Knowing which desktop is the best Linux DE is not always clear-cut. That is why taking a look at a desktop environment comparison is a handy way of knowing which DE offers is the best fit for your distro.

Unlike with Windows or Mac, Linux offers different desktops, each one coming with its specific settings, themes, and customization. It is even possible to install more than one DE (but more on that later).

Because the topic of DEs is quite vast, this article is part of a series dedicated to Linux Desktop Environments.

  • The first part, which is this article, 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 part compares different lightweight desktop environments.

What is a Desktop Environment 

For those new to Linux, a desktop environment (DE) is an essential part of your operating system that you can find on virtually all computers. It represents a bundle of programs running on your OS that all share a common graphical user interface. Windows and Mac users do not have a choice between different desktop environments. However, Linux users do. 

Ever since the first mainstream use of desktop environments in the 1990s (1984 for Apple users), it is rare to find a computer that relies solely on the Terminal (text-based commands).

A relic of the past, the 1984 Macintosh

One of the advantages of Linux is that your preferred desktop environment is almost always available on your distribution of choice. Whether you opt for a traditional distro (LINK) or prefer lightweight distribution alternatives (LINK), your OS will have the visuals and user-interface preferences of your favorite DE.

DEs and their relation to Linux distributions

If you are new to Linux, you might wonder why you sometimes see words such as Cinnamon, MATE or Xfce in the name of a Linux distro ISO image.  

Screenshot showing disc image files for Linux Mint
Example of a Linux distro (Linux Mint: https://linuxmint.com/download.php) integrating the DEs within each ISO image

These, along with KDE Plasma, Cinnamon, GNOME, and others, are examples of the many different desktop environments you can find on Linux. 

Some Linux distributions, such as Linux Mint or Ubuntu, ask the users to choose in advance the desktop environment they will want to use. They do this by dedicating a specific DE to each of their distro disc images. In Linux Mint, for example, you will have to choose right away between an ISO file that contains either Cinnamon, MATE or Xfce.

On the other hand, Ubuntu, unlike Linux Mint, doesn’t provide this DE choice on its main download page. Instead, when landing on it, you will see a choice between downloading one of the two standard versions, which both use GNOME 3 as their default desktop. To choose a different desktop environment, you will have to access the alternative flavors page. From there, you will find download links for versions that use different DEs such as Xfce, LXQt, or KDE. Note that if you downloaded the default Ubuntu DE and now want to switch to a different desktop, it is possible to do so.

Choosing the Best Desktop Environment for Your OS

Selecting the best Linux desktop environment will depend on your particular computer needs and preferences. Generally speaking, it is always better to stick to a single desktop environment per operating system. 

However, if you are familiar with Debian, you might wonder why, upon booting this distro for the first time, you have the opportunity to choose more than one desktop environment.

How to know which desktop is the best Linux DE for you? Screenshot of the DE selection in Debian.
Screenshot of the Debian OS installer, showing the DE software selection.

Debian is an outlier when it comes to the one DE rule. It is amongst the few distributions that give the users the possibility of implementing several desktop environments during the installation of the OS. However, beware that by installing several DEs, you risk running into incompatibility issues. 

Because there are many desktop environments, finding out which one is the best Linux DE is subjective. It is best to take the time to review both “heavy” and “lightweight” desktops and to look at their hardware requirements, features, and appearance. 

What makes a DE lightweight or heavyweight 

What constitutes a desktop environment that has little impact on your system’s performance is a somewhat arbitrary measurement. However, several factors can make some DEs lighter than the mainstream desktops (such as KDE Plasma or GNOME) available today. These are:

  • The RAM usage of the desktop on idle: an idle memory usage below 350 MB is considered low. As with any other desktop, however, once applications are running the RAM usage will increase significantly.  
  • The absence of feature-rich customization such as widgets: one of the main factors when deciding whether a DE is lightweight or not is its extra “gadgets.” A desktop full of personalizable features will always be more bloated than a minimalist, frills-free desktop with few customization settings. Be aware that this same characteristic, which makes DEs lightweight, also often makes them seem to have a plain (and sometimes unattractive) design.   
  • A bare-bone approach to pre-installed apps: a desktop full of pre-installed apps is a breeze to use out-of-the-box. However, those looking for a tiny DE will often opt to have as few pre-installed apps as possible, and to manually at them to their desktop as they need.  

As for the factors that make a DE “heavyweight,” these tend to be: 

  • A beautiful, smooth design: a mainstream DE such as GNOME looks modern and visually pleasing out-of-the-box. It can offer options that you cannot find on lightweight, traditional-looking DEs, such as being touch-friendly.  
  • High customization, often seamlessly integrated within the DE: a desktop environment like KDE Plasma 5 offers a myriad of themes and personalizable settings, all readily available from the KDE store. Lightweight DEs, when (and if) they provide a high level of customization, often require a more complex implementation of these additional themes and settings.  
Collage of different desktop environments
Example of customized desktops (includes both lightweight and heavyweight DEs)

If after having checked out lightweight and heavyweight desktop options, you realize that you want to install more than one of them on your distro, consider the factors below.

Why opting for a single DE is best for your Linux OS

  • Having a single desktop environment allows for an optimum experience when using your OS. By having more than one desktop environment, you are taxing your computer’s hardware. A single desktop will always be better for your RAM than having two or more desktop environments installed.
  • If you are new to Linux, choosing a single desktop environment feels more intuitive and on par with what you can find on Mac or Windows. It also allows you to familiarize yourself with Linux, without the additional toll of having to learn about two different desktops components (settings, app center, design, etc.).
  • Having two or more desktops can result in incompatibility issues and duplicate packages and files. If you are lucky, you might have duplicates and can live with that. If you’re unlucky, you will have to troubleshoot the compatibility issues yourself or live with a somewhat broken OS. Troubleshooting might involve compiling .tar.gz packages, or find other solutions that are not guaranteed to work but sure to cause headaches down the line.
  • Even a single desktop environment will offer the opportunity to switch between different virtual desktops. This feature, called “workspaces,” is almost always available. Its configuration will depend on your desktop environment of choice. Using this feature, you can dedicate workspace to a particular goal, such as programming, gaming, working, or entertainment.

The Exception: When the Best Linux Desktop Is Two Desktops

Choosing the best Linux desktop environment for your computer isn’t always easy. There are instances when it is valuable to install two desktops. That is especially the case if a particular app isn’t available on the primary desktop environment you intend on using

Indeed, some applications are only available on specific desktops as their packages will depend upon a particular widget toolkit. That happens with apps that are GNOME-specific, as they rely on the GTK library. Note that apps that depend on GNOME will also work on all its DE derivatives including GNOME 3, MATE, Budgie and Cinnamon. 

A similar situation can also happen with Qt-specific apps, such as the ones made for KDE or LXQt. A way of knowing if your app requires Qt is when its name includes “KDE.” Sometimes, an app that uses the letter “K” instead of “C” (such as Konqueror) is also an indicator of a KDE program.    

If you require the use of more than one desktop environments, here are some recommendations:

  • Stick to two desktop environments. Not three or four, as fun as the novelty might be.
  • If you aren’t running two desktop environments due to some apps requiring a different widget toolkit, then use the same one for both your DEs. Doing so will reduce the risk of incompatibility issues. For instance, you could use two GTK-based or Qt-based desktop environments:
    • GTK → GNOME 3, Cinnamon, MATE, Xfce, Budgie, LXDE
    • Qt → KDE Plasma 5, Lumina, LXQt
  • If possible, choose two lightweight desktop environments (click HERE for an ITgirl.tech comparative review of seven lightweight DEs). Otherwise, stick to one lightweight desktop and a heavier one (KDE, GNOME 3, Cinnamon). Be realistic in what your computer’s specs might handle. Ideally, your RAM should be available for your projects rather than be taken up by your desktop.
  • Be ready to do some troubleshooting. A basic understanding of package compilation, and getting to know the different Linux resources (LINK) available, are a good start.

Which Linux desktop environments are there? 

At ITgirl.tech, you will find the summary, detailed feature breakdown, and screenshots of some of the most user-friendly Desktop Environments found on Linux:

  • Heavy Desktop Environments (KDE, GNOME 3, Cinnamon)
  • Lightweight Desktop Environments (MATE, Xfce, LXDE, LXQt, Budgie, Lumina, Moksha)

Overall, you get a comparative review of ten desktop environments, each one with its own set of two picture galleries (one with stock DE settings, and one displaying user-customized desktops).

To see ITgirl.tech’s review of heavy desktop environments, click HERE. For those looking for the lightweight DEs comparative review, click HERE

Bonus: How to switch between desktop environments

Now that you have selected the best Linux desktops for your computer needs, you might wonder how to switch between them. To do so, you first have to log out of your current session. It is essential to do so, as you cannot switch between desktop environments while working within an opened session. Then, once you are on the main login page, you will see an icon (usually a gear). By clicking on it, you will be able to select the best Linux DE choice for your upcoming session. 

Choosing the best Linux environment sometimes involve switching between different DEs, depending on your current needs.
Example of a desktop environment selection from my VirtualBox Ubuntu setup

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Larryssa
Owner and content creator behind ITgirl.tech. Geeky girl and blogger based in Montreal, Canada. Chocolate and nature lover (in that order). View all posts by Larryssa →

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