For this ITgirl.tech tutorial on how to switch your Ubuntu desktop, we are using GNOME 3 as the default desktop environment. You might wonder why we are using this particular desktop environment (DE) instead of, let’s say, Xfce or LXDE. The fact is, your current DE doesn’t matter that much. However, some of you might prefer to choose a different desktop than GNOME 3, which is the one provided by default on Ubuntu. Apart from specific technicalities, the procedure remains the same, whatever your existing DE. You might be perfectly fine with GNOME 3 (even considering its history) and wish instead to switch for example from KDE Plasma to LXQt. As long as you are using Ubuntu, you can use this guide to change whatever desktop you want. 

Why trying an alternative to the GNOME 3 Ubuntu desktop environment?

  • GNOME 3 is the default Ubuntu desktop. When you download the official disc image from the main distro’s download page, this is the DE you get, like it or not. So it might not have been your preferred option.
  • Your computer uses older hardware and has limited RAM capacity. If so, you might be better off switching to a lightweight desktop environment.
  • You intend to use applications that rely on a different widget toolkit than GNOME’s GTK, such as Qt (the widget toolkit behind KDE Plasma 5 and LXQt).
  • You’d prefer to use a desktop environment that integrates its components differently (let it be for aesthetics, design, or usability).

If you’d like to get a feel for a desktop environment before committing to it, you might want to try installing different Ubuntu flavors on a virtual machine. Ubuntu comes in many variations, called “flavors.” Each one comes with a specific desktop environment, all working with Ubuntu out-of-the-box. By booting the distro from a VM, you will be able to test the DE without affecting your actual operating system. 

There are many Ubuntu flavors, but here are some popular ones to choose from:

  • Kubuntu (Ubuntu with KDE)
  • Ubuntu MATE
  • Xubuntu (Ubuntu with Xfce)
  • Lubuntu (Ubuntu with LXQt)

You can find the download link for all the Ubuntu flavors here: https://ubuntu.com/download/flavours.


If you are unsure of which desktop environment to choose, consider this ITgirl.tech series dedicated to Linux desktop environments.

Keep in mind that this tutorial shows how to add a desktop environment from within the one you are currently using. If you don’t remove the previous DE after completing this procedure, you will thus have two desktops. See the instructions at the bottom of this article on how to remove your old Ubuntu DE. More often than not, it is best to stick to one or two maximum.

Note that if you recently installed the stock version of Ubuntu (LINK), then you might want to consider scrapping it. Indeed, if you haven’t customized your distro yet, added tons of apps or saved many files, a new install is a great solution. By downloading an alternative distro flavor that uses your Ubuntu desktop of choice, you will readily get a fully configured OS with your favorite DE.  

Of course, this solution only works for fresh Ubuntu installs. For everyone else, follow the procedure below. 

This ITgirl.tech step-by-step guide will help you switch your Ubuntu desktop from GNOME 3 to one of the following alternatives: KDE Plasma 5Cinnamon, and MATE

How to install a new Ubuntu desktop

KDE Plasma 5

Before installing your new desktop environment, make sure that your system is up to date and upgraded.

$ sudo apt update && sudo apt upgrade

Ubuntu's Terminal

Access the Terminal by clicking on the main Ubuntu icon and searching for “terminal.”

Install the tasksel package. As per the official Ubuntu website, “tasksel is a Debian/Ubuntu tool that installs multiple related packages as a co-ordinated “task” onto your system.” (source: https://help.ubuntu.com/community/Tasksel). You will need this tool to install KDE on your Ubuntu system.

$ sudo apt install tasksel

Ubuntu's Terminal - changing your Ubuntu desktop to KDE Plasma 5

$ sudo tasksel install kubuntu-desktop

Ubuntu's Terminal - changing your Ubuntu desktop to KDE Plasma 5

Upon pressing Enter, nothing will happen. Wait for a couple of seconds; a graphical interface will pop up, giving you a summary of the package configuration progress.

KDE's package configuration

Be patient. The process will take several minutes.

Once you have installed your KDE new desktop, the program will redirect you to the Terminal.

It is now time to configure the desktop manager.

Up until KDE Plasma 4, KDE desktop offered the choice between two display managers: KDM (KDE Display Manager) and SDDM (Simple Desktop Display Manager). However, KDM was retired in KDE Plasma 5, so SDDM is now the default display manager.

To add SSDM, enter the following in your Terminal:

$ sudo apt install sddm

Ubuntu's Terminal - changing your Ubuntu desktop to KDE Plasma 5

If you get a message saying that sddm is already the newest version, I still recommend taking a look at the configuration of your display manager. Make sure that sddm is the default option. To do so, enter:

$ sudo dpkg-reconfigure sddm

Reconfiguring the SDDM display manager

Upon pressing Enter, you will see the graphical interface of the Package configuration. By default, the program selects gdm3. Use the arrow key to choose sddm instead, then press Enter.

Changing the package configuration - configuring SDDM

You are now ready to restart your computer and enjoy your new desktop environment.

Powering off Ubuntu

To access the KDE desktop, click on the top-right icon next to your login username. Select Plasma, return to the login screen and enter your password. Voilà!

Cinnamon

Before installing your new desktop environment, make sure that your system is up to date and upgraded.

$ sudo apt update && sudo apt upgrade

Access the Terminal by clicking on the main Ubuntu icon and searching for “terminal.”

To install Cinnamon we will use the APT package manager, as we need to fetch a specific repository as a prerequisite before installing this DE.

$ sudo add-apt-repository universe

Ubuntu's Terminal - changing your Ubuntu desktop to Cinnamon

If you get a message saying that the “‘universe’ distribution component is already enabled for all sources,” then no worries. It merely means that you already have this repository available. Move on to the next step.

We will now install Cinnamon, adding the lightDM display manager.

$ sudo apt install cinnamon-desktop-environment lightDM

Ubuntu's Terminal - changing your Ubuntu desktop to Cinnamon

Note that Cinnamon is quite heavy, at 724 MB, so make sure that you have a good internet connection. Continue by entering the “y” key.

Ubuntu's Terminal - changing your Ubuntu desktop to Cinnamon

Unlike other desktop environments, Cinnamon’s installation is entirely text-based.

Ubuntu's Terminal - changing your Ubuntu desktop to Cinnamon

Only the display manager configuration will use a graphical user interface. By default, the Package configuration highlights sddm. Use the arrow keys to select lightDM instead, then press Enter.

Configuring lightdm

Once that is done, Cinnamon’s installation will resume within the Terminal. Be patient; the process might take several minutes.

Ubuntu's Terminal

You are now ready to restart your computer and enjoy your new desktop environment.

Powering off Ubuntu

To access the Cinnamon desktop, click on the top-right icon next to your login username. Select Cinnamon, return to the login screen and enter your password. Voilà!

MATE

Access the Terminal by clicking on the main Ubuntu icon and searching for “terminal.”

Before installing your new desktop environment, make sure that your system is up to date and upgraded.

$ sudo apt update && sudo apt upgrade

Install the tasksel package. As per the official Ubuntu website, “tasksel is a Debian/Ubuntu tool that installs multiple related packages as a co-ordinated “task” onto your system.” (source: https://help.ubuntu.com/community/Tasksel). You will need this tool to install KDE on your Ubuntu system.

$ sudo apt install tasksel

Then install the MATE desktop.

$ sudo tasksel install ubuntu-mate-desktop

Ubuntu's Terminal - changing your Ubuntu desktop to MATE

The Terminal will automatically redirect you to the graphical interface of the Package configuration.

MATE's package configuration

The installation process might take several minutes; be patient. Once done, the program will redirect you to the Terminal. 

It is now time to configure the desktop manager.

By default, you have a choice between gdm3 and lightDM. If you are using GNOME 3, you already know what gdm3 looks like as it is the default GNOME 3 desktop environment greeter. It is somewhat dull-looking but highly stable. However, I recommend using LightDM, as it is the default greeter for the MATE desktop environment. LightDM is also more configurable and customizable than gdm3. Another significant advantage of LightDM is that it doesn’t rely on the GTK widget toolkit (the default toolkit of GNOME 3) and its dependencies. So unless you plan on using MATE with another DE that uses a GNOME-related architecture, then stick to LightDM.

To add lightDM, enter the following in your Terminal:

$ sudo apt-get install lightdm

Ubuntu's Terminal - changing your Ubuntu desktop to MATE

If you get a message saying that lightDM is already the newest version, then I recommend to still take a look at the configuration of your display manager. Make sure that lightDM is the default option. To verify that it is, enter:

$ sudo dpkg-reconfigure lightdm

Ubuntu's Terminal - changing your Ubuntu desktop to MATE

Upon pressing Enter, you will see the graphical interface of the Package configuration. If you see that lightdm is the default option, then great! Press Enter; otherwise, use the arrow key to choose lightdm, then press Enter.

Configuring lightdm

You are now ready to restart your computer and enjoy your new desktop environment.

To access the MATE desktop, click on the top-right icon next to your login username. Select MATE, return to the login screen and enter your password. Voilà!

What If You Want to Revert to the Default Ubuntu Desktop?

If you change your mind and would instead prefer to use GNOME 3 again, here are the steps to follow:

Access the Terminal by clicking on the main Ubuntu icon and searching for “terminal.”

Before installing your new desktop environment, make sure that your system is up to date and upgraded.

$ sudo apt update && sudo apt upgrade

Type the following:

sudo apt install gnome-session gdm3

Note that only installing this will result in a minimal GNOME 3 desktop environment with necessary features such as the Gnome-shell and a few pre-installed applications. To get the stock vanilla GNOME desktop, you will have to type the following command after:

sudo apt install gnome-session gdm3

If you don’t already have tasksel installed, you will have to add it first before continuing. Note that if you already tried out MATE or KDE Plasma 5 as desktop alternatives, you had to install tasksel to do so and you can skip this step.

$ sudo apt install tasksel

After that, execute:

$ sudo tasksel install ubuntu-desktop

You are now ready to restart your computer and enjoy your new desktop environment.

To access the GNOME desktop, click on the top-right icon in your login screen.

Ubuntu's login screen

Select Ubuntu (Default), return to the login screen and enter your credentials. Voilà!

Choosing a desktop environment

How to Remove a Desktop Environment

You have to be extremely careful when uninstalling a desktop environment. That is because you might need to remove some of its associated packages manually. Furthermore, some of the automatically-removed packages might still be useful even though you no longer require the desktop environment. As an example, removing the default Ubuntu desktop (GNOME 3) can also remove its GTK+ widget toolkit. If you ever installed applications that run using GTK+, you might then run into problems opening them once you have eliminated the desktop.

Also, that might seem obvious, but make sure that you have another desktop environment installed and ready to go before removing your current DE. If you’ve just recently fetched the packages of another desktop environment, take the time to log out of your current session and test it out first. 

The first thing you will want to do is to open the Terminal and then enter the following:

sudo apt purge [NameOfTheDesktopEnvironmentPackage]

Examples of DE packages are “ubuntu-mate-desktop”, “cinnamon-desktop-environment” or “kubuntu-desktop”.

After that, execute the following command:

sudo apt autoremove

Be aware that by doing autoremove, you risk removing a widget toolkit. To keep it, you will have to mark the package you want to keep from being automatically removed by typing:

sudo apt-mark manual [PackageName]

DO THIS BEFORE executing the “sudo apt autoremove” command.

Once that is done, update your system:

sudo apt update

You can now exit the Terminal.

Would you like to see an Ubuntu desktop tutorial for other desktop environments besides the ones presented above? If so, leave the DE’s name in the comment section!

© 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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