In Linux, there are so many choices, and this includes the desktop environments and window managers. The most popular desktop environments in Linux areGNOME, Unity, Cinnamon, MATE, KDE, 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:
|Required RAM||768 MB|
|Required CPU||400 MHz|
One option in GNOME 3.x is to run it in the “Fallback Mode,” which is designed for hardware not capable of handling the more graphically intensive default GNOME 3.x desktop shell. The Fallback Mode strongly resembles the user interface in GNOME 2.x and should appeal to those who are not comfortable with the default, but one problem is that it is not very configurable in its default.
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. Click on the picture above to see a larger screenshot of the Unity desktop in Ubuntu 12.04 LTS.
|Required RAM||1 GB|
|Required CPU||1 GHz|
Above is a screenshot of the default menu in Linux Mint running Cinnamon.
|Required RAM||512 MB|
|Required CPU||1 GHz|
Above is a screenshot of the MATE menu.
Recommended System Requirements for MATE (My guess is that they should be similar to the GNOME 2.x shell)
|Required RAM||512 MB|
|Required CPU||800 MHz|
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, SolydXK, Mageia, 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. Click on the picture above to see a larger screenshot of KDE 4.8.2 in Kubuntu 12.04 LTS.
|Required RAM||615 MB|
|Required CPU||1 GHz|
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. Click on the picture above to see a larger screenshot of Xfce 4.8 in Xubuntu 12.04 LTS.
Above is a screenshot of the Xfce menu in Xubuntu.
|Required RAM||192 MB|
|Required CPU||300 MHz|
Above is a screenshot of the LXDE menu in Lubuntu.
|Required RAM||128 MB|
|Required CPU||266 MHz|
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 . 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. Click on the picture above to see a larger screenshot of Enlightenment running in Bodhi Linux 1.1.0.
|Required RAM||64 MB|
|Required CPU||200 MHz|
|Required RAM||192 MB|
|Required CPU||300 MHz|
Popular Window Managers in Linux:
A Comparison Desktop Environment / Window Manager RAM and CPU Usage:
|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|
Interchangeability / Flexibility of Linux Desktop Environments and Window Managers:
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.
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 KDE, Cinnamon, MATE, Unity, and LXDE. My recommendation to anyone would be to try all of these desktops and decide which one(s) work best for them.
1. ^ GNOME. http://www.gnome.org/.
2. ^ “List of GNOME Applications.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_GNOME_applications.
3. ^ “Get Fedora.” http://fedoraproject.org/en/get-fedora.
4. ^ “GNOME 3 Fallback Mode – Get Your Productivity Back.” http://www.dedoimedo.com/computers/gnome-3-fallback.html.
5. ^ “Fedora 16 and GNOME Shell: Tested and Reviewed.” http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/fedora-16-gnome-3-review,3155.html.
6. ^ Unity. http://unity.ubuntu.com/.
7. ^ “Will Ubuntu 11.04 Work on My Old PC?” http://askubuntu.com/questions/22402/will-ubuntu-11-04-work-on-my-old-pc.
8. ^ Cinnamon. http://cinnamon.linuxmint.com/.
9. ^ “Linux Mint.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linux_Mint.
10. ^ MATE. http://mate-desktop.org/.>
11. ^ KDE. http://www.kde.org/.
12. ^ “List of KDE Applications.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_KDE_applications.
13. ^ “GNOME vs. KDE: The Latest Round. “http://itmanagement.earthweb.com/osrc/article.php/3930006/GNOME-vs-KDE-The-Latest-Round.htm.
14. ^ Xfce. http://www.xfce.org/.
15. ^ “Xfce System Requirements. “http://wiki.xfce.org/minimum_requirements.
16. ^ “LXDE.” http://lxde.org/.
17. ^ “LXDE Waves Goodbye to GTK in Merge with Razor-qt.” http://www.zdnet.com/lxde-waves-goodbye-to-gtk-in-merge-with-razor-qt-7000018476/.
18. ^ “LXDE.” http://lxde.sourceforge.net/about.html.
19. ^ Enlightenment. http://www.enlightenment.org/.
20. ^ “EFL Overview.” http://www.enlightenment.org/p.php?p=about/efl.
21. ^ Enlightenment-About. http://www.enlightenment.org/p.php?p=about&l=en.
22. ^ Razor-qt. http://razor-qt.org/.
23. ^ OpenBox. http://openbox.org/.
24. ^ Fluxbox. http://fluxbox.org/.
25. ^ IceWM. http://www.icewm.org/.
26. ^ JWM (Joe’s Window Manager). http://www.joewing.net/programs/jwm/.
27. ^ “25 Best Linux Desktop Customization Screenshots.” http://www.tux-planet.fr/25-best-linux-desktop-customization-screenshots/.
28. ^ GNOME-Look. http://gnome-look.org/.
29. ^ KDE-Look. http://kde-look.org/.
30. ^ Xfce-Look. http://xfce-look.org/.
31. ^ “KDE and Gnome Comparison.” http://www.psychocats.net/ubuntu/kdegnome.
32. ^ “Desktops: KDE vs Gnome.” http://linuxreviews.org/software/desktops/.
33 ^ “Comparison of X Window System Desktop Environments.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_X_Window_System_desktop_environments.
34. ^ Windows Managers for X. http://xwinman.org/.
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