You can tell from a mile away whether a screenshot is Windows or Mac. This is because both commercial operating systems only have a desktop environment. Windows has the Start menu and the taskbar, while macOS has the legendary Dock and menu bar.
However, if you search for Linux, you will see images that are very different from each other:
This diversity arises from the fact that Linux offers much more than a desktop environment. This is part of what makes Linux exciting to use, but the breadth of choices can make it difficult to pick the one that's right for you. That's why we've compiled this list of the best Linux desktop environments.
GNOME is currently the most popular Linux desktop environment. This is the default setting in several major Linux-based operating systems such as Ubuntu and Fedora.
GNOME has a design that works for both touch-based devices and traditional personal computers. A single control panel sits at the top of the screen, much like a mobile device. Instead of a dock or window list, users interact with windows by opening an activity overview that shows apps, open software, and virtual desktops.
The developers at GNOME use the GIMP Toolkit (GTK +), which may appear when deciding which apps to install.
Want a good look at GNOME? Check out Fedora.
KDE Plasma is arguably the best Linux desktop environment for people who like to tinker with their computer's user interface. Each screen component is a widget that you can move, resize, or delete. With enough crafting, you can configure the Plasma desktop to look and feel like any other desktop surface.
Software developed for KDE usually offers a variety of options. These apps are some of the most powerful that the Linux desktop has to offer. Side note: KDE developers are using Qt instead of GTK +.
Want a good look at KDE Neon? Go to neon.kde.org.
Cinnamon is the standard interface for Linux Mint, one of the most widely used versions of Linux. It started as a fork of GNOME at a time when that interface was undergoing drastic changes.
Cinnamon retains a more traditional experience that makes long-time Windows users feel right at home.
Many love cinnamon for its combination of familiarity and ease of use. This Linux desktop offers a mix of adopting new ideas and sticking to the old way of doing things.
Want a good look at cinnamon Check out Linux Mint.
At a time when the Cinnamon project was pushing GNOME, the MATE community was formed to preserve what already existed. If you don't want to upgrade to GNOME 3.0, MATE offers an option to continue using 2.x.
The MATE developers put the time and effort into updating the background code, but by and large this still seems to be what many people thought was the best Linux desktop environment over a decade ago.
The lack of change has not limited acceptance either. Newbies often see MATE as a lighter, more traditional alternative to GNOME, a role played by the next desktop on this list.
Do you want a good look at MATE? Check out Ubuntu MATE.
Xfce, whose mascot is a mouse, has long existed as a fast interface for Linux computers. It is not based on GNOME but uses the same toolkit.
These days, Xfce feels like a comparable alternative to MATE. The developers continue to place a high value on keeping the user interface bright, even if it means going without the latest bells and whistles.
With a relatively small development team, there is often a long time lag between updates. The result is that, like MATE, Xfce hasn't changed too much over the years. But many people like the desktop environment as a proven and reliable choice.
Want a good look at xfce? Look at Xubuntu.
Pantheon is the desktop environment of an elementary operating system and one of the few Linux interfaces that are so explicitly linked to a Linux-based operating system.
At first glance, Pantheon may look like macOS. There is a control panel at the top and a dock at the bottom. Apps offer a stylish and uniform design. However, much of Pantheon's design language stems from the founder's original experience developing for GNOME.
With the elementary project's innovative Pay-What-You-Want payment scheme, Pantheon has become a hotbed for new Linux apps. These apps, like the desktop itself, are a departure from the traditional Linux approach. Pantheon is not very customizable or expandable. That is arguably its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.
Want a good look at pantheon Look at the elementary operating system.
Budgie is a relatively young desktop environment that emerged from the Solus project. It offers a stripped-down user interface that may still feel modern, unlike MATE and Xfce. The design language applies more to the new, even if some of the old desktop paradigms remain.
Much of the early inspiration for Budgie came from Chrome OS and mobile apps. While Budgie feels simpler than some of the other options, there are still plenty of ways you can tweak this Linux desktop to make it feel like your own.
Want a good look at Budgie? Check out Solus.
Photo credit: UBports
Unity is the former standard interface for Ubuntu, the most popular version of desktop Linux. With Ubuntu 17.10, Canonical stopped developing Unity and instead provided the GNOME desktop.
There are still plenty of Unity fans out there and lots of computers still running the aging interface. Even though Canonical may support the project longer, the code is still there for others to adopt and use as they see fit.
Want a good look at Unity? Check out older versions of Ubuntu.
Image credit: Lubuntu
LXDE is a fast, light and energy efficient desktop environment. Based on GTK +, you can check if even Xfce is running slowly on your computer or if alternatives just feel too bloated for your tastes.
LXDE is modular, which means it is not all or nothing. You can replace the standard OpenBox window manager with an alternative. Regardless of whether it is the session manager, the network manager or the sound server, you can swap it out for something else for free.
Want a good look at LXDE? Test Lubuntu up to version 18.04.
Image Credit: LXQt
There are a handful of desktop interfaces based on GTK +. Less are designed for Qt apps. If you find KDE Plasma to be something a lot, LXQt may be faster.
LXQt was created from the merger of the Qt port of LXDE and Razor-Qt. The latter no longer exists and LXQt has become the successor to LXDE. As a result, this desktop may feel a little more modern while still running on older computers.
Want a good look at LXQt? Check out versions of Lubuntu since October 18
Photo credit: Enlightenment
The Enlightenment began over a decade ago as an interface for desktop computers. It hasn't gained much acceptance among Linux users, but it remains available and functional. The art style is more skeuomorphic than the cartoony images often seen on other free desktops.
Today, education has spread to mobile devices, wearables, and televisions. Enlightenment is the window manager and compositor used in Tizen.
Do you want a good look at enlightenment? Look at Elive.
Photo credit: sugar on a stick
Sugar is a desktop environment designed to help children learn. It's downright simple, not in a minimalist sense, but in terms of complexity. Hence, it is one of the best Linux desktops for kids out there.
Sugar comes from Sugar Labs, a nonprofit that is run by volunteers. The project not only offers a desktop environment, but also simple apps. These tools are in place to help educators get children used to computers in areas of limited economic resources.
Want a good look at Sugar? Check out Sugar on a Stick (no longer available).
Have fun with your Linux desktop environment
While I've suggested several ways to try each desktop, these are hardly the only methods. Most Linux-based operating systems allow you to swap the standard desktop for another. Many offer variants that offer a different interface.
The options don't end there either. To learn more about changing how apps appear on the screen, check out the difference between GTK + and Qt.
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About the author
(324 articles published)
Bertel is a digital minimalist who writes from a laptop with physical privacy switches and an operating system recommended by the Free Software Foundation. He values ethics over functions and helps others take control of their digital lives.
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