Knowing which desktop to choose within all the different Linux desktop environments available can quickly become overwhelming, especially if you are new to Linux. That is why ITgirl.tech created this special web 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, which is the present article, focuses on mainstream heavyweight Linux desktop environments.
  • The third and last part compares different lightweight desktop environments.

For those new to Linux, a desktop environment is basically what you already find on Windows or Mac. It is a bundle of programs running on your OS that share a common GUI (graphical user interface). The difference is that with Linux, you get to choose the desktop environment you want. Each one comes with its specific settings, themes, and customization, and it is even possible to install more than one DE (desktop environment). 

Those already familiar with this operating system might have heard that Linux offers some desktop environments which are known as “lightweight.” The other desktops, the “heavyweight” ones, are mainstream DEs. Your first Linux distribution probably used one of these by default, as they provide a smooth transition when jumping straight from a Windows or Mac operating system. 

What is a heavyweight desktop environment?

The threshold for what is considered a heavy DE is pretty arbitrary. However, the main consensus within the Linux community indicates that KDE, GNOME 3 and Cinnamon (a fork of GNOME 3) are amongst the most popular heavyweight desktops.

What makes a DE “heavy” is relative to the other desktop environments you can find in Linux. They are only referred to as such because of the existence of notably light desktop environments. In fact, “heavyweight” desktops aren’t that taxing on your computer’s hardware, and virtually all modern computers can run them seamlessly. As such, most first-time Linux users (and even Linux veterans) requiring a single desktop might want to choose a “heavy” desktop, hardware permitting.    

Some people, however, might require a lightweight desktop environment. What characterizes a lightweight DE is its low RAM usage, the absence of feature-rich customization and a bare-bone approach to pre-installed apps. As such, those using older hardware and those that want to run more than one Linux virtual machine benefit from a lightweight DE. Finally, some prefer to see most of their system’s resources used on apps rather than on the desktop itself.

I highly suggest trying out a mainstream, “heavy” desktop environment first, especially if you are a new Linux user. 

This article reviews KDE Plasma 5GNOME 3, and Cinnamon, as they are amongst the most popular DE choices. All three offer a desktop environment that feels intuitive and that provides features on par with what you are used to on macOS or Windows 10. As a bonus, due to their popularity, it is easy to find answers to your desktop-related questions within their respective online communities.     

The main advantages of mainstream (“heavy”) Linux desktop environments 

  • A beautiful, smooth design: A mainstream desktop environment, 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. 

For those wishing to use two desktop environments, I suggest choosing either two lightweight ones, or a lightweight desktop and one from the list below. Note that I don’t particularly recommend this practice LINK. Choosing to install two of the heavyweight desktop environments found below on the same operating system will most probably cause memory issues or at the very least subpar hardware performance.

You can find a detailed review of seven lightweight desktop environments in this ITgirl.tech article

Methodology and Considerations regarding KDE Plasma 5, GNOME 3, and Cinnamon

Note that for each desktop environment, I based the RAM usage on data I collected from several forums and other online resources. In them, I looked at how different users described their experience using the DE. I gathered information across a wide range of computers and Linux distributions.

For each desktop environment, I also indicated its underlying widget toolkit. That way, if you want to keep the same toolkit across all your desktops (lightweight or otherwise), you’ll easily be able to do so. Choosing two desktop environments that use the same one reduces the risks of compatibility issues.

A Detailed Review of Three Linux Desktop Environments

KDE Plasma 5

A visually stunning desktop environment, KDE Plasma 5 (the KDE graphical workspaces environment made especially for Linux) had its last stable release 5.16.5 on September 3rd, 2019. It is often considered one of everyone’s favorite heavyweight DE, and rightly so; I will let the picture galleries below speak for themselves.

  • Available on the following Linux distributions: Debian, Manjaro, Arch Linux, Fedora KDE, Kubuntu, KDE Neon, OpenSUSE, Linux Mint, and more (a full distributions list can be found here https://community.kde.org/Distributions).
  • RAM usage: Variable, but anything from 400-500 MB (KDE Neon, idle) to 600-900 MB. However, KDE got better with its RAM usage over the years, and idle KDE Plasma 5 is often around the 450-500 MB range. It can sometimes peak up to 1.1 GB or more, but this can be due to Linux borrowing unused memory for disk caching. Note that this has no impact on your running applications; if they want additional memory, they will take it from the disk cache borrowed.
  • Based on: N/A (KDE Plasma is not a fork of any other DE) 
  • Widget Toolkit used: Qt 
  • Pros: KDE Plasma 5 is an advanced DE that offers beautiful aesthetics, a high amount of features (such as a customizable amount of dedicated workspaces), a smooth user interface, comprehensive software compatibility, and is easy to customize. Compared to other heavy desktop environments such as GNOME 3, KDE Plasma 5 offers improved system caching and a comparatively lower memory usage.
  • Cons: Few, if any. It consumes more resources than lightweight desktops. Some of its components are not as streamlined as what you can find in other DEs that aren’t as highly customizable.

GALLERY (default desktop)

GALLERY (desktop examples with user customization)

All pictures courtesy of https://www.reddit.com

GNOME 3

GNOME 3 is the default DE found in Ubuntu and the third installment of GNOME and had its latest stable release 3.32.2 on May 8th, 2019. Its core characteristic is its smooth, slick user interface.

  • Available on the following Linux distributions: Fedora, Ubuntu, OpenSUSE, Arch Linux, Debian, Gentoo, Tumbleweed, Manjaro, GeckoLinux.
  • RAM usage: Initial Gnome-Shell usage is of approximately 100-200 MB (unless you run into memory leakage issues, in which case it can quickly skyrocket over 1 GB). GNOME 3 tends to use more RAM on average than KDE, especially with Ubuntu. Gnome-Shell RAM usage can also be close to 200-400 MB on Fedora, Debian or Arch Linux. However, usual idle memory usage is often said to be around 600-800 MB. With extensions or heavy customization, the total memory usage on idle is often closer to 800-900 MB or more. With programs running, it isn’t a rare occurrence to see memory usage upwards of 1.5-4 GB or more. As with KDE Plasma, some of this memory usage could be due to Linux borrowing unused memory for disk caching. As they say, “unused memory is wasted memory.” 
  • Based on: N/A (GNOME 3 is not a fork of any other DE) 
  • Widget Toolkit used: GTK 
  • Pros: GNOME 3 offers excellent features for those using a touch screen. Its four-finger swipe between desktops and its infinite workspaces are a big plus. The latest installment of GNOME 3 also greatly improved memory usage. As the default DE of Ubuntu, it comes ready out-of-the-box, which is especially useful for new Ubuntu users or those not wanting to spend time tinkering with desktop environments.
  • Cons: There are known Nvidia graphic card issues when using GNOME 3 with Ubuntu 18.10 (and still ongoing with 19.04). GNOME 3 is sometimes said to be crash-prone. Be aware that the Gnome-Shell is known to leak memory when used on a machine with hardware requiring Nvidia drivers.

GALLERY (default desktop)

GALLERY (desktop examples with user customization)

All pictures courtesy of https://www.reddit.com

Cinnamon

Cinnamon is the default desktop found in Linux Mint. Its latest stable version, 4.2.3, was released on July 25th, 2019. Even though Cinnamon is a fork of GNOME 3 created to fit Linux Mint design goals, this DE no longer supports GNOME 3 applets and desklets. Its elegant and conservative aesthetics are reminiscent of what can you can find in the Xfce and MATE desktop environments.

  • Available on the following Linux distributions: Linux Mint, Ubuntu (via a PPA), Fedora, OpenSUSE, Arch Linux, Gentoo, Mageia, Debian, Manjaro, Antergos.
  • RAM usage: The idle stock Cinnamon DE can use up to 500-700 MB without the use of any programs, and up to 850-950 MB when idle but customized. As with all Linux desktop environments, some of this memory usage could be due to Linux borrowing unused memory for disk caching.
  • Based on: GNOME 3
  • Widget Toolkit used: GTK 
  • Pros: Easy to use, gentle learning curve. Its streamlined and straightforward design makes it a great desktop environment for those trying Linux for the first time. It has all the essential features one expects to find in a desktop, which makes for a user-friendly desktop interface. You can also easily customize your DE through themes, applets, and extensions.
  • Cons: Cinnamon’s conservative – albeit beautiful – design might be too bare for some. Comparable lightweight desktop environments such as Xfce or MATE can offer a similar aesthetic at a lower memory cost (but at the expense of features and possible customization). Cinnamon is sometimes known to lag, which is due to its inherent single-threaded Gnome-Shell architecture.

GALLERY (default desktop)

GALLERY (desktop examples with user customization)

All pictures courtesy of https://www.reddit.com

Have a customized KDE Plasma 5, GNOME 3 or Cinnamon desktop? Send me a screenshot or add its Imgur link in the comment section below! Your personalized version of these Linux desktop environments will be credited and added to the image gallery.

© 2019, ITgirl.tech. All rights reserved.

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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