When choosing a lightweight desktop environment such as Xfce, LXQt, Budgie, or one of the many others available, you have to consider several factors. That is why ITgirl.tech created this handy guide that reviews seven lightweight desktops: MATE, Xfce, LXDE, LXQt, Budgie, Lumina, and Moksha. For each DE, 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!). 

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

  • The first part gives an overview of 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 the present article, gives an overview of lightweight desktop environments.

Methodology and Considerations regarding Xfce, LXQt, Budgie and the other DEs

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.

I also focused on lightweight DEs that use popular widget toolkits. That way, if you want to keep the same one across all your desktops (which I highly recommend), you’ll easily be able to do so. Choosing two desktop environments that use the same widget toolkit reduces the risks of compatibility issues.

A review of MATE, Xfce, LXDE, LXQt, Budgie, Lumina, and Moksha

MATE

A fork of GNOME 2, MATE had its latest stable release 1.22 on March 18th, 2019 (as of October 2019). It is a desktop environment best suited for those looking for a traditional, seamlessly working desktop. Its infrastructure has been around for years, which means that MATE has been thoroughly tested and is thus less prone to bugs, lags, and crashes. Even though GNOME 2 is no longer maintained, the creators of MATE keep on updating and improving the DE so you can enjoy this desktop even with modern hardware.

  • MATE is available on these Linux distributions: Antergos, Arch Linux, Debian, Fedora, Gentoo, Linux Mint, Manjaro, openSUSE, PCLinuxOS, Ubuntu MATE, and more.
  • RAM usage: Variable, but you can expect an idle memory usage of around 250-350 MB, depending on the distribution you are using. Ubuntu will use more than Debian, for example. Once you launch applications, however, expect higher RAM usage (as is the case on any desktop environment). That is especially the case when opening many tabs in an internet navigator. In that instance, the RAM usage can skyrocket to 2 GB or more. Remember that a spike in memory usage can be due to Linux borrowing unused RAM for disk caching. This caching has no impact on your running applications. If your applications require additional RAM, they will take it from the disk cache borrowed.
  • Based on: GNOME 2
  • Widget Toolkit used: GTK
  • Pros: MATE is a lightweight desktop offering a simple, intuitive user-interface. Unlike some other desktop environments in its category, it allows for the customization of many of its settings and tools, including applets, buttons, menus, and other visual components.
  • Cons: Because MATE is a fork of an older desktop environment (GNOME 2, active from 2001 to 2011), its aesthetics are traditional with only a touch of modernism. Visually speaking, MATE could be said to look similar to what you could find during that period, which might be off-putting to some users.

GALLERY (default desktop)

GALLERY (desktop examples with user customization)

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

Xfce

Probably THE most popular lightweight DE for those looking for a minimalist and no-frills desktop, Xfce has been around since 1996. It had its latest stable release on August 12th, 2019, with updates being provided frequently. This desktop environment passed the test of time. It is, after all, over 23 years and still hugely popular! As such, it isn’t hard to guess that one of its main selling points is its stability, durability, and low CPU and RAM usage.

  • Xfce is available on these Linux distributions: Debian, Manjaro (default desktop), Linux Mint, OpenSUSE, Mageia, Xubuntu (default desktop), PCLinuxOS, QubesOS (default desktop), Kali Linux, GeckoLinux and others (more info here).
  • RAM usage: You can expect idle memory usage of approximately 350 to 500 MB. If your computer’s OS is a distribution like Arch Linux, Debian or Manjaro, the memory used on idle can drop as low as 375 MB or less. As Xfce offers little in the way of customization or gadgets, this number should not vary by much. There might be the occasional outlier at 675 MB, but it’s the exception more than the rule. Its low memory footprint will, however, be affected by Linux borrowing unused memory for disk caching and the use of applications. Those factors often result in a total RAM usage of 1 GB or more.
  • Based on: N/A (Xfce is not a fork of any other DE) 
  • Widget Toolkit used: GTK 3 (full GTK 3 port happened August 12th, 2019 with the 4.14 stable release)
  • Pros: Xfce is the perfect DE for those wanting to focus on the programs they are using and have the desktop stay out of the way. With its seamless design integration (inherent to its simplicity) and low crash rate, it is a favorite of those who like the bare-bones, retro look of a DE with no gizmos or fluff. The fact that it offers little in terms of customization can be a good thing. Indeed, adding extensions and tools to your DE can affect the RAM usage and thus the performance of older computers. It can also come with a slight risk of experiencing lags or crashes. Xfce is perfect for minimalists and people who don’t want or like to tinker with personalization. If you are running older hardware, Xfce might also be an ideal choice. Finally, if after installing Linux you like to jump straight into using your computer’s applications, Xfce is all indicated. It provides a smooth experience with an interface that is easy to configure, learn, and use.
  • Cons: Xfce is the type of desktop that you either love or do not care for at all. Bluntly told, Xfce’s vanilla aesthetics could be considered by most as being unappealing. For those that either like its minimalist design or need a desktop that isn’t intrusive or RAM hungry, then Xfce is perfect. However, people that wish for a more aesthetically pleasing (i.e., modern) desktop experience might want to consider another desktop environment. Xfce’s lack of customization is also considered either a great thing, or a bad thing. That will depend on your computer’s hardware and what you want to use Linux for. There is an Xfce project page (https://xfce.org/projects) for those that want to install additional applications, artwork, or plugins. However, introducing many of these in your DE defeats Xfce’s primary purpose. After all, one of its highlights is its simple design and its light hardware footprint. Finally, it is also worth noting that Xfce isn’t touch-friendly.

GALLERY (default desktop)

GALLERY (desktop examples with user customization)

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

LXDE

The LXDE desktop environment was launched in 2006 and had its latest stable release 0.99.2 on November 22nd, 2016. Even though LXDE is still currently in use (and is the default desktop environment of several Linux distributions), the author of this desktop is presently porting it. Indeed, its newest versions use a different widget toolkit (Qt instead of the currently used GTK+) and are now known as LXQt. Even though LXDE and its new Qt port LXQt are coexisting, expect that once the port is complete that LXDE won’t be maintained longterm. For now, though, we can still enjoy LXDE as a lightweight Linux desktop as the author announced no official end-of-maintenance date.

  • LXDE is available on these Linux distributions: Debian, Lubuntu (default desktop), Arch Linux, Peppermint Linux OS (default desktop), Fedora, Gentoo, OpenSUSE, Manjaro and more.
  • RAM usage: As LXDE offers a bare-bones desktop environment, it is not surprising to find an idle memory usage as low as 250 MB or less. To give an idea of just how little this desktop’s RAM usage is, the official LXDE SourceForge website recommends using a computer with 512 MB of RAM for an optimal experience. Seeing as how most computers nowadays have 8 GB of RAM or more, you can rest assured that this DE should be extremely responsive at all times. As always, the actual memory usage will depend on several factors, such as the applications opened and whether or not Linux is borrowing unused memory for disk caching. Note that disk caching has no impact on your running applications. If they want additional memory, they will take it from the borrowed disk cache.
  • Based on: N/A (LXDE is not a fork of any other DE) 
  • Widget Toolkit used: GTK+ 2
  • Pros: LXDE is exceptionally lightweight and an excellent choice for those using older technology. As LXDE uses the GTK toolkit, it can be a great choice as a second desktop environment for those wishing to install two GTK desktops. For example, you can install LXDE alongside Cinnamon, MATE, GNOME 3, or Xfce. Another advantage of this desktop is its portability. As each of its components can be used independently and require few dependencies, you can use LXDE on almost any Linux distribution. This DE also comes with several configuration tools and offers more customization than other lightweight desktops showing similarly low memory usage.
  • Cons: LXDE’s aesthetics are traditional and could be considered outdated. The fact that it is becoming deprecated in favor of LXQt means that eventually LXDE is bound to be replaced by its Qt counterpart.

GALLERY (default desktop)

GALLERY (desktop examples with user customization)

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

LXQt

Being the Qt-based version of LXDE, LXQt is a lightweight desktop environment that offers an even lighter footprint and more features than its GTK2-based counterpart LXDE. LXQt’s initial release was in 2013, and its latest stable release 0.14.1 was on February 26th, 2019. If you are hesitating between LXDE and LXQt, I would recommend choosing the latter. LXQt receives more frequent updates and releases as LXDE is quickly becoming deprecated. If you ever encounter a bug or use brand new technology, there is also a better chance of finding community-driven support for LXQt than for LXDE.

  • LXQt is available on these Linux distributions: Lubuntu (default desktop), Arch Linux, Chakra, Debian, Fedora, Gentoo, Mageia, Manjaro, OpenSUSE and more.
  • RAM usage: Variable, but expect between 250 MB and 350 MB on idle. As always, memory usage will depend on the applications running and on whether or not Linux is borrowing unused memory for disk caching. However, as goes the adage, “unused RAM is wasted RAM.”
  • Based on: LXDE (as an architecture port from GTK2 to Qt)
  • Widget Toolkit used: Qt
  • Pros: At first glance, LXQt and LXDE are somewhat similar; however, changing themes has been made easier on LXQt, as is customization in general. As LXQt uses the same widget toolkit as KDE, you will find that its aesthetics are more reminiscent of KDE. As such, they are more pleasing to the eye than what you will find on most lightweight desktop environments. The fact that it is using the same basis as KDE Plasma 5 means that LXQt is also a great option as a second, lightweight DE for those already running KDE.
  • Cons: Just as its predecessor LXDE, LXQt uses a modular system where many components can be used independently from one another. However, unlike with LXDE which required few if any dependencies, some of LXQt’s modules require dependencies from the Qt and KDE Frameworks 5. Not a big issue in itself, but something worth knowing.

GALLERY (default desktop)

GALLERY (desktop examples with user customization)

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

Budgie

Initially developed as the default desktop for the Evolve OS distro (later known as Solus), Budgie’s first release was in December 2013. Its latest stable release 10.5 was on March 17th, 2019.

  • Official website: Information regarding this desktop environment will vary depending upon each distribution where Budgie is available.
  • Budgie is available on these Linux distributions: Ubuntu Budgie (default desktop), Arch Linux, Manjaro, Solus (default desktop), Debian, GeckoLinux.
  • RAM usage: Variable. This variation can be due to Linux borrowing unused memory for disk caching. I couldn’t find much in terms of concrete numbers for this particular DE’s RAM usage. If you use Budgie, feel free to send some data my way
  • Based on: N/A (Budgie is not a fork of any other DE; however, it heavily relies on GNOME technology)
  • Widget Toolkit used: GTK 3
  • Pros: Budgie offers a gorgeous minimalist aesthetic with an intuitive user-interface and smoothly integrated features. It provides an automatic update of the user’s favorites list, integrates notification similarly to MacOS, and offers an integrated sidebar. With these features, Budgie provides a gentle learning curve to those new to Linux. As it incorporates the GNOME stack and uses GTK and header bars similar to the applications found in GNOME, Budgie is a great lightweight alternative to GNOME 3.
  • Cons: Budgie is available on a relatively small number of Linux distributions.

GALLERY (default desktop)

GALLERY (desktop examples with user customization)

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

Lumina

Lumina was specially designed for TrueOS (a Berkeley Software Distribution) but is now available on several Linux distributions. Its latest stable release 1.5.0 was on April 29th, 2019. Not as much information can found about this desktop environment as with other, more popular ones such as MATE, Xfce, or LXDE. However, I still chose to include it in this list as the architecture it is based on (Qt) is the same as for LXQt and KDE Plasma 5. That makes Lumina an excellent choice as a second desktop environment for those already using one of these desktops. Moreover, it is also a great option as a standalone lightweight DE as it uses the visually pleasing features typical of Qt-based desktops.

  • Lumina is available on these Linux distributions: Arch Linux, Debian, Fedora, Gentoo, Manjaro, PCLinuxOS and more.
  • RAM usage: Variable. The actual memory usage will depend on several factors, such as the applications opened and whether or not Linux is borrowing unused memory for disk caching. Just as with Budgie, I couldn’t find much information regarding this DE’s actual RAM usage. If you use Lumina, feel free to send some data my way
  • Based on: N/A (Lumina is not a fork of any other DE) 
  • Widget Toolkit used: Qt
  • Pros: Lumina offers a dynamically configured desktop and applications menu. Furthermore, it provides all the basics one expects to find in a desktop, such as a start menu, task manager, system tray, application shortcuts, file manager, and more. Lumina’s desktop has a clean, beautiful appearance that is fuss-free and easy to use.
  • Cons: If you ever experience crashing or incompatibility issues, you might find it more challenging to encounter troubleshooting solutions. The online Lumina community isn’t as big as what you see with other, more prominent desktop environments. Some of Lumina’s advanced features (such as hardware-controlled screen brightness) are specific to TrueOS.

GALLERY (default desktop)

GALLERY (desktop examples with user customization)

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

Moksha

Unlike other desktops presented in this article, Moksha uses a somewhat rare toolkit, EFL. You will mostly find the Enlightenment Foundation Libraries (EFL) on the Enlightenment (E22) desktop. Moksha’s current stable version is 0.3.0, released on July 1st, 2018. Even though this DE isn’t as popular as other desktops, it still deserves mention on this list. After all, it is a beautiful, lightweight desktop and the default DE of Bodhi Linux, a lightweight distro which I quite enjoy for its streamlined, no-frills approach.

  • Moksha is available on these Linux distributions: Bodhi Linux (default desktop), Debian, Sabayon Linux. According to the desktop’s author, Moksha is compatible with all Linux-based platforms. 
  • RAM usage: Moksha’s RAM usage on idle is extremely low, even for a lightweight desktop. You can expect numbers below the 150 MB mark. Unsurprising after all, as Bodhi Linux RAM requirements are only 128 MB and it runs using Moksha as its default desktop. As always, actual memory usage will vary depending on your opened applications and on whether or not Linux is borrowing unused memory for disk caching.
  • Based on: Enlightenment 17
  • Widget Toolkit used: Enlightenment Foundation Libraries (EFL) (technically a set of graphics libraries)
  • Pros: Moksha’s RAM usage is amongst the lowest I have ever seen, sitting at around 100 to 150 MB on idle. This DE comes ready out-of-the-box, with all the necessary default applications one expects. You can also fetch additional packages through its integrated AppCenter. Advanced users might also want to install Synaptic from the AppCenter to access Ubuntu’s vast array of software applications. Its streamlined approach is best for those that want an uncomplicated desktop environment. It serves this purpose well by providing a simple and elegant design, free of clutter. Moksha also offers additional customization through the use of modules (https://github.com/JeffHoogland/moksha-modules-extra). However, if you are new to Linux, it might be best to stick to the default customization settings. Indeed, the additional modules require compiling, which isn’t necessarily a beginner-friendly procedure.
  • Cons: As somewhat of an underdog and a fork of Enlightenment 17, Moksha and Bodhi Linux often go hand-in-hand. If you like this distro, this is excellent news. However, those new to Linux might prefer looking at a DE that is popular with mainstream distros users. If you opt for this DE, I highly suggest getting familiar with the Bodhi Linux forum (https://www.linuxquestions.org/questions/bodhi-92/) as it is the official way by which to ask questions regarding Moksha.

GALLERY (default desktop)

GALLERY (desktop examples with user customization)

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

Have a lightweight desktop environment that you would like to see covered in this article? Leave its name in the comment section below!

© 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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