The 8 best desktop environments for Linux

Here are 8 of the best desktop environments, ranked in inverse order -- saving the best (according to me) for last.

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The 8 best desktop environments for Linux

There is no shortage of desktop environments for Linux, which means you can customize your PC the way you want it.

I have used almost all major desktop environments -- not just to test the waters but to actually find the one that works for me -- because, you know, the best DE is the one that fits your needs.

Here are 8 of the best desktop environments, ranked in inverse order -- saving the best (at least according to me) for last.

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unity ubuntu
# 8 Unity

Unity is a shell developed by Canonical, the parent company of Ubuntu, for their flagship distro. It runs on top of Gnome Desktop environment and uses all core Gnome applications.

Initially it was developed to run on netbooks to make better use of the screen real estate. But when Gnome decided to go its own way and supposedly didn’t accept some changes proposed by Ubuntu teams, Canonical went ahead and created its own shell, which suited its needs better.

With Unity, Canonical developed many technologies to improve the user experience such as HUD (inspired by the heads up display). They also introduced a new approach to search through a 'Scopes & Lenses' model. Scopes and Lenses allows developers to integrate different services with Unity so users can access them from within Dash -- a search overlay of Unity.

To improve the user experience with third party apps, Canonical works with projects like Firefox or Thunderbird to integrate those applications with the Unity desktop through plugins.

Unity is a great desktop environment, despite some major flaws -- the biggest of which is the lack of customization of the DE. There is no user-friendly way to change the location of the launcher and panels.

The notification implementation of Unity is downright annoying. Unlike Mac OS X (which probably inspired the idea) or KDE, a user can’t take any action on notifications. The bubble stays there, blocking the view and you can't open the task the notification shows, nor can you close the notification -- quite contrary to the design principles of Unity. What’s even worse is that there is no way, that I know of, to disable notifications.

Add to that auto-hiding menus and a lack of official support by any major distributions, and Unity becomes extremely counter productive.

Pros:

Intuitive
New technologies like HUD

Cons:

Poor implementation of notifications
Very little customization
Inconsistent UI
Auto-hide menus

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gnome
# 7 Gnome

The Gnome project took a major departure from the traditional UI and created Gnome Shell to modernize the desktop.

Gnome is known for simplicity, even if at the cost of losing some features, and the Shell continues that legacy. The functionality of Gnome Shell can be expanded through third party extensions.

Ironically, there is no built-in tool in the system settings to manage different components of Gnome Shell UI -- whether it be changing the theme or system font. Users have to install “Gnome Tweak Tool” in order to do the job. In addition, users have to use a browser to download extensions or themes manually. And compatibility with several extensions break with each major release of Gnome Shell.

Gnome Shell 3 wasn't well received by users and there was a steep decline in the popularity of Gnome after the release (prior to the release it was the top desktop environment). It also led to many forks or alternates of the shell.

Gnome desktop comes with many core applications such as Evolution (mail client), Gedit (text editor), Files (file manager), Rhythmbox (music player), etc.

Gnome is the default DE of Fedora and Debian. It can be installed on all major distributions.

Pros:
Simple, easy to use
Functionality can be expanded through extensions

Cons:

Lacks many features found in other desktop environments
Extension management is poor

lxde opensuse
# 6 LXDE

If you have a 10 year old computer, sitting in a corner somewhere, incapable of running any modern operating system, Linux will breath a new live into that machine thanks to extremely lightweight desktop environments such LXDE.

One drawback of LXDE's small footprint is that it is not as feature rich as many other distributions; it also takes more effort to customize the system.

Where it excels is offering a great user experience. It sports the good old WIMP (Windows, Icons, Mouse, Pointer) paradigm, and can be used comfortably by anyone who ever used Windows XP.

LXDE teams are not happy with GTK3 and they have started creating a port using Qt. There was already a lightweight desktop called Razor-Qt using the Qt framework. The two projects decided to combine their efforts and merged to create LXQt.

LXDE is available on all major distributions including Ubuntu, openSUSE, Fedora, etc.

Pros:

Extremely (truly) lightweight
Works on all major distros

Cons:

Lacks some features

xfce
#5 Xfce

Xfce is another lightweight desktop environment (although not as lightweight as LXDE) and has been around since 1996 -- much longer than LXDE. As a result, it's a fully matured product that has stayed with the time-tested UI while it continued to evolve.

Xfce has more customization options than does LXDE, but the process of customization (such as installing new desktop or icon themes) is quite cumbersome. The default look and feel of Xfce is reminiscent of Windows 95, but with some effort you can make it look modern.

Similar to Gnome Shell, Xfce comes with its own set of applications such the Thunar file manager and Leafpad text editor.

Xfce is the default DE for many distros, including Manjaro, Xubuntu, and Ubuntu Studio.

Pros:
Comparatively resource efficient
Comes with a whole stack of applications
Available for all major and minor distributions
Extremely mature

Cons:

Not as light as LXDE
Customization is possible but hard for the average user

elementary os
# 4 Pantheon

Pantheon is a desktop environment developed by the elementary OS team for their distro. It is being developed by a team of designers who are trying to make the Linux desktop beautiful -- and it shows.

Pantheon is heavily inspired by Apple's Mac OS X. It features a dock, positioning of window buttons on the left and top panel, and a grey theme color.

To get the best experience of Pantheon one must try it on elementary OS, which is under heavy development. It is available for other distros, though I haven't been able to run it well in Arch Linux or openSUSE.

Pros:

A beautiful desktop environment
Uncompromising focus on quality

Cons:

Limited availability
Third party apps don't look native

mate ubuntu
# 3 MATE

MATE is a new desktop environment that was created to help those users who were not happy with Gnome 3 and wanted something lightweight that doesn't require re-learning to perform the same tasks.

MATE was initially developed by an Arch Linux user and then became the default DE of Linux Mint Mate edition.

While MATE may not be as lightweight as LXDE or Xfce, it's certainly a decent distro to run on older, less-powerful hardware.

MATE offers a bit of a modern look and feel compared to other DEs, and the developers behind the project feel that "MATE is appealing not only to individuals looking for efficient desktops, it has great appeal for enterprise customers who want to use resources more efficiently. There are enterprises who want a lean desktop for remote desktop use cases. MATE provides a lean, familiar, highly customisable interface for them."

MATE is basically the fork of the unmaintained code of Gnome 2 and developers have replaced a lot of components with modern technologies. They have forked components of the desktop such as Caja (file manager) and Pluma (text editor), among many others.

MATE is is the default DE of many major distributions such as Ubuntu Mate and Linux Mint Mate and is available for almost all major distributions.

Pros:

Lightweight distro
Modern look and feel

Cons:

None that I can think of

cinnamon linux mint
# 2 Cinnamon

Cinnamon is another desktop environment created to appeal to those Gnome users who were not happy with the direction of the project. While MATE was a successor of Gnome 2, Cinnamon used Gnome 3 technologies to offer the time-tested interface.

Since Gnome started stripping features from its core apps, the Linux Mint team also went ahead to fork some of the core apps such as Nautilus, the file manager. This also offered consistent experience across the desktop.

Cinnamon has been under active development and is among one of the most polished desktop environments.

Cinnamon is the default DE of Linux Mint and is available for almost all major distros and works just fine.

It's also extremely customizable -- more than any of the desktops (excluding Plasma). And unlike Gnome or Xfce, the Cinnamon system settings allow users to fully manage the customization of the DE (including downloading and installing of themes and icons) from within the tool without having to open a browser. Unlike Gnome, the tool to manage different components is also built into the system settings.

Pros:

Extremely polished
Offers familiar interface
Makes Gnome more usable by forking some core apps
Extremely customizable

Cons:

Could be buggy at time

kde plasma arch
# 1 KDE Plasma

KDE's Plasma is the most advanced desktop environment in the computing world. I use Mac OS X and run Windows in a virtual machine and find even those OSes to be substandard compared to Plasma.

Plasma is uses modern technologies, such a Qt, which is quite popular in segments like automotive. Plasma has many gems and Dolphin, its file manager, is among them. It's the most advanced and powerful file manager around. Plasma also comes with a very powerful settings tool that works as a command center to manage almost every aspect of your desktop.

KDE is also the most customizable desktop environment around. It offers an elegant, easy-to-use UI on the surface and opens an arsenal of features that can be accessed from settings. There is nothing that can't be done on a Plasma desktop.

What's even more interesting about Plasma is that it can be easily customized to look and feel like any other distro.

Plasma is seen as a resource hungry DE, but that's not exactly true. It's quite efficient even on older, slower hardware.

Plasma is the default DE for many distros, including openSUSE, PCLinuxOS, and Kubuntu.

KDE software is being used by many organizations and government bodies around the globe.

Pros:

The most advanced and powerful DE
Extremely customizable
Looks modern and polished

Cons:

Some components like Kmail are way too complicated for an average user

So those are the best desktop environments -- at least according to me. What's your favorite?