There’s no one true desktop environment for Linux. Unlike competing operating systems like Windows, Linux users have a choice of many different desktop environments, all with their own styles and strengths.
You can install one of these desktop environments after installing your Linux distribution and switch between desktop environments from the login screen. You can also choose to install a Linux distribution that comes with the desktop environment. For example, you can get Ubuntu in many different flavors.
Unity is Ubuntu’s own default desktop environment. If you’ve installed Ubuntu using the standard installer, you’re probably using the Unity desktop right now.
Unity is Ubuntu’s vision of what a Linux desktop should be. In fact, for most users, Unity is probably synonymous with Ubuntu. From its searchable Dash (which also searches online sources) to its application dock that functions similarly to Windows 7′s taskbar, Unity has its own identity as a desktop. However, Unity also includes a variety of programs from the GNOME desktop. Prior to Unity, Ubuntu used GNOME — many of these GNOME programs, like the Nautilus file manager, are still used on Unity today.
GNOME was once the most popular Linux desktop environment. The GNOME 2.x series was used by default on Ubuntu, Fedora, Debian, and most other big Linux distributions. It was a simple, fairly lightweight desktop environment. After the transition to the new GNOME 3 with its GNOME Shell interface, Ubuntu and other distributions began moving away from GNOME. GNOME 3 was arguably too simple and stripped-down in terms of options and features — for example, it doesn’t even include a taskbar by default.
However, GNOME 3 now supports extensions that can add many missing desktop features, including a taskbar. GNOME 3 is a slick desktop that takes advantage of the graphical effects available on multiple computers, and some people do prefer its vision of the Linux desktop. It works similarly to Unity in some ways, with a full-screen application launcher.
At one point, KDE and GNOME were the two most popular Linux desktop environments. KDE has always been more complex than GNOME, packing in many more configuration options and features. It’s a bit more Windows-like than the other desktop environments here, coming with a single taskbar on the bottom of the screen that includes a menu, quick launch-type icons, a taskbar, a notification area, and a clock — the typical layout of a Windows taskbar before Windows 7.
KDE is a solid desktop environment that’s well-suited to someone who wants a lot of configuration options. KDE 4′s desktop comes with a variety of widgets, so the desktop itself can be extensively customized, too. KDE is based on the QT toolkit, whereas GNOME and Unity are based on the GTK toolkit. This means that KDE uses different programs than these other desktops — file manager, image viewer, and so on — they’re all different programs than you’d use on a GNOME or Unity desktop.
Xfce is a more lightweight desktop environment. It was once very similar to GNOME, but with GNOME 3 striking out in a different direction, Xfce now has its own identity as a more traditional Linux desktop environment that’s quite similar to GNOME 2.
This option is ideal if you want a more traditional desktop environment without full-screen application launchers, overdone graphical effects, and desktop widgets. It’s also more lightweight than the other options here, making it ideal for older computers or ones without stable 3D graphics drivers that can’t handle the effects in Unity and GNOME.
While Xfce also uses the GTK toolkit, it includes many of its own programs, such as a lightweight file manager, text editor, and image viewer. You won’t find all the typical programs you would find in Unity and GNOME, although some common ones are present.
Cinnamon was developed for Linux Mint. Cinnamon is based on GNOME 3, so it uses up-to-date libraries and other software — but it takes that software and tries to create a more traditional-looking desktop with it.
This modern desktop environment offers nice graphical effects and a rethought application menu. However, it doesn’t throw away the past and includes a taskbar, application menu that doesn’t take up the full screen, and so on. Linux Mint pushes Cinnamon as one of its preferred desktop environments, but you can also install and use it on Ubuntu.
As it’s based on GNOME, Cinnamon uses many GNOME utilities but also includes some of its own configuration tools.
MATE is a fork of the original GNOME 2 that aims to preserve GNOME 2, continually updating it so it will continue to work on modern Linux distributions. MATE has also seen some new features, but the main purpose of MATE is to give people who desperately miss GNOME 2 the opportunity to install it on new Linux distributions. It’s officially supported along with Cinnamon in Linux Mint, where it’s given a prominent place as a default choice.
This desktop environment is ideal for people who really miss GNOME 2. In some ways, a desktop environment like Cinnamon is probably better positioned for the future as it’s based on newer software like GTK 3, while MINT is stuck with the older GTK 2.
If you didn’t think Xfce was lightweight enough, try LXDE. LXDE is focused on being as lightweight as possible and is especially designed for older computers, netbooks, and other systems with low hardware resources. While it’s a lightweight desktop, it includes all the standard desktop features — some lightweight desktops omit the taskbar entirely, but LXDE doesn’t.
Like Xfce, LXDE bundles its own lightweight file manager, text editor, image viewer, terminal program, and other utilities.
Xmonad and More
This isn’t a complete list — not by a long shot. There are many more niche desktop environments and window managers you could use, including Xmonad, a tiling window manager. Tiling window managers attempt to make your life easier by automatically arranging windows in tiles on your screen, saving you the trouble of dragging them around and allowing you to quickly rearrange them with keyboard shortcuts. It’s a good example of just how different from each other Linux desktop environments can be.
What desktop environment do you prefer on your Linux box?