Asked to recommend a Linux desktop, users respond in a number of ways. Many recommend their own preferences. Others suggest the desktop environment that they believe is closest in appearance and function to Windows or OS X.
A while ago, though, I realized that the seven major Linux desktops can be ranked on a spectrum from the highly customizable to those that are little more than launchers for their applications.
Starting with the customizers, my rankings along this spectrum are:
Ever see a Windows users’ reactions to all the options on a Linux desktop? Well, KDE produces the same look of baffled amazement in the users of other Linux desktops. KDE is by far the greatest desktop for customization, allowing you to choose how windows look and function down to the smallest detail.
Mercifully, you can leave most of KDE’s options to the defaults. However, if you don’t like the idea of almost unlimited customizations — if the idea makes you uncomfortable — then you probably won’t want KDE.
By contrast, if you want a desktop that can develop with your needs, or just like tinkering, then KDE should be your obvious choice.
From KDE to Cinnamon is a long descent. Cinnamon is not nearly as versatile as KDE.
However, Linux Mint, Cinnamon’s maker, has the rare habit among desktop developers of listening to user feedback. With each release, Cinnamon has become more customizable without becoming so radical as to lose users.
If KDE sounds like more than you want, start exploring desktops with Cinnamon.
Also produced by Linux Mint, MATE began as a fork of GNOME 2, which many users still cite as the ideal desktop. However, like Cinnamon, MATE gains useful options with each release. In an era where desktop innovation is regarded cautiously, it is actually slightly oriented towards the customizers. You won’t find radical changes with MATE releases, but you will find practical incremental ones.
The early releases in the GNOME 3 series were determined so much by their design parameters that they would have been second only to LXDE as a launcher. In the name of removing clutter, the early GNOME releases limited applets on the panel and all icons on the desktop, automatically assigned virtual workspaces, and required a separate screen for selecting applications.
Those features still exist, and are somewhat mitigated by constant usability improvements. However, after a couple of years, the introduction of extensions gave GNOME users far more options, as did the release of GNOME Tweak.
Today, extensions are not always mutually compatible, and choosing an assortment of them can take time, but the result is that GNOME is much more customizable than it was originally intended to be. It now sits comfortably, midway between the extremes of customizers and launchers.
Throughout its history, Xfce has struck a balance between usability and customization. This goal places Xfce squarely in the middle, with an acceptable range of customization features, most of which can be ignored if you prefer.
Like GNOME, Ubuntu’s Unity was designed according to a strictly-defined design philosophy. In an imitation of OS X, it moves application menus to the panel, and moves the title bar icons to the left. The launcher can be customized, but, even so, more than a dozen or so icons may be obscured on a small screen.
Possibly, Unity is under-appreciated because the intention to make it the interface for everything from workstations and laptops to tablets and phones is just starting to become visible, as Ubuntu hardware becomes available.
Meanwhile, although Unity has its advocates, it is the least popular of the major desktops. Unity took several years to become available in other distributions, and the rise of Ubuntu variations such as Ubuntu GNOME perhaps illustrates how it is regarded.
Also, Unity users generally install Ubuntu Tweak, just as GNOME users install GNOME Tweak — which indicates a dislike of the limited customization available by default.
LXDE is on the opposite end of the spectrum from KDE. Promoted as a lightweight desktop, it allows just about the bare minimum of customization. You can add desktop icons at will, and change wallpapers, but not much more. If you care more for your applications than your desktop environment, start with LXDE.
These are only the most popular Linux desktops. On the one hand, if you want an interface somewhere in the middle of this list, but inclining towards the customizers, Enlightenment might be worth considering. On the other hand, if you prefer a launcher, bare window managers like IceWM might be more your choice.
Faced with so many choices, some users will inevitably point out that the Linux desktop would develop more quickly if the number of environments were fewer. However, to make that suggestion misses the point. The point is not efficient development, but having a choice for all tastes.
Perhaps the only perfect desktop is one that you design yourself. However, with all the available choices, almost everyone should find a desktop that they can live with.