Desktop Environments for Linux

In Linux, there are so many choices, and this includes the desktop environments and window managers. The most popular desktop environments in Linux are GNOME, Unity, Cinnamon, MATEKDE, Xfce, and LXDE. All of them offer sophisticated point-and-click graphical user interfaces (GUI) which are on par with the desktop environments found in Windows and Mac OS X. When you ask different people which of these are the best, you will likely get many different answers. So which is the best? Well….. it is largely a matter of opinion, and the capabilities of your computer hardware can also be important in deciding. For example, users with older computers will be better served to choose Xfce or especially LXDE, while users with newer hardware can get more desktop effects by choosing KDE, Cinnamon, or GNOME. Another consideration when choosing a desktop environment is your preference for customizing it. If you like to have a lot of options to customize and tweak your desktop, then KDE will by default give you the greatest flexibility to do this. Xfce comes next, and then LXDE, while Unity and the default GNOME 3.x shell offer relatively few options in the way of desktop customization. Personally, I like all of them, and if you have the time and are a bit adventurous, then I recommend you try each of the major desktop environments described below, as well as others such as Enlightenment and Razor-qt and decide which of them works best for you. GNOME, Unity, Cinnamon, MATE, KDE, Xfce, LXDE, Enlightenment, and Razor-qt are all excellent and are definitely worth consideration.

A Brief Description of GNOME, Unity, Cinnamon, MATE, KDE, Xfce, LXDE, Enlightenment, and Razor-qt:


 The GNOME (GNU Network Object Model Environment) has been redesigned with the most recent GNOME 3.x and is a wide departure from the traditional GNOME 2.x desktop. The newly released GNOME 3.x with its GNOME Shell user interface is a drastic change from the “classic” GNOME 2.x shell. While the GNOME 3.x shell is fairly intuitive, for someone who is accustomed to GNOME 2.x, or any other desktop environment for that matter, there will be a considerable amount of adjustment. In the GNOME 3.x shell, there is only one panel located at the top of the desktop, and there is no longer a traditional menu. To open programs, users can either press the Windows key, or they can click on “Activities” found on the left side of the panel. This gives the options of a program launcher that appears on the left side of the desktop, an “Applications” option found on the upper left part of the desktop (which is the closest thing to a menu), or they can search for programs using the search box on the upper right of the desktop. Additionally, when clicking on “Activities,” a desktop switcher appears on the right side of the desktop. Another change involves the buttons on the windows; in GNOME 2.x, and practically every other desktop environment or window manager, there are at least three buttons found at the top of each window: one to exit the window, one to maximize the window, and one to minimize the window. However, in the default GNOME 3.x shell, there is only one button that is used to exit the window, which really takes some getting used to. If you want your laptop or desktop to look and behave like a cell phone or tablet, then the GNOME 3.x shell might be for you. Overall, the GNOME 3.x shell is a very simple, clean, and visually pleasing desktop. Debian, and Fedora are major distros which use some form of GNOME in their main editions.
It should also be mentioned that GNOME has a wealth of applications which are designed for its desktop, but they can also be used in the other desktop environments as well; click here to see a list of them [1]. Following are a few applications and components of GNOME:
Window Manager: Mutter (GNOME 3.x shell)
File Manager: Nautilus
Office Suite: GNOME Office (which includes AbiWord and Gnumeric)
Music Player: Rhythmbox
Video Player: Totem
CD/DVD Burner: Brasero
Games: GnomeGames
Widget Toolkit: GTK+
Recommended System Requirements for the GNOME 3.x shell in its default mode
 Required RAM  768 MB
 Required CPU  400 MHz




Originally designed by Canonical for use on netbooks, Unity has (beginning with Ubuntu 11.04) replaced GNOME 2.x as the default desktop shell in Ubuntu. Starting with Ubuntu 11.10, Unity runs on top of GNOME 3.x. In essence, Unity like the GNOME 3.x shell is a move away from a menu-driven desktop to a text and search-based desktop with its “Heads-Up Display,” aka HUD, which will anticipate your queries in a manner similar to a Google search. Unity requires more system resources than the GNOME 3.x shell or KDE, not to mention all of the other popular Linux desktop environments. In Unity, there is one panel and it is always at the top of the desktop. Additionally, there is a dock-like program called the “launcher” which is always on the left side of the desktop. In appearance, Unity very much resembles a Mac OS X desktop where the dock has been positioned on the left side. In my opinion, Unity is a very nice looking desktop, but it is still in some ways a step backward in the area of customization compared to the traditional GNOME 2.x desktop. However, Unity has excellent compatibility with touch screen technology and seems to be the way things are going in computing. While there are many people who have criticized Unity, the direction Canonical has taken with it makes sense in light of such endeavors as Ubuntu for Android, which is available with the release of Ubuntu 12.04. Basically, Ubuntu for Android is an app for dual core Android phones, which allows users to dock their phones to a keyboard and monitor to have the full Ubuntu desktop. Unity has improved significantly since it began, and it has grown on me and I like it much more now than when I first began to use it. Pictured above is the Unity desktop in Ubuntu 16.04 LTS.

Recommended System Requirements for Unity
 Required RAM  1 GB
 Required CPU  1 GHz
Unity does not have a “traditional” menu like GNOME 2.x, but programs can be easily accessed by clicking on the Ubuntu symbol on the upper part of the launcher, or by pushing the “Windows” button found on most PCs. This opens up a box called the “dash” where users can search by typing in the name of desired programs to open them. Click on the picture above to see a screenshot of Ubuntu’s search filter mode found in the dash, which is the closest thing to a traditional menu in Unity.



After the change from GNOME 2.x to 3.x, Cinnamon was forked from GNOME 3.x as a desktop which is more traditional and truly in line with the essence of older Linux Mint desktops, while utilizing the newer technologies found in GNOME 3.x. Unlike MATE, which is a fork of GNOME 2.x, Cinnamon is based on GNOME 3.x. In a relatively short period of time, Cinnamon has quickly become a very solid desktop and a major force in the world of Linux. In my opinion, Cinnamon easily rivals the KDE desktop in visual beauty and appeal. Currently, Cinnamon along with MATE are the default desktop choices for Linux Mint. Also, Cinnarch uses Cinnamon as its default. Cinnamon is available to be installed on Ubuntu, Fedora, OpenSUSE, Arch Linux, Gentoo, Manjaro Linux, Sabayon, and Snowlinux. Pictured above is Cinnamon desktop in Linux Mint 18.

Above is a screenshot of the default menu in Linux Mint running Cinnamon.

Recommended System Requirements for Cinnamon (probably similar to Linux Mint’s requirements)
 Required RAM 512 MB
 Required CPU  1 GHz
Following are a few applications and components of Cinnamon:
Window Manager: Muffin
File Manager: Nemo



A fork of GNOME 2.x, MATE looks and acts just like the traditional GNOME 2.x shell which was replaced with the release of GNOME 3.x. As shown in the screenshot above, MATE is essentially a return to the much loved desktop found in older versions of Linux. While using MATE in Linux Mint, I felt very much at home with the desktop, and I highly recommend MATE to anyone who misses GNOME 2.x. In my own experiences, MATE seems much more like the old GNOME 2.x than Cinnamon. Currently, MATE, along with Cinnamon are the default desktop choices for Linux Mint beginning with version 13. Linux Mint, Ubuntu MATE, Fedora, Manjaro Linux, Sabayon, and Salix OS include MATE in their official repositories, and MATE packages are available to be installed into Arch Linux, Debian, Slackware Linux, OpenSUSE, and Ubuntu by adding repositories. Pictured above is MATE running in Ubuntu MATE 16.04 LTS.

Recommended System Requirements for MATE

 Required RAM 512 MB
 Required CPU  800 MHz
Following are a few applications and components of MATE:
Window Manager: Marco
File Manager: Caja
Text Editor: Pluma
Graphics Viewer: Eye of MATE
Document Viewer: Atril
Archive Manager: Engrampa
Terminal Emulator: MATE Terminal



In many ways, KDE (K Desktop Environment) in its default configuration is very similar in appearance to Microsoft Windows and Windows users will likely feel very much at home when using it. KDE is arguably the most powerful, versatile, smoothly integrated, and visually pleasing of all the Linux desktops and has more point-and-click customization options and “eye candy” than any of the various GNOMEs, Xfce, LXDE or any other Linux desktop. With its Plasma Workspaces, users can easily add a variety of widgets to the desktop. While KDE is the most polished in appearance when compared to other Linux desktops, it can be quite resource-hungry with its many desktop effects. However, when the desktop effects are turned off, KDE is fairly energy efficient. Typically, KDE requires less CPU resources than Ubuntu’s Unity and less RAM than the GNOME 3.x shell. OpenSUSE, PCLinuxOS, SolydXKMageia, and Chakra are some major Linux distros running KDE in their main editions. Kubuntu is the KDE version of Ubuntu. In summary, KDE is an outstanding desktop environment that is most definitely worth consideration. Pictured above is KDE PCLinuxOS.

Like GNOME, KDE includes a large number of applications which are designed to be used in its desktop, many of which have a name that begins with the letter “K.” For example, Konqueror is a web browser and file manager, and KStars is a desktop planetarium. Also like the GNOME applications, the KDE applications can be used in other desktop environments. You can click here to see a list of KDE applications [2]. Following are a few applications and components of KDE:
Window Manager: KWin
File Manager: Dolphin
Office Suite: KOffice
Music Player: Amarok
Video Player: Dragon Player
CD/DVD Burner: K3b
Terminal Emulator: Konsole
Education: KDE Edu
Widget Toolkit: Qt
Recommended System Requirements for KDE
Required RAM 615 MB
Required CPU  1 GHz
One option in newer versions of KDE is to run it in the “Search and Launch” mode, which in some ways is similar in appearance to the GNOME 3.x shell and to Ubuntu’s Unity. This mode with its large icons and search can be used with a touchscreen, and is great for smaller devices such as netbooks and tablets. While the Search and Launch mode is an option in KDE, it is not the default like it is in the GNOME 3.x shell and in Unity. The Search and Launch mode is easily activated or deactivated by clicking on the “Show Activity Manager” button found on the desktop panel, next to the “Application Launcher Menu.” Click on the picture above to see a larger screenshot of the KDE 4.7 Search and Launch mode.



Less resource-hungry than GNOME or KDE, Xfce is a great choice for older computers and it is still a full-fledged desktop environment that offers a great deal to the user. In my opinion, Xfce provides a nice balance between functionality and conservation of system resources, while still having a beautiful desktop. In its default appearance, Xfce very much resembles Mac OS X with its dock-like panel found at the bottom of the desktop. Users can drag their favorite applications from the menu (found on the left side of the upper panel) and place them on the bottom dock/panel in a similar manner as can be done in Mac OS X. Just like GNOME 2.x and KDE, Xfce may easily be customized to more closely resemble Windows, or to be configured otherwise as desired. SolydX is the Xfce version of SolydXK. Also, Xubuntu is the Xfce version of Ubuntu, and Mythbuntu has Xfce as its desktop. VectorLinux uses Xfce as its default desktop, and many other Linux distros offer Xfce versions as well. In many ways, Xfce looks and acts much like GNOME 2.x, and for those who like the GNOME 2.x desktop and are not completely satisfied with the changes in the GNOME 3.x shell or Unity, Xfce could be a great fit. Pictured above is Xfce in Xubuntu 16.04 LTS.

Following are a few applications and components of Xfce:
Window Manager: Xfwm
File Manager: Thunar
Media Player: Parole
CD/DVD Burner: Xfburn
Task Manager: Xfce Task Manager
Widget Toolkit: GTK+
Recommended System Requirements for Xfce
Required RAM 192 MB
Required CPU  300 MHz [3]



When compared to GNOME, KDE, and Xfce, LXDE (Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment) is the least resource-hungry, which makes it an outstanding choice for older computers. Additionally, it will run extremely fast on newer computers. Even with its super-efficiency, LXDE is still a nice and feature-rich desktop environment that has menus which are simple and straightforward and very easy to navigate. In its default appearance LXDE resembles older versions of Windows (such as Windows 98 or 2000), with a single panel at the bottom of the desktop and a menu found on the left side of that panel, but like GNOME 2.x, KDE, and Xfce, it can be customized in a variety of ways. Lubuntu (the LXDE version of Ubuntu), Peppermint OS, and Knoppix are popular distros which have LXDE as their default desktop environment. Many other Linux distros offer LXDE versions as well. Pictured above is LXDE in Lubuntu 16.04 LTS.
Following are a few applications and components of LXDE:
Window Manager: Openbox
File Manager: PCManFM
Task Manager: LXTask
Terminal Emulator: LXTerminal
Widget Toolkit: GTK+
Recommended System Requirements for LXDE
Required RAM 128 MB
Required CPU  266 MHz


Bodhi Linux 1.1.0 screenshot


Though Enlightenment (a.k.a. “E”) is a window manager, it can also be considered a desktop environment, and the project has grown to encompass a number of libraries which are together known as EFL [4]. One very nice feature of Enlightenment is its flexibility, which among other things allows it to run on a wide variety of devices that includes mobile phones, game systems, laptops, and powerful desktop computers. Enlightenment requires less system resources than the GNOME, KDE, Xfce Razor-qt, or even LXDE, yet it also is quite visually appealing and offers a lot of “eye candy,” which is amazing given its very small footprint. The Enlightenment desktop is somewhat unique in its appearance, and users can simply click anywhere on it to access the menu. Bodhi Linux is a popular distro that uses Enlightenment as its default desktop. Pictured above is Enlightenment running in Bodhi Linux 1.1.0.

Enlightenment menu screenshot
Above is a screenshot of the Enlightenment menu in running in Lubuntu.
Following are a few applications and components of Enlightenment:
Window Manager: Enlightenment
File Manager: EFM
Web Browser: Eve
Terminal Emulator: Eterm
Widget Toolkit: Elementary
Recommended System Requirements for Enlightenment (E17) to be fully functional on a netbook, laptop, or desktop
Required RAM 64 MB
Required CPU 200 MHz [20]

Razor-qt screenshot


A relative new-comer to the world of desktop environments for Linux, Razor-qt is still very much in its fledgling stages. As it says on the Razor-qt website, it is “tailored for users who value simplicity, speed, and an intuitive interface.” A nice feature of Razor-qt is its ability to run with a variety of window managers such as Openbox, Metacity, or KWin. At this point, Razor-qt does not yet have its own file manager or other applications (other than a clock widget), but perhaps it will have more applications in the future. Overall, it is a clean interface, which to me is reminiscent of older versions of KDE. It is planned that Razor-qt and LXDE will be merged together. Pictured above is Razor-qt running in Lubuntu 12.04.
Razor-qt menu screenshot
Above is a screenshot of the Razor-qt menu running in Lubuntu.
Currently, Razor-qt does not have its own applications.
Widget Toolkit: Qt
At this point, there are not any recommended system requirements for Razor-qt that I can find, but based on my own tests, it appears that the system requirements for Razor-qt should probably be something similar to Xfce. So the Recommended System Requirements below are the same as those for Xfce.
Required RAM 192 MB
Required CPU 300 MHz

Popular Window Managers in Linux:

GNOME, KDE, Xfce, and LXDE are complete desktop environments, each of which come with their own programs and applications, menus, icons, a file manager, and a window manager. Window managers are, as the term suggests, simply used to manage the opening and closing of programs in a graphical, point-and-click windowed desktop. Window managers can be used as a component of a desktop environment, or they can run on their own. GNOME 2.x uses Metacity as its default window manager, the GNOME 3.x shell uses Mutter, KDE uses KWin, Xfce uses Xfwm, and LXDE uses OpenBox [22]. Some other examples of popular X11 window managers are FluxboxIceWM, and JWM. To varying degrees all of these window managers are less resource-hungry than GNOME, KDE, Xfce, Razor-qt, and even LXDE and Enlightenment and are great for extremely old computers.

A Comparison Desktop Environment / Window Manager RAM and CPU Usage:

Below are the results of an ongoing “unscientific” test I began conducting (out of my own curiosity) in 2011 with various desktop environments and window managers. In the most recent round of this test, I ran Unity in Ubuntu, the GNOME 3.x shell in Fedora, and all of the other desktop environments and window managers in Lubuntu. All systems tested were 32-bit. Each of these were installed and ran through VirtualBox. In all of the desktop environments and window managers I opened the LX Task Manager (lxtask) to record the RAM and CPU usage numbers, while each system was at idle after a fresh boot with no other open applications. As a side note, to “compare apples and oranges,” I opened Windows 7 on a newer HP laptop and recorded the system usage numbers. While Windows 7 used 0% of the CPU at idle from a fresh boot which was slightly better than the Linux desktop environments or window managers, it used significantly more RAM at 1.13 GB which is more than four times that of the GNOME 3.x shell. Finally, it should be mentioned that this is simply a test I completed out of curiosity, and while the results are interesting, it is probably best for you to use the recommended system requirements for each desktop environment as a guide when deciding which one is best for your computer.Below are my most recent results (ranked in order from highest RAM usage to the lowest) for the Linux desktop environments and window managers:
 Name of Desktop Environment / Window ManagerIn Parenthesis: Operating System Used for Testing  RAM used  % of CPU (2.6 GHz total) used  Type
 GNOME 3.x shell (Fedora 17)  248 MB  1-2 %  desktop shell (GNOME 3.x-based)
 Unity (Ubuntu 12.04 LTS)  218 MB  1-4 %  desktop shell (GNOME 3.x-based)
 MATE (Linux Mint 13)  205 MB 9-10 %  desktop environment
 GNOME 2.x shell (Lubuntu 11.04)  191 MB  1 %  desktop shell (GNOME 2.x-based)
 Cinnamon (Linux Mint 13)  175 MB  11-12 %  desktop shell (GNOME 3.x-based)
 GNOME 3.x Classic (Fallback Mode) (Lubuntu 12.04)  141 MB  1-2 %  desktop shell (GNOME 3.x-based)
 KDE 4.8.2 (Lubuntu 12.04)  131 MB  1-3 %  desktop environment
 Razor-qt (Lubuntu 12.04)  117 MB  1-2 %  desktop environment
 Xfce 4.8 (Lubuntu 12.04)  106 MB  1-2 %  desktop environment
 LXDE (Lubuntu 12.04)  82 MB  1-2 % desktop environment
 OpenBox (Lubuntu 12.04)  76 MB  1-2 %  window manager
 Enlightenment (E17 Standard) (Lubuntu 12.04)  72 MB  1-14 %  desktop environment
 JWM (Lubuntu 11.04)  58 MB  1 %  window manager
 Fluxbox (Lubuntu 12.04)  55 MB  1-3 %  window manager
 IceWM (Lubuntu 12.04)  53 MB  3 %  window manager
Because the GNOME desktop environment has become splintered into a variety of forms, I have included the most popular shells for GNOME in my tests above. One thing which surprised me was that MATE used more RAM than Cinnamon in my tests.

Interchangeability / Flexibility of Linux Desktop Environments and Window Managers:

Mac OS X lookalike

One great feature of Linux is that programs / applications that are made to run in any one of these desktop environments will normally work in the others. For example, GNOME Games can also run in KDE, Xfce, or LXDE while KDE Games can likewise run in GNOME, Xfce, and LXDE. It should also be mentioned that many major Linux distros offer versions in multiple desktop environments / window managers, which includes all four of the desktop environments described above, and it is even possible to have any combination of GNOME, KDE, Xfce, LXDE, Enlightenment, or other desktop environments / window managers installed simultaneously on your Linux system. However, when installing multiple Linux desktop environments / window managers on the same computer, it is important to know that there will be may redundancies between similar applications (system tools, games, etc.) found within each.

Zorin OS 5 Core screenshot

Another outstanding feature of Linux desktop environments / window managers is their flexibility, which gives users the ability to customize them to look quite unique, or to imitate the look of other operating systems such as Windows and Mac OS X. Docky allows the creation and customization of a Mac OS X-like dock. Zorin OS has a nice feature called “Look Changer” which allows users to choose the normal GNOME desktop, or from desktops very similar to either Mac OS X, Windows 7 or XP. Click here to see more examples of customized Linux desktops [5]. Below are links to websites which offer a wide variety of eye candy for the GNOME, KDE, and Xfce desktops:
Click here for a nice comparison between KDE and GNOME [9]. Click here to learn more about the differences between the various Linux desktop environments in an article by [10]. Wikipedia also provides an excellent comparison of the various desktop environments in an article entitled “Comparison of X Window System Desktop Environments” [11]. Another great resource is the Windows Managers for X website [12].

Which Desktop Environment is My Favorite?

Since I began using Linux in 2008, I have spent a great deal of time in GNOME 2.x, KDE, Xfce, LXDE, Unity, GNOME 3.x, MATE, and Cinnamon. To a lesser degree, I have also spent some time using Enlightenment and Razor-qt. In my opinion, each of the desktops described on this page are worthy choices. There are aspects of each desktop that I like, and I have gone back and forth between several desktops as my favorites. If I am forced to narrow it down, my favorites are Cinnamon, MATE, Unity, Xfce, and LXDE. My recommendation to anyone would be to try all of these desktops and decide which one(s) work best for them.


1.    ^ “List of GNOME Applications.”
2.    ^ “List of KDE Applications.”
3.    ^ “Xfce System Requirements. “
4.    ^ “EFL Overview.”
5.    ^ “25 Best Linux Desktop Customization Screenshots.”
6.    ^ GNOME-Look.
7.    ^ KDE-Look.
8.    ^ Xfce-Look.
9.    ^ “KDE and Gnome Comparison.”
10.    ^ “Desktops: KDE vs Gnome.”
11    ^ “Comparison of X Window System Desktop Environments.”
12.    ^ Windows Managers for X.

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Updated 12/8/2016