9 Best Linux Desktop Environments to Use in 2023: A Detailed Comparison for New and Experienced Users

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As a long-time Linux user and open source enthusiast, I‘ve had the pleasure of trying out a wide variety of desktop environments over the years. The Linux desktop has evolved tremendously, from the early days of barebones window managers like Fvwm to the sleek and sophisticated options we have today.

The sheer diversity of desktop environments is one of the most exciting aspects of using Linux. Unlike proprietary operating systems, the Linux community has fostered amazing creativity in designing radically different user experiences.

In this detailed guide, I‘ll give you an insider‘s overview of the 9 best desktop environments for Linux. Whether you‘re a complete beginner just dipping your toes in the penguin waters or a seasoned penguinista looking to refresh your desktop, there‘s something here for everyone!

Let‘s dive right in!

A Quick Introduction to Linux Desktop Environments

Before we look at specific options, let me quickly explain what a desktop environment actually is for folks new to Linux.

Simply put, a desktop environment (DE) includes various software components that together provide a graphical user interface and tools for everyday tasks. Some key parts of a DE include:

  • Window Manager: Manages placement and appearance of windows.

  • File Manager: Helps browse and manage files and folders.

  • Panel or Dock: houses app launchers and system tray.

  • Configuration Tools: For changing system and desktop settings.

  • Background Services: Powering features like desktop search and notifications.

So in summary, the DE encompasses things like the panels, taskbar, system tray, wallpapers and everything on your screen when you log in. Different environments provide unique workflows optimized for different use cases.

Now let‘s look at the 9 best desktop environments for Linux and who they might suit. I‘ll also share some perspective from my own experience using them over the years.

1. GNOME: A Refined Linux Desktop Experience

Overview: GNOME is one of the most popular desktop environments in the Linux world. It strives to offer a simplified and streamlined desktop experience. The intuitive workspace and ease of use make it a great choice for Linux beginners.

Key Features:

  • Clean and minimalist interface. Avoiding clutter is a core design principle.
  • Shell & Hot Corners provide easy access to multitasking features like virtual workspaces, app launcher, notifications and search.
  • Excellent suite of built-in applications like Files, Web, Music etc. They adhere to usability standards and integrate tightly.
  • Customizable via themes, extensions and different layout options available. GNOME is quite flexible underneath the minimalist exterior.

My Take: As someone who appreciates attention to design details, I‘ve found GNOME to be my daily driver for a few years now. The consistent UX across core apps really shines. Small animations and fluid transitions between workspaces make the desktop feel integrated. I‘m also a fan of the keyboard shortcuts which help power users multitask faster after a learning curve. Extensions help add any functionality missing out of the box. Overall GNOME offers the most refined Linux desktop experience in my opinion.

2. KDE Plasma: A Highly Versatile Linux Desktop

Overview: KDE Plasma is renowned as one of the most feature-packed and versatile desktop environments for Linux. It has a huge array of customization options while being a full-featured and consistent desktop for daily use.

Key Features:

  • Extremely customizable: Tons of desktop layouts, themes, icons, effects, widgets and tools available to customize the experience.
  • Lightweight: Surprisingly performant and smooth despite the vast functionality. Runs great even on lower powered hardware.
  • Integrated Desktop Search: Find documents, apps, settings and more conveniently from an indexed database.
  • Great toolkit: Includes a full set of apps like file manager (Dolphin), media players, PIM suite, terminal emulator and many more tailored for the desktop.

My Take: I‘ve found Plasma to be a jack-of-all-trades kind of desktop – it can transform seamlessly from a keyboard-driven tiling workflow to a tablet interface. Plasma gives you granular control over most aspects of the system if you desire, while still being simple enough for daily use. The integrated search and widgets are particularly useful for productivity. If you like tweaking every aspect of your desktop, KDE Plasma is a must try.

3. Xfce: A Lightweight yet Customizable Linux Desktop

Overview: Xfce is beloved in the Linux community for being fast, lightweight and versatile. It uses significantly fewer system resources compared to GNOME and KDE but still packs in great customization options. For people with lower powered machines, Xfce is often the go-to choice.

Key Features:

  • Extremely lightweight despite full features: Uses less RAM and CPU allowing it to run great even on older hardware.
  • Highly modular and customizable: Build your own desktop with the modules and components of choice. Customize any part of the interface.
  • Mature and stable: Under active development for over 20 years with a consistent track record. Packs the features you expect like a feature-rich panel, window manager, session manager and file manager.
  • Alt-Tab support: Easy and configurable window switching.
  • Great choice for kiosks, digital signage and desktops with limited resources.

My Take: I‘m a long time user of Xfce for my home theater PC and netbook. The ability to customize the interface extensively while still being nimble impresses me. For example, on my media center PC, I‘ve customized shortcuts for actions like volume control and playback, while on my netbook I‘ve optimized for the smaller screen. Xfce meets my need for a no-nonsense desktop that stays out of the way but can quickly transform based on the use case. The large library of plugins are a bonus.

4. Cinnamon: A Familiar and User-friendly Linux Desktop

Overview: Cinnamon is the default desktop environment for Linux Mint, one of the most popular beginner friendly Linux distributions. It aims to provide a classic desktop experience with layouts and workflows resembling older versions of Windows.

Key Features:

  • Highly familiar interface: Menus, system tray and taskbar laid out in a traditional fashion avoiding learning curve.
  • Customizable via themes, desklets, applets and extensions.
  • Built on modern GTK3 toolkit and offers compositing effects via Mutter window manager.
  • Supports desktop icons and widgets beautifully.
  • Designed to be easy to use with intuitive shortcuts and interface paradigms.
  • Very stable and responsive even with lots of apps open.

My Take: As someone who has installed Linux Mint on computers for friends and family switching from Windows, I‘ve found Cinnamon to be a brilliant choice. It avoids shocking users with radically different metaphors. Small animations and smooth performance also help provide a polished experience. User testing by the Linux Mint team ensures Cinnamon feels intuitive. The high degree of customizability also allows tailoring the environment to specific tastes.

5. MATE: A Minimalist Linux Desktop Experience

Overview: The MATE desktop environment is the continuation of GNOME 2, providing a classic Linux desktop experience. It focuses on being fast and lightweight while retaining modern features.

Key Features:

  • Very intuitive and easy to use interface. Follows classic desktop paradigms avoiding learning curve.
  • Lightweight codebase allowing high performance even on lower powered hardware.
  • Customization via themes, applets and different layouts. MATE can be tweaked extensively.
  • Low memory footprint around 200-400 MB RAM usage typically.
  • Rock solid stability with highly productive defaults.
  • Plenty of extensions available to add new features.

My Take: I‘ve found MATE to be an ideal choice for my older laptops. It uses system resources frugally so things are very snappy. The classic taskbar and application menu make finding things convenient. MATE has a simplicity that gets out of the way so I can focus on actual work. The Ubuntu MATE team has also done a splendid job in making an unfamiliar desktop experience intuitive for beginners while allowing customization for power users.

6. Deepin DE: A Beautiful and User-friendly Linux Desktop

Overview: Deepin DE is the desktop environment originally created for Deepin Linux distribution. It offers a polished Linux desktop experience with beautiful aesthetics and thoughtful design.

Key Features:

  • Elegant and visually appealing interface using smooth animations and transitions.
  • Applications like File Manager, Music Player and Control Center are tailored for the best user experience.
  • Customization via themes, icons, window colors and other appearance tweaks.
  • Designed for simplicity allowing users to focus on work.
  • Available on all popular distributions like Ubuntu, Arch, Fedora etc.

My Take: Deepin DE shows how Linux can look stunningly modern and still be intuitive. Attention to animations and ease of use shine here. As a developer who finds most interfaces get in my way, Deepin has been a refreshing change. Their custom apps raise the bar for GUI app development on Linux. Deepin would make a great choice for new Linux users who want it to "just work" out of the box.

7. Budgie: A Modern and Stylish Linux Desktop

Overview: Budgie is a relatively newer desktop environment focused on providing an attractive and usable modern interface. It is designed to integrate tightly with the GNOME stack.

Key Features:

  • Simple and minimalist aesthetic avoiding clutter. Side panels provide quick access to notifications and app launchers.
  • Customization via themes, applets, desktop layouts and adding/removing panels.
  • Automatic tiling of open app windows so they don‘t overlap. Saves clicking to arrange workspace.
  • Supports desktop notifications, widgets and animations via integration with GNOME technologies.
  • Newer alternative to legacy desktops with modern paradigms.

My Take: As an engineer, I‘m always curious to try out new desktops pushing the envelope. Budgie offers a fresh take while retaining familiarity. I‘ve enjoyed some of the productivity boosting touches like window tiling and clean panels reducing clicks. The GNOME integration also ensures a polished experience across the board. Budgie is definitely a modern Linux desktop environment worth keeping tabs on.

Overview: LXQt is one of the lightest fully featured desktop environments available. It focuses on resource efficiency and modularity while delivering a modern user experience.

Key Features:

  • Featherlight on system resources: Helps revive old systems by using less CPU and RAM.
  • Despite low overhead, packs in amenities like multi-monitor support, theming and compositor.
  • Highly modular and customizable thanks to component-based architecture. Swap parts in and out as needed.
  • Follows latest desktop standards and workflows. More intuitive than old school environments.
  • Active development ensuring continuous improvement and new features.

My Take: I‘ve used LXQt on my home server and media streaming box. Despite the low hardware footprint, it delivered a smooth experience. LXQt shows how innovation on lightweight desktops continues even today. The modular framework and focus on standards allows LXQt to remain relevant for modern use cases. For resource constrained desktops, it‘s hard to find a better option than LXQt.

9. Enlightenment: An Incredibly Customizable Linux Desktop

Overview: The Enlightenment desktop environment has earned cult status among hardcore Linux fans. It pioneered extensive theming capabilities before other desktops caught on.

Key Features:

  • Practically infinite customization of the look and feel via themes, compositing and window managers.
  • Low resource usage despite effects-powered interface. Runs great on old hardware.
  • Leading edge window managers like X present-window-manager (xpwmc) developed alongside.
  • Custom keybindings for navigation, window management and shortcuts.
  • Lightweight core written from scratch avoiding bloat. Developed as a labor of love by creators.

My Take: I‘ve used Enlightenment to give new life to my dated single-board PC. The dazzling array of customization options let me tune the interface exactly how I wanted. I added Chrome OS-inspired transparency, animated desktop widgets and replaced window borders with rounded corners for a modern look. The magic of open source allowed me to reshape my desktop as I see fit! Enlightenment offers that delightful ability to unlimited degrees.

How to Choose the Right Linux Desktop Environment

With so many excellent options, how do you choose the appropriate desktop environment for your needs? Here are some key factors to consider:

  • System Resources: Look at the RAM, CPU and graphics requirement. Lighter DEs work better for old hardware.

  • Ease of Use: Some desktops like GNOME, Cinnamon and Deepin prioritize usability especially for beginners. Others like Enlightenment cater to seasoned Linux users.

  • Customization: Do you enjoy tweaking your desktop look and layout? Options like KDE Plasma and Enlightenment enable endless customization possibilities to create your ideal workspace.

  • Workflow: Certain desktops like Budgie and GNOME 3 provide more modern workflows focused on simplification. Others like MATE offer a classic Linux feel.

Ultimately there is no single "best" desktop environment for everyone. Needs and preferences differ. The Linux community has provided diverse options to satisfy user requirements across the spectrum.

I recommend trying out a few desktops firsthand to get a feel for them. Tools like VirtualBox make it easy to take different environments for a spin. Finding the best flow for how you work can transform your Linux experience.

Desktop Environment First Release Resource Usage Customization Learning Curve
GNOME 1999 Medium Medium Beginner
KDE Plasma 1996 Medium High Intermediate
Xfce 1996 Light High Intermediate
Cinnamon 2011 Medium High Beginner
MATE 2011 Light Medium Beginner
Deepin DE 2004 Medium Medium Beginner
Budgie 2013 Medium Medium Beginner
LXQt 2015 Very Light Medium Intermediate
Enlightenment 1997 Very Light Very High Advanced

Fig. 1: Comparison of popular Linux desktop environments

This table provides a quick overview of how some key desktop environments differ. As we‘ve discussed, there are many nuances beyond these high-level comparisons. The open source Linux desktop continues to evolve at a rapid pace!

Final Thoughts

I hope walking through these 9 desktop environments has given you a good overview of the diverse options available. The Linux community has fostered amazing desktop innovation and user choice over the past decades.

Don‘t be afraid to experiment with different environments to find the perfect fit for your needs. For me, the ability to customize my workspace and workflows to match my style is what makes Linux so empowering.

Let me know in the comments if you have any questions! I‘m always delighted to help more people discover the joys of open source software 🙂

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