10 Best and Most Popular Linux Desktop Environments of All Time

One exciting aspect of Linux unlike with Windows and Mac OS X, is its support for numerous number of desktop environments, this has enabled desktop users to choose the appropriate and most suitable desktop environment to best work with, according to their computing needs.

A Desktop Environment is an implementation of the desktop metaphor built as a collection of different user and system programs running on top of an operating system, and share a common GUI (Graphical User Interface), also known as a graphical shell.

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In this article, we shall list and walk through some of the best desktop environments for Linux, including a few of their illustrious features and components. However, we should note that this list is not organized in any particular order.

That said, let’s move to listing the desktop environments.

1. GNOME 3 Desktop

GNOME is probably the most popular desktop environment among Linux users, it is free and open source, simple, yet powerful and easy to use. It is designed from ground up to offer Linux desktop users a wonderful and exciting computing experience.

It presents a activities overview for easy access to basic tasks, provides a powerful search tool for users to access their work from any place. However, GNOME 3 latest stable release ships in with the following distinguished components and features:

  1. Uses Metacity as default window manager
  2. Comes with Nautilus as default file manager
  3. Supports desktop notifications using a convenient messaging system
  4. Enables on/off switching of desktop notifications and many more
Gnome 3 Desktop Environment for Linux

Gnome 3 Desktop Environment for Linux

Visit Homepage: https://www.gnome.org/gnome-3/

2. KDE Plasma 5

KDE is a well-known, powerful and highly customizable desktop environment, designed to offer Linux desktop users absolute control over their desktop.

The latest release in the KDE desktop series is the Plasma 5, which has brought in several improvements and new features. It has come with clean and well-polished user interfaces in comparison to previous versions, with improved readability.

Built using Qt 5 and frameworks 5, a number of the notable components and new features in Plasma 5 include:

  1. Dolphin file manager
  2. Kwin window manager
  3. A converged shell
  4. Updated graphics stack enabling smoother graphics performance
  5. Modernized launchers
  6. Workflow improvements in the desktop notification area
  7. Improved support for high-density (high-DPI) display plus many other minor features
KDE Plasma System Monitor Window

KDE Plasma System Monitor Window

Visit Homepage: https://www.kde.org/
Installation: https://www.tecmint.com/install-kde-plasma-5-in-linux/

3. Cinnamon Desktop

Cinnamon is in fact a collection of several minor projects such as Cinnamon, a fork of the GNOME shell, Cinnamon screensaver, Cinnamon desktop, Cinnamon Menus, Cinnamon Settings Daemon coupled with many more.

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Cinnamon desktop is a fork of the GNOME desktop environment, it is the default desktop environment on Linux Mint together with MATE.

Other minor projects and components integrated in the Cinnamon desktop comprise of the following:

  1. MDM display manager
  2. Nemo file manager
  3. Muffin window manager
  4. Cinnamon session manager
  5. Cinnamon translations
  6. Blueberry, a bluetooth configuration tool plus many more
Cinnamon Desktop

Cinnamon Desktop

Visit Homepage: http://developer.linuxmint.com/projects.html

Suggested Read: Install Cinnamon Desktop in Ubuntu and Fedora Distributions

4. MATE Desktop

MATE is an intuitive and appealing desktop environment, that is an extension of GNOME 2. It works on Linux and many other Unix-like systems. It comes with a handful of default applications such as Caja file manager, Pluma text editor, MATE terminal and more.

Additionally, it is also the default desktop environment for Linux Mint along side Cinnamon desktop.

Mate Desktop in Ubuntu 16.04

Mate Desktop in Ubuntu 16.04

Visit Homepage: http://mate-desktop.com/

5. Unity Desktop

Unity is a graphical desktop shell for GNOME desktop environment. The Unity project was started by Mark Shuttleworth and Canonical, the makers of the well-known Ubuntu Linux distribution. It was started back in 2010, with aims of offering desktop and netbook users a consistent and elegant computing experience.

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We must note that, Unity is not a totally new desktop environment, but basically an interface to existing GNOME applications and libraries, with various technologies integrated within it, Unity comes with the following prominent components and features:

  1. Compiz windows manager
  2. Nautilus file manager
  3. A system dashboard
  4. Lens, that sends search queries to Scope
  5. Scope, a powerful search feature, that searches both locally and online in case the machine is connected to Internet
  6. Unity preview, that previews search results in the dashboard
  7. Offers an application indicator
  8. System indicator that provides information about system settings such as power, sound, current session and many more
  9. A simple and sleek notification component combined with other minor features
Unity Desktop

Unity Desktop

Visit Homepage: https://unity.ubuntu.com/

6. Xfce Desktop

If you are looking for a modern, open source, lightweight and easy-to-use, desktop environment for Linux and several other Unix-like systems such as such as Mac OS X, *BSD, Solaris and many others, then you should consider checking out Xfce. It is fast, and importantly user friendly as well, with low system resources utilization.

It offers users a beautiful user interface combined with the following components and features:

  1. Xfwm windows manager
  2. Thunar file manager
  3. User session manger to deal with logins, power management and beyond
  4. Desktop manager for setting background image, desktop icons and many more
  5. An application manager
  6. It’s highly pluggable as well plus several other features
XFCE Desktop

XFCE Desktop

Visit Homepage: http://www.xfce.org

7. LXQt Desktop

LXQt is also free, open source, lightweight, simple and fast desktop environment for Linux and BSD distributions. It is the latest version of LXDE, specifically designed, and a recommended desktop environment for cloud servers and old machines due to its remarkably low system resources usage such as low CPU and RAM consumption.

It’s the default desktop environment on Knoppiz, Lubuntu and a few other less known Linux distributions, some of its notable components and features are listed below:

  1. pcmanfm-qt file manager, a Qt port for PCManFM and libfm
  2. lxsession session manager
  3. lxterminal, a terminal emulator
  4. lxqt-runner, a quick application launcher
  5. Supports multiple international languages
  6. A simple and beautiful user interface
  7. Supports an integrated energy-saving component
  8. Supports several keyboard shortcuts plus many more
LXQT Desktop

LXQT Desktop

Visit Homepage: http://lxqt.org

8. Pantheon Desktop

Pantheon is a simple and well-designed desktop environment for Elementary OS, a Windows and MacOS X like Linux distribution. It offers users a clean and organized desktop experience. Due to its simplicity, Pantheon comes with not many visually observable features as compared to other popular desktop environments.

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Nevertheless, it works exceptionally well for new Linux users switching from Windows or Mac OS X operating systems.

Elementary Pantheon Desktop

Elementary Pantheon Desktop

Visit Homepage: https://elementary.io/

9. Deepin Desktop Environment

Deepin Desktop Environment(DDE) is also a simple, elegant and productive desktop environment for Linux, developed by the makers of Deepin OS.

It works on several other Linux distributions as well including Arch Linux, Ubuntu, Manjaro among others, it ships in with some well designed and sleek user interfaces for absolute productivity.

Furthermore, it is also user friendly with few configurations available. Most configurations are performed from a pop-out side panel, additionally, users can launch applications from a dock at the bottom of the screen similar to that in Pantheon desktop.

Deepin OS

Deepin OS

Visit Homepage: https://www.deepin.org

10. Enlightenment Desktop

Enlightenment initially started as a windows manager project for x11 system. However, the project has grown to include a full desktop environment, mobile, wearable and TV user interface platforms as well. Additionally, the developers also wrote some useful libraries in the course of the project advancement.

The libraries created will be used to build several desktop applications as well such an image viewer, video player and a terminal emulator and more, with up coming future works on a complete IDE.

Notably, it is in active evolution from x11 to Wayland as the primary graphical display layer for the Linux ecosystem.

Enlightenment Desktop

Enlightenment Desktop

Visit Homepage: https://www.enlightenment.org

Which of the above desktop environments is your favorite? Let us know via the feedback section below by sharing your Linux desktop computing experience with us, you can as well inform us of other less known, yet powerful and exciting desktop environments not mentioned here.

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Aaron Kili

Aaron Kili is a Linux and F.O.S.S enthusiast, an upcoming Linux SysAdmin, web developer, and currently a content creator for TecMint who loves working with computers and strongly believes in sharing knowledge.

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39 Responses

  1. Bo says:

    Plasma, Gnome, and Enlightenment wants Wayland. Unity is Dead. Lxqt and Mate are trying to use MIR or Kwin as Window mangers. The rest of them will have to stick with X11. Do you want X 11 Forever. Sway seems interesting.

  2. Cem says:

    KDE is (as far as i know) the only desktop environment that launch an application as another user. That’s good plus.

    • Aaron Kili says:

      @Cem

      Yap, KDE is really cool; it offers numerous useful functionalities for a desktop user. But it tends to consume a lot of RAM(especially when you have small RAM), i tried it before but now an using Cinnamon.

  3. Mak says:

    Thank you Aaron for this piece – your work is excellent! I am late in this discussion but Canonical is changing from Unity back to Gnome shell and I am very happy. I hated Unity
    Here is the link to Mark’s announcement https://insights.ubuntu.com/2017/04/05/growing-ubuntu-for-cloud-and-iot-rather-than-phone-and-convergence/

  4. Joseph says:

    By far the most popular desktops are unity and cinnamon at my university (I teach CS/IS and some graphic design). It is not even close. Mint is the most popular desktop distro here while Ubuntu is the most popular overall but that is split between the desktop version and the server which we use frequently at the university for class projects (terminal only).

    Gnome3 itself is probably no longer in the top 5. I have seen a lot of students give up on Debian because of Gnome3 (usually new students who don’t know they can remove gnome or don’t want to bother). Some Mac students lean toward elementary OS. Mate and LXis definitely popular because a lot of kids have older laptops and when Cinnamon is too much they default to lubuntu.

    Realistically its probably:

    1 – Cinnamon (I would say about 1/3 of our kids use this)
    2 – Unity (I would say another 1/3 use this)
    3 – KDE (maybe 1 out of every 10)
    4 – Mate (almost all the lower end PC’s who cant run Unity or Cinnamon well)
    5 – Pantheon (some of the mac laptop kids prefer this)
    6 – LXDE (when Mate is still too slow and they insist on a IDE… mainly due to Lununtu)

    Gnome3 (i would say 1 student every semester so about 1/100 or so).

  5. Whid says:

    Canonical almost lost me back in 2011 when they “forced” Unity on the world, but after 6 months on the “Mint lifeboat”, I found my way back and they completely won me over. In my opinion, Unity is just so much more polished and well designed in comparison to anything else out there. Just wish it was a bit better optimized but feel this will improve in Unity 8 which will shave off all the Compiz hackery.

    The only other DE I use frequently is GNOME 3 – I use it on my HTPC and it’s surprisingly well laid out as a “from your couch” interface. I dabble with other DEs from time to time, but nothing else has really “spoken” to me yet. Enlightenment is nice but unpolished, and I’ve never been a KDE man. Cinnamon reminds me too much of Windows. I did use XFCE for a period out of nostalgia for GNOME 2 (did the same recently with MATE), but always seem to come crawling back to Unity.

  6. Ryan says:

    I just wanted to say “Thanks for the list”. I’m always looking for something new to mess with, and my current usage is as follows (all on top of Slackware):

    KDE Plasma (for when I’m lazy or “need” things done “for” me; also love the polish and commercial feel – sometimes)

    Xfce (when I want speed and simplicity; I treat it as a glorified WM, for when I want to polish my command line skills, but still want/need a graphical interface for other tasks)

    Enlightenment (for when I want to feel uber cool and have a fully customized desktop and act like I know how to use it :P )

    Keep up the good work!

  7. lzone says:

    Are you kidding me ? Where is i3wm.org ? That’s the best one. Obviously It’s not for everyone.

    • Robert says:

      Desktop Environments are not Window Managers. i3wm is a WM like openbox, fluxbox, metacity, kwin, pantheon. Don’t mess with them.

  8. Aaron Kili K says:

    @Hanner

    That is true, Metacity was the default window manager in GNOME 2. Many thanks for the useful correction.

  9. Hannar says:

    Clarification on Gnome 3 desktop, Mutter is the default window manager and not Metacity. Avid Mate user but finding Gnome 3 more and more appealing…

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