One of the things I liked the most when I embarked on my Linux journey was to discover all the customization this operating system offers. Not only is it possible to choose between a regular or lightweight distribution, but you also get to choose between many desktop environments. Just as with their distribution counterparts, Linux offers both “heavyweight” and “lightweight” DEs. If you are already using a lightweight distro, or wish to use a desktop with a light hardware footprint, then a lightweight desktop environment is all indicated. This ITgirl.tech article contains useful information for those new to Linux desktops. If you so wish, you can directly skip ahead to the review of MATE, Xfce, LXDE, LXQt, Budgie, Lumina, and Moksha. Otherwise, keep on reading!
Before Choosing a Lightweight Desktop Environment…
Before delving into a lightweight desktop environment comparison, it is important to review some concepts first.
- Are you planning on using a lightweight desktop environment because your computer’s components are old? If so, make sure that you are already using a lightweight Linux distribution. You can find a lightweight distro guide on ITgirl.tech by clicking HERE.
- Are you already using Linux and wish to add a second desktop environment to your OS? If so, I suggest reading the following recommendations from the Linux DE overview article.
- Are you planning on using many Linux applications? Then be aware that some of them might require a particular DE. All desktop environments rely on what is called a “widget toolkit,” and some apps require a particular one to function correctly. For example, an app that has the word “KDE” in it will probably require the Qt toolkit – the widget toolkit used by desktop environments such as KDE Plasma 5 and LXQt. You will need to install one of these DEs to use the app out-of-the-box.
Because the topic of DEs is quite vast, this article is part of a series dedicated to Linux Desktop Environments.
- The first part gives an overview of the Linux desktop environments. It answers questions such as:
- What are desktop environments?
- What is the difference between “heavyweight” and “lightweight” desktops?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of implementing more than one DE on your Linux distribution?
- The second part focuses on mainstream heavyweight Linux desktop environments.
- The third and last part, which is this article, gives an overview of lightweight desktop environments, and whether they are the best fit for your computer.
What makes a Linux desktop environment lightweight?
What constitutes a desktop environment that has little impact on your system’s performance is a somewhat arbitrary measurement. Take, for example, a laptop with 16 GB of RAM, a 500 GB SSD and the latest i9 processor. It will respond differently to a DE than one with lower hardware specs. That machine will boot any Linux desktop without seeing a considerable decline in hardware performance. As such, for its user, all Linux DEs can be “lightweight.”
However, someone with a computer running 8 GB of RAM, a 125 GB HDD and an i5 processor would greatly benefit from a minimalistic and unbloated DE. Using a heavier one could negatively impact the user’s experience and lead to lagging or other performance issues.
To a certain extent, the factor that will dictate whether a DE is heavyweight or not is the overall RAM available on the computer.
However, some other parameters make a desktop environment lighter when idle, such as its architecture and the presence or absence of extensions and heavy customization.
Why choosing a lightweight DE?
What you intend to do on your Linux OS is crucial when considering which DE to choose. If you like to keep twenty tabs opened while editing pictures and streaming music, then a lightweight DE is ideal. It is better to see your memory being used to cater to Firefox and multimedia software than to desktop widgets or extensions.
Another main advantage of lightweight desktop environments is that you can use them in conjunction with another desktop within the same operating system. If it is something you wish to do, then choosing two lightweight desktop environments is the best option. If your hardware permits, then selecting a heavy desktop and one of the lightweight desktops below could also do the trick!
There exist many Linux desktop environments that are considered lightweight. At ITgirl.tech, the focus is on seven of them: MATE, Xfce, LXDE, LXQt, Budgie, Lumina, and Moksha.
There exist other, even lighter desktop environments such as Openbox, Enlightenment (which uses the same architecture as Moksha), Xmonad, and i3. Of these, Openbox and i3 are amongst the most often talked about and seen being customized on the different forums dedicated to Unix and Linux desktop environments.
However, these desktops are not amongst the most user-friendly. As ITgirl.tech aims to be as inclusive as possible to Linux newcomers and others alike, elaborating on them is best left for another day. In the meantime, head over to Ricardo Gerardi’s article on OpenSource for a detailed write-up of the advantages of using the i3 desktop environment.
Because knowing which DE to choose often requires comparing different ones first, I created a review for each of the seven lightweight DEs mentioned above. In it, you will find:
- A description of the DE
- Its official website
- Its compatible Linux distributions
- Its RAM usage
- Its widget toolkit and the DE it is based on (if the desktop is a fork of another DE)
- The pros and cons of the DE
- Two picture galleries: one that displays the “vanilla” desktop, and one that shows user customization (to give you ideas!).
CLICK HERE to read ITgirl.tech’s review of the MATE, Xfce, LXDE, LXQt, Budgie, Lumina, and Moksha lightweight desktop environments.