Which Linux Desktop is Right For You?

Is a Linux desktop with a lot of bells and whistles best for you? Or do you like a simpler desktop?
Posted February 2, 2015

Matt Hartley

Over the years, the debate over the best Linux desktop environment has raged on. KDE, Gnome, one of the lighter weight Linux desktops – there are so many options to choose from. In this article, I’ll examine the variety of desktops available and compare them accordingly.

Trying something new

In order to find the best fit, you have to be willing to step outside of your normal desktop environment to try something new. In the past, I tried out Elementary OS. It was a pleasant experience, offering me a new way of looking at the Linux desktop. What stood out to me the most with this distro was the Pantheon desktop. Being someone who hails from more traditional desktop options, the opportunity to spend some quality time with Pantheon was definitely time well spent.

That said, I’m still a fan of MATE and XFCE as my preferred desktop environments. Simple, lightweight and perfect for my needs. But having spent some time using the Pantheon desktop, I can see where this would be a great fit for someone needing a little more pizazz to ones operating system.

Realizing the benefits of trying something new, let’s get to learning how to determine the best Linux desktop for your needs.

PC resources

Normally one might think their personal work flow sets the pace for which desktop environment to use. Yet I find that this is actually a secondary consideration. Your first concern needs to be: will your PC run the desktop environment you’re considering?

For any system older than 2008 with less than 2 GB of RAM, I recommend considering one of the following desktop options. Bear in mind, my recommendations are based on personal experience, not distro-specific recommendations.

LXDE - Considered to be among the lightest of the lightweight desktops, I recommend this for PCs with less than 2 GB of RAM and an older CPU. To take things even further in terms of getting the most out of LXDE, I recommend using Openbox as the default window manager.

LXQt -- Considered to be a lightweight Qt option for those needing a lightweight desktop. I’d consider LXQt to be under active development, with room to grow. What this means is that it’s going to be amazing, but it’s still very much a beta product. In the years to come LXQt could be a solid option and will be THE lightweight desktop to watch.

There are other lightweight desktop environments out there as well. However, I feel these are the two top contenders overall with regard to working with a low resource PC. They balance ease of use along with not dropping in with a huge resource footprint.

Desktop bells and whistles

Individuals with newer computers, where system resources aren’t an issue, have the opportunity to choose a desktop environment based on what they want.

GNOME -- A perfect solution for someone who is seeking a tightly unified, clean, yet fancy-looking user experience. GNOME is easily extended via GNOME extensions, which means you’re able to customize much of its functionality. It also integrates smoothly with GTK-based applications, such as Evolution. Those who are familiar with their applications and enjoy a good looking desktop will find this is the best bet.

KDE -- Perhaps the ultimate master’s desktop, KDE allows its users to customize specific workflows based on need. I’ve also found that KDE does a fine job of sticking to a standard launcher button menu. The real magic in using KDE has to be its widget capabilities. It’s like having access to application functions, without needing to run the entire app! I believe KDE appeals to power users who enjoy maximum control of their desktop.

Cinnamon - An honorable mention also goes to the Cinnamon desktop. To be honest, if I was to ever find myself looking for a resourceful desktop alternative to MATE, I’d be using Cinnamon. It has a standard launcher for immediate menu access, plus its applet handling is second to none. Cinnamon is easily the perfect desktop for someone looking to blend traditional with bleeding edge. I’ve been known to equate Cinnamon to MATE with more bells and whistles. Both offer an outstanding experience, but Cinnamon provides those fun transitions that the kids are raging on about.

A Linux desktop for work

As much as I enjoy the desktops above, nothing beats MATE for my needs. Video editing, article writing, various website tasks, no matter what I need to get done I find that MATE running Synapseis the best fit for me.

What it lacks in extensions, it makes up for in distraction free computing. Plus, basic needs such as network switching and resource monitoring is provided by the available applets.

Where Cinnamon, KDE and GNOME provide the ability to extend your desktop into something grand and multi-functional, MATE does a nice job of keeping focus on the task at hand. I’d consider it the ultimate desktop for focusing on ones work.

As a side benefit, MATE also frees its users from the need to deal with a composting desktop. So instead of wasting CPU cycles on composting, transitions and so forth -- save the CPU power for your software instead. But MATE isn’t just for those looking to work, it’s also great for newbies as well.

Unity isn’t for Linux newbies

I take no issue with Ubuntu’s Unity. For intermediate to experienced Linux users, I think it’s great. But every single new user I’ve ever parked in front of it came away harshly judging the platform itself, not merely the desktop. Realizing this, my two recommended newbie friendly desktop environments are Cinnamon and MATE.

Both desktops provide a sane, easily understood menu structure. Best of all, both of these desktops are stable and provide a familiar experience to anyone coming from Windows. So what about KDE, LXDE and others? These also offer similar menu traits! While it’s true that other desktops also offer aspects of what one would find with Cinnamon and MATE, I’ve found that those two provide the most consistent experience overall. Obviously fans of KDE, LXDE, and other desktops will disagree and that’s fine.

A Personal Decision

So which desktop environment is right for you? Unfortunately, I can't answer this question for you. It remains a deeply personal question each of us are left to figure out on our own. My advice is to start with what your gut tells you. If bells and whistles matter to you, then clearly going with a desktop that provides such an experience is the right choice.

That said, if you simply want something clean that can launch software in a meaningful manner, there’s something to be said for using a simple desktop environment. Voice your opinion in the Comments section.

Tags: Linux, Linux desktop, Gnome, KDE

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