However, for many users, these choices are too extreme. Usually, the preference for a minimalist environment is a reaction to the size or lack of speed of GNOME or KDE (usually involving the word "bloated"), but that doesn't mean that their proponents want to give up all the convenience of a graphical interface. Some may be looking for an environment for older equipment, but most of those who favor minimalist environments simply seem to admire efficiency and simplicity over any other considerations.
One long-established minimalist choice that has undergone a minor revival in recent months is Enlightenment. Although originally described as a window manager, Enlightenment more closely resembles a lightweight desktop these days. It is highly configurable and generally stable, but users shopping around for an alternative might be put off by its slowness to reach a major release.
Instead, minimalist users seem to prefer more modern choices, such as LXDE, which promotes itself as a "fast-performing and energy-saving desktop environment." One sign of LXDE's popularity is that last year Lubuntu became an official variant of Ubuntu.
Another minimalist choice is Sugar, the interface for One Laptop Per Child. However, Sugar has had only limited acceptance as a general desktop environment. Its focus on children and education is not for everybody, and the interface, while simple to learn, may be too different for many users to seriously consider it.
The last year also saw the release of Razor-qt, whose home page summarizes it as "tailored for users who value simplicity, speed, and an intuitive interface."
If none of these choice suit your minimalist instincts, do a search on Distrowatch for distributions based on various desktop environments. The majority of options in the desktop environment field are for minimalist options -- proof, if any were needed, of how popular this criterion is.
Experimental desktops try to go beyond the traditional expectations and anticipate how users might work more efficiently. Although you can find many interesting experimental minor environments, to date, so far the major experimental desktops are GNOME and KDE.
It didn't use to be that way. For the first decade of their existence, both GNOME and KDE had the same goal: to catch up to existing proprietary desktop environments like Windows. Having reached that goal several years ago, both projects decided to try to get ahead of their proprietary rivals, and innovate.
Until then, for all the famous flame wars, GNOME and KDE were functionally similar. If one added a new feature, the other was quick to follow, and efforts such as freedesktop.org existed mainly to ensure mutual compatibility and cooperation.
But in KDE 4 and GNOME 3, the two most popular desktops presented dramatically different visions of the future of graphical interfaces.
Both abstracted the interface from the functional core, which allowed Unity to run on top of GNOME, and KDE to develop desktops for different hardware platforms. However, the results could hardly have been more different if deliberately chosen.
GNOME chose to eliminate clutter -- by which it meant features like panel applets and icons on the desktops. In their place, GNOME added an overview and made virtual desktops an automatic feature. Instead of accommodating different work flows, it enforced a particular one in the hopes of making everything simpler and more efficient.
By contrast, KDE focused on increasing the choices on the desktop. Instead of a single desktop, it encouraged multiple ones, each with its own configuration. Instead of a single set of widgets and icons, KDE offered multiple ones. Where GNOME eliminated applets, KDE allowed its widgets to spill over from the panel to the desktop.
These were radical changes, and direct causes of the present desktop environment fragmentation. Both were too much for traditionalists, and neither were major moves toward minimalism, especially KDE, whose fourth release series is generally considered slower than its third release series.
All the same, both these experiments have their supporters. Whether you appreciate one of them depends on whether you agree with their assumptions of how desktop environments should involve. Of the two, KDE is more tolerant of different ways of working, but even it is often condemned by traditionalists and minimalists as being more complicated than anyone wants.
Amid the other desktop environments available today, Unity is an anomaly. It is not a traditional desktop, nor a minimalist one, and, far from being experimental, it is a simplification -- some might say an over-simplification.
Just as importantly, Unity is not a reaction to user demands, nor an attempt to evolve the desktop. So far as anyone outside of Canonical and Ubuntu's inner circles can judge, Unity appears to be largely the vision of one man: Mark Shuttleworth, who stepped down as Canonical CEO so he could focus on interface design.
The motivations driving Unity appear to be pragmatic ones, such as developing an interface suitable for a variety of hardware platforms, and borrowing features from OS X to fit a particular concept of usability. As much as Ubuntu's elaborate color choices, Unity brands Ubuntu as a distribution unlike any other.