XFCE first sand then Gnome....that's how good those two really are!!!

  • Peter Bratton Said:

    Whether or not your comments on these desktop enviromnments are good, bad, or indifferent, they are a good overview of what's available. I'm currently trying out Debian Jessie SID. I like Debian's stability and reliabilty, but not their choice of xfce for desktop environment. I'm looking for something like Mate (I've tried it with LinuxMint 17, but find it slowly erodes) but more stable. Thanks to your overview, I'll be looking at KDE, Cinnamon, and Enlightenment.

  • Fang Zhou Said:

    Deepin Desktop is not based on GNOME, and the screenshot CANNOT show the most wonderful changes compared with other desktop.

  • Youth.Lin Said:

    各个桌面环境都各有所长,不过DDE(Deepin Desktop Environment)在国内来看显然是最佳选择。。

  • Chris Said:

    Mate is my favorite desktop.By the way,Deepin Desktop is not based on GNOME3.

  • Omid Said:

    which of them use lower than other from system resource?

  • Lorna Said:

    MATE for me :-) And I have tried the others......

  • Amira.93 Said:

    I like LINUX MINT Desktop ,it's elegant

  • Martín Said:

    I agree with most of the post, but I prefer mate :-D

  • SimcA Said:

    I would like to add to that list Phanteom, from the proyect ElementaryOS. I really like it, and it is simple, and in my opinion an excelent combination of Gnome3, MacOSX and their own ideas. It is easy, really beautiful and very very fast and functional. For those who would like to try like me: http://elementaryos.org/

  • SimcA: Said:

    CORRECTION: "For those who want to try"..... not "try like me"

  • Brenton Said:

    You're missing MATE, LXDE, ElementryOS, RazorQT and LXQT. The latter two being lightweight alternatives to KDE.

  • Crypter skm Said:

    Hey gyes... I love Linux OS. I am currently using ubuntu gnome desktop.. can some one tell me, from where I will get those other desktop environment..

  • Laura Ess Said:

    As sung to "A pirate's life for me": "It's KDE for me!"

  • Gowtham Said:

    You have mentioned Deepin and not MATE? Shame!

  • Bernard Said:

    Why do you need a desktop ? For a geek like me, a minimal window manager is enough. i3 is really cool!

  • Kaiser Said:

    What kind of KDE is the one in the picture? It looks very nice, because it's flat and modern. All KDE versions I keep finding look childish with glossy KDE-icons and colorful tray icons :-/

  • Nate Said:

    What about Pantheon from Elementary OS? In my experience it is THE most user friendly and one of the most polished DEs around. Much more polished than Unity with the same level of user friendliness.

  • Selenia Said:

    Personally, I think the KDE install up there looks as much like an abortion as default KDE. I use KDE and it is capable of looking much better. Learn to customize, people! Instead of trying to pick a distro based on default theme. I am prone to migraines, so my KDE theme is pretty dark. But it is beautiful, full of eye candy, and highly functional.

  • vikky Said:

    hi guys can any one help me to choose . that which os of linux is best for gaming

  • 5alafalah Said:

    well, I see that you didn't mention mate I am wondering why is that ?! Mate is awesome highly customizable fast consume less memory than many Interfaces you mentioned here...shame on you sir ...

  • 5alafalah Said:

    well I am sure you lost your way...Most games are not designed to work on Linux so you will have to use emulator where you won't have your hardware full performance...Linux is not for gaming not for now


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