Six Clicks: The best Linux desktop environments

Six Clicks: The best Linux desktop environments

Summary: Unlike Windows or Mac OS X, Linux offers a wide variety of desktop environments. Here are my picks of the most important of these PC interfaces.


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  • KDE Plasma 5

    KDE is the oldest of the mainstream Linux desktops. It began in 1996 as the first effort to make a graphical Linux desktop. Since then, it's gone through many changes.

    I've found KDE Plasma 5 to be very fast and strong.

    KDE also has its own application family. For many years, the apps and the desktop were tied at the hip. You could use other programs with a KDE-based Linux desktop, but at times it wasn't easy. Today, the two are separate.

    If you want to check KDE out, I recommend the following distributions: Arch Linux, KaOS Kubuntu, or openSUSE.

  • GNOME 3.12

    The other major Linux desktop interface, GNOME, started as a reaction against KDE. Over the years, KDE and GNOME supporters have clashed frequently, but the hostility between the communities has declined over the years.

    One reason that conflict cooled down is that GNOME 3 lost a lot of its popularity. People, including yours truly, really hated GNOME 3 when it first came out. Linus Torvalds, Mr. Linux himself, disliked it so much that he called for a GNOME fork in 2011.

    That's exactly what happened. There are two major GNOME forks, Cinnamon and MATE, which are covered later in this overview. 

    GNOME, now up to version 3.12, has corrected many of the problems that early adopters had with it, and has been gaining back some of its fans. You can try it out on Arch Linux, Fedora, or Ubuntu GNOME.

Topics: Enterprise Software, Linux, Open Source, PCs

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  • Ugh

    I was hoping Unity wouldn't be on this list. It is.

    I hate it. That stupid unmovable dock, and the arrogance that was responded with by Canonical when a bug report got filed about it.
    • I do agree

      How times have changed! Back before unity, I was such a fan of the netbook edition. Having a netbook at home, it was the first full pc interface I had seen move from the menu/desktop model to large tile icons, and I was amazed by it.

      Over time it became the unity launched and then that became a front to gnome three. All of a suddenly you couldn't shrink or auto hide the flipping menu bar across the top, and the old netbook edition became just a standard taskbar made four times as big and permanently planted on the left hand side. It took an update to minimise the damn thing.

      I've actually grown to rather like the unity design on the desktop. I like the hud and the menuing system, but it still irks me beyond belief that it breaks so often, and they make it harder and harder to reset unity with each release. It isn't just the inflexibility, it's that if you edit compiz, or even install updates, I have many times been left with a totally blank desktop that I can't even open a terminal or get to the command prompt from and reset.

      As for the others I'm loving the new KDE. I do primarily use open suse, but I also fable in a coue of bsd flavours and so It's nice to get a change over the starting to feel dated kde 4.

      Lxde has to be one of my all time favourites and I install it on all of my systems for when I want it simpler, plus a Sunday afternoon of tinkering and it can be made to look pretty good too.

      One mistake - you can change the desktop on osx, it's just fiddlier! Never forget ther is no linux! There is a kernel, a gnu system and the rest is just thousands of projects building their own opensource software. All a distro does is take a kernel it likes, add in the gnu base system and then add on all the packages they want.

      All these desktops are just that - open source desktop software for unix systems. (With the exception of unity) they're used on the BSD flavours like free and net bsd (and obviously the free bsd derivatives like ghost and pc-bsd) as well as Solaris derivatives like Openindianna and some have even got a couple onto minix three.

      When it comes to implementation, kde has always been at its most appealing on open suse in my mind, with linux mint doing the better lxde/mate/cinnamon desktop - gnome 3? Probably fedora.

      Although makulu is always the most visually stunning.
    • the dock being not movable

      is really really stupid. and the excuse Shuttleworth gave for it not being movable isn't even a part of Unity anymore so they really have no excuse whatsoever for it not being movable.

      that said, in other respects Unity is really nice.
    • Windowmaker

      Unity is hideous. I may as well be using WindowMaker.
  • George Carlin says: Who moved my cheese

    ... and why is there a food processor on my desk. ;-)
  • Cinnamon!

    Cinnamon is fantastic... I love Linux Mint 17.
  • RE: "The best Linux desktop environments"

    It's interesting to look at the desktop environment ranking from the Linux Journal's 2013 Reader's Choice Awards (published in December, 2013):

    o KDE 17.9%
    o GNOME 3 14.1%
    o Ubuntu/Unity 12.9%
    o KDE Plasma 12.7%
    o Xfce 12.1%
    o Cinnamon 8.6%
    o GNOME 2 4.5%
    o Other 4.5%
    o MATE 3.6%
    o Openbox 2.6%
    o Enlightenment 1.7%
    o LXDE 1.7%

    Clearly, the Unity desktop environment, which defaults on Ubuntu, is popular at no. 3. (It's also noteworthy that Ubuntu was voted the most popular desktop distribution.) Also popular is the Xfce desktop environment which didn't receive mention from Steven. In fact, Xfce easily beat out Cinnamon, MATE and LXDE.

    "Best Desktop Environment"

    P.S. Xfce is my favorite *Nix desktop environment.
    Rabid Howler Monkey
    • I was going to say

      Where the heck is XFCE?

      My top three:

      Of course Unity is's the default in Ubuntu. That doesn't mean anybody likes it; they just don't know how to change it, or that it can be changed at all.
      • Participating Linux Journal readers *voted* for Unity

        I would expect Linux Journal readers to be aware that there are multiple desktop environments available for the GNU/Linux desktop and that the default desktop environment on a given distro can be changed by the user.
        Rabid Howler Monkey
        • OK

          I wasn't aware of that. I stand corrected.

          I don't like Unity (or Gnome 3) at all. :p
        • Re: Participating Linux Journal readers….

          Distrowatch is the place to go for any semblance of accuracy

          • For GNU/Linux desktop environments!? Got link?

            With regard to distro popularity, I'll go with the Linux Journal Reader's Choice awards over DistroWatch as the LJ involves actual GNU/Linux users that choose to vote on the matter. As opposed to someone who visits DistroWatch, checks out a distro and doesn't bother to download the distro. Or downloads the distro, gets distracted and never installs the thing. Or someone who visits the site and checks out Ubuntu, downloads Ubuntu, finds out they hate Unity and returns a few days later to check out Linux Mint. Or someone who boots a Linux LiveCD for online banking and nothing else. You get the idea ...

            That said, I do believe that DistroWatch distro rankings are useful in a coarse way. Here's a better DistroWatch link with a discussion of distro popularity:

            Rabid Howler Monkey
          • choosing to vote

            Hi :)
            I had no idea LJ had a vote. So my vote wasn['t counted. It is notoriously difficult to get a fair sample of the relevant population for anything like this. LJ's poll has inaccuracies in one direction, DW has them in another direction. All are good for just getting an idea but you have to bear in mind that true accuracy is impossible without infringing on personal freedoms which is one of the reasons so many have migrated to Gnu&Linux in the first place!
            Regards from
            Tom :)
          • @Tom6, neither stated nor implied that LJ was perfectly accurate

            Linux Journal readers are *much* more likely to be Linux users than are curious visitors to DistroWatch. As a result, I believe that the Linux Journal Reader's Choice Award is more representative than is DistoWatch when it comes to GNU/Linux distro popularity.

            In addition, drilling down from GNU/Linux distros to desktop environments, the topic of this article, is pretty much impossible with DistroWatch. One would have to assume that a distro's default desktop environment is used by all of its users (when we know that many DistroWatch visitors are not GNU/Linux users at all). Both you and I know that isn't the case.
            Rabid Howler Monkey
          • The weakness of distrowatch

            Has always been the fact it tracks what people look at, not what they are using.

            For as long as I can remember there have been those that abuse the site and treat it as a popularity contest. It's good to see what people are looking at. In theory people would be looking at distros that they weren't using, to find out more, so by design it is not a usage poll.
            However there are elements that see it as such and artificially affect the numbers. This has been going on as long as I have known distrowatch (over 10 years) I look at it for the announcements mostly, or to check out a new/obscure distro I have heard about.

            Think about it, how often do you look up your own distro? Now factor in that most people don't know about distrowatch until they already have linux as their os and join the community. So where do all the hits come from?
          • DistroWatch Page Hit Ranking

            “The DistroWatch Page Hit Ranking statistics are a light-hearted way of measuring the popularity of Linux distributions and other free operating systems among the visitors of this website. They correlate neither to usage nor to quality and should not be used to measure the market share of distributions. They simply show the number of times a distribution page on was accessed each day, nothing more.”

          • Distrowatch accuracy? Not so fast!

            And the Distrowatch scoreboard measures what? Hits on its own web site. First, how does this relate to actual and real usage? Second, if you look at the scoreboard, Mint is most popular. But hold on! The hits for Mint include all possible desktops, Cinnamon, KDE, Mate and XFCE). The Ubuntu hits are fragmented according to which desktop, because Ubuntu does a separate distro page for each one.
          • DW

            Hi :)
            DistroWatch DOES do a great job of keeping up-to-date with which DEs (and WMs) are easily available for each different distro.

            Most sites that try to list distros only have a small sample of distros = typically 6-20, whereas DW lists over 600. Also most sites only have mismatched bits&bobs of info about each of the distros they do have so it's almost impossible to make a reasonable comparison between the different distros.

            The one thing they don't do is to keep an accurate vote count but do we really need such stats? Do we really have to intrude into people's lives and demand to know exactly which this&that they are using?

            Regards from
            Tom :)
      • In my opinion,

        XFCE and Enlightenment are two of the worst desktop environments. They are ugly and unintuitive, and I can kind of see why they weren't on this list. I agree with you about Mate, though. But, that's my opinion, and it's probably because for the first few years I had Linux, I used Gnome 2.
        • I don’t think Enlightenment is bad,

          I actually really like it. Well, Enlightenment might look ugly to you (and to a lot of other people), but I and also some other people find it quite nice-looking. Also E has really good theming capabilities, so you could also just use a theme like E19 Radiance ( if you prefer a more GTK-like look. There also was a discussion on E’s "ugliness" on it’s mailing list some time ago, you can read it at Secondly, E may be unintuitive, but it is also very powerful, customizeable (you can configure almost every detail), and fast (while still offering lots of fancy effects and such). In my opinion that’s definitely worth it.