9 Linux desktop environments to watch in 2016

A lot can happen in a year.

Linux desktop environments, opening slide
A cup full of Linux

It’s that time of the year when I return with some of the most exciting desktop environments to look forward to. The Linux world is extremely dynamic; a lot can happen within a year so it’s interesting to see where these desktop environments stand today. For the sake of this story I tried out all these desktop environments in a virtual machine so that you don’t have to.

Gnome
Credit: Swapnil Bhartiya
Gnome

I started off my Linux life with Gnome desktop, until Unity happened. That’s when I moved to KDE, as both Gnome and Unity were in the very early stage of development. Another problem with Gnome was its reliance on 3rd party extensions for full functionality -- and extensions break with each new release of Gnome.

Many of Gnome's core components, including Nautilus, lack some basic capabilities (like batch file renaming). So as much as I admired their work, I never became a Gnome user again.

But things are changing. The upcoming 3.20 release of Gnome seems promising and developers are vowing that extensions won’t break anymore. Also they may bring the feature of batch file renaming.

On top of that, Gnome’s awesome integration with email, calendar and contacts make it a pleasant desktop to use. And don’t forget the ability to mount Google Drive as a remote drive.

Gnome is available on all major desktop environments, but openSUSE seems to offer the best Gnome experience out of the box. Ubuntu Gnome is also a great distribution to try.

Plasma 5
Credit: Swapnil Bhartiya
Plasma 5

KDE’s desktop is known for giving users as much control over their desktop as possible. And that’s exactly what I love about it.

However, with Plasma 5 a lot of things are changing in KDE land. They have adopted a modular approach, splitting the desktop, libraries and applications. While it’s great for developers, it’s not that good for end users.

Due to this modular approach, Plasma gives a feeling of disconnected components wrapped together to create the desktop. I am aware that a lot of work is going on in the KDE desktop, but as a long time ‘KDE Software’ user, I would very much like to see a much tighter, Gnome-like, integration of different KDE components with the desktop.

openSUSE is among the best Plasma distributions around, along with the upcoming Project neon that’s based on Ubuntu.

Unity
Credit: Swapnil Bhartiya
Unity

Unity isn’t a desktop environment in the true sense. It’s a shell on top of the Gnome desktop. But because of the way Unity has become a core component of the Ubuntu experience – with Dash, scopes and lenses -- I would consider it a desktop environment in its own right.

What makes Unity even more exciting is the arrival of version 8 that will bring some of the greatest features of Ubuntu Phone (and the much-talked-about convergence) to the desktop.

The upcoming release of Ubuntu will also remove the controversial ‘online searches’ from the default set-up.

Unity isn’t officially available for any major distribution, but you can install it on openSUSE, Fedora and do-it-yourself distros like Arch Linux and Gentoo. To get the best Unity experience, I recommend Ubuntu.

Cinnamon
Credit: Wikipedia
Cinnamon

Cinnamon is a fork of Gnome 3 to appease those Gnome users who were not comfortable with the direction in which Gnome 3 was heading. Cinnamon is being developed by the Linux Mint developers and is offered as the default desktop environment of their flagship distro.

Cinnamon uses the latest Gnome technologies but offers the time-tested WIMP (windows, icons, mouse and pointer) paradigm. Initially, Cinnamon was quite buggy, but once Linux Mint developers moved the distro to the LTS release of Ubuntu they had more time to polish the desktop environment.

Cinnamon is available on all major distributions, though the best Cinnamon experience will be through Linux Mint.

Pantheon
Credit: elementary OS
Pantheon

Pantheon is the desktop environment of elementary OS, a Linux based operating system that is heavily inspired by the design principles of Mac OS X.

The team behind Pantheon has a graphic design background so they pay close attention to minute details, as a result making Pantheon the most polished and best looking Linux desktop around. The team is also very strict about picking the default applications for the desktop. They either develop their own apps or choose those that have same design principles.

Pantheon is available on many Linux distributions, but to get the best experience you must try it with elementary OS.

MATE
Credit: Wikipedia
MATE

MATE is the continuum of Gnome 2 desktop environment. It was developed by a team that was not content with the direction of Gnome 3. They took the ‘to be discarded’ code of Gnome 2 and started maintaining it as MATE desktop and they adopted newer technologies to keep the desktop modern.

One of the most noticeable features of MATE is that it's lightweight. It is extremely resource efficient and can run on less powerful hardware. And if you are running it on powerful hardware then you will have plenty of system resources for yourself.

MATE is available on all major desktops, but you'll get the best experience on Linux Mint and Ubuntu.

Xfce
Credit: Xfce Project
Xfce

Xfce is one of the oldest desktop environments and is known for being extremely lightweight. It is the most feature rich and stable of the lightweight desktops.

Xfce is used by many special purpose distributions, such as Ubuntu Studio and Mythbuntu, as it keeps hardware resources free for the apps. Xfce is available on all major distributions.

LXQt
Credit: lxqt project
LXQt

LXQt is a work in progress desktop environment. It’s a merger of two other lightweight desktops – Razor Qt and LXDE -- and is supposed to be one of the most lightweight desktop environments out there.

The latest release of LXQt, 0.10.0, came back in November 2015, and the team’s focus remains on ‘cleanup, polishing and quality-of-life improvements.’

LXQt is yet to hit version 1.0 so I wouldn't consider using it on a production machine, but it’s a really interesting desktop environment for low-end machines. LXQt is available for all major distributions.

Budgie
Credit: Solus project
Budgie

Budgie is a new kid on the block. It’s the default desktop of Solus Operating System and is being developed by the Solus team -- from scratch.

It offers a minimalistic and modern UI that initially looked like Chrome OS. Despite being a totally new desktop, Budgie aims at tight integration with the Gnome stack to offer a Gnome-like experience to users.

Budgie is in a very early stage of development but it offers a pleasant experience. Budgie is available through Solus OS and Arch Linux users can also install it via AUR.