Is customizing your Linux desktop important to you? Run Linux for even a few months, and the ability to customize a desktop environment according to your preferences can become a right.
Customization options start with the fact that more than one Linux desktop is available, and many of these desktop environments allow some customization of the desktop and panel. However, others include options for almost everything you can see or use.
Which degree of customization is right for you? To help you decide, here are the currently most popular Linux desktops, arrange from least to most customizable:
Unity is Ubuntu's desktop default. Designed for use on everything from phones to work stations, it installs with an absolute minimum of customization options. The panel allows no options, and the only options for the desktop launcher are to add or delete icons. Similarly, you can change the desktop wallpaper and add only folders and documents from the graphical interface, although you can use the file manager to drag and drop other items.
In the past, Unity had a Tweak tool like GNOME's (see below) that greatly extended the degree of customization when installed. However, Ubuntu Tweak has been unmaintained since May 2016, and may no longer work on every Ubuntu installation.
By design, LXDE has very few customizations. It has a select group of additions to the panel, the ability to change desktop wall papers, font sizes, and the panel's position, and very little else besides. It can add documents and folders to the desktop, but not application icons.
The trade-off is that LXDE is the most lightweight of the major Linux desktops, suitable for older machines, or for those who regard the desktop as only a launcher for applications and therefore care little about customizing more than the basics.
Xfce is a classic desktop, intended to strike a balance between speed and usability. It allows a full array of configurable launchers on the desktop, but nothing on the panel. Instead of its own configuration application, it relies on a carefully chosen selection of individual applications.
GNOME 3 was released with only basic customizations. Today, however, GNOME supports over 700 extensions. Most of them are replacements for basic parts of the desktop, such as the menu or the panel, although docks are also well-represented. Several extensions replaced the Activities overview, and a careful combination of extensions can make GNOME 3 resemble GNOME 2 or MATE. At times, though, one extension may conflict with another.
Another, sometimes more reliable way to customize GNOME is by installing GNOME Tweak Tool, which includes options for window behavior, the appearance of widgets, the choice and display of fonts, and general appearance and behavior, such as whether the clock includes the day, or what happens when a laptop suspends. If you like to have icons on the desktop, you can also enable them on GNOME Tweak's File Manager tab. Many users consider GNOME Tweak indispensable.
MATE is a fork of the GNOME 2 desktop, which many consider the ideal Linux desktop. That means that it reflects the degree of customization that many users expect in their desktop environment.
Most of MATE's customization options are located in the Systems menu on the top panel.The Administration sub-menus has configuration settings for system hardware, while the Preferences sub-menu has two dozen sub- menus for personal options ranging from Screen Saver and Sound to Pop up Notifications and Preferred Applications. Both Administration and Preferences menus are also arranged in the Control Center.
MATE also supports panel applets and icons on the desktop for applications, folders, documents, and URLs.
Cinnamon is Linux Mint's effort to build its own desktop. Since its first release in 2011, it has steadily added customization tools, always just slightly ahead of MATE, Linux Mint's other desktop (see above).
The most difference is that Cinnamon's customization tools are less centralized than MATE's unless you load the Settings Applet and can sometimes be difficult to find. More importantly, Cinnamon has a more varied set of applets, such as one for managing multiple NVidia GPUs and an overview for virtual workspaces. In addition, Cinnamon also supports desklets, or utilities that install directly on the desktop.
Of all the desktops that rely on GNOME applications -- that is, all of them except KDE -- Cinnamon is currently the most configurable, and likely to become more so with each release.
KDE is widely acknowledged as the most customizable of the major Linux desktops. For instance, while many desktops allow icon sets to be changed, KDE allows detailed filters for setting what icons display, allowing users to quickly customize the available icons to the task at hand. An even better example is the Windows Behavior tab of the System Settings, which not only affect the appearance of windows and how they open and change focus, but allows custom settings for individual desktops and virtual desktops.
KDE has numerous features that other desktops lack, including desktop hot spots and widgets that can be placed on either the panel or the desktop. However, by far the greatest customizations are in KDE's Activities, or individual desktops. Each Activity can have its own layout, as well as customized icons, and their number is limited only by your computer's memory.
If anything, KDE has so many customizations that it can cause anxiety, or at least seem like overkill. Fortunately, most users can function perfectly well with the defaults, and can explore options slowly, or even ignore them altogether.
Linux desktop customization, of course, is not the only criterion for choosing an open source desktop. All the same, with many uses spending 4-10 hours at the keyboard, it quickly becomes important. The desktop wallpaper alone can soothe or enrage, and, the more features are arranged to your liking or expectations, the less interruption you will have in your work flow.
If one of these descriptions sounds promising to you, use a Live DVD or a virtual machine to test it. Click everywhere so you know exactly what configuration options are available, then do your best to set up the desktop exactly how you prefer it. Use the result for at least three days, making changes as they occur to you. At the end of three days, you should know whether the configured desktop suits you or not.