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Over the years, I've found that trying to select the best Linux desktop environment is almost an impossible task. There are oodles of considerations, ranging from level of user experience to individual user preferences. Despite these challenges, there are some solid considerations we can evaluate individually.
In this article, I'm going to hit on a number of Linux desktop environments. I'll look at what about them is appealing and why folks are inclined to think of them as “best” over other alternatives.
The KDE desktop
If you were to ask for the perfect marriage between customization and overall appearance, KDE is likely to be a good match for you. This is a desktop environment that usually appeals to users from all walks of life. These are people who have reasonably modern PCs, have high expectations for how a desktop manages their workflow and hold onto a firm appreciation of a traditional menu layout.
Software - KDE has many applications designed specifically for it. Great apps such as Krunner and Kontact make using KDE a pleasure. Kontact specifically, provides a solid personal information manager for KDE users.
Unlike Microsoft's Outlook, there are no product keys or other proprietary weirdness to concern yourself with. Even though I tend to gravitate to GTK-based applications, I'll be the first to admit that from an appearance point of view, Qt applications built for KDE look far more attractive overall. Another thing to consider is that KDE applications are often deeply tied in with one another. Kontact, for example, ties Kmail, KAddressBook, KOrganizer and other apps into a single suite. From there, Kontact is then tied into the KDE Office suite. This provides a very strong, unified feel to the desktop that alternative environments have yet to match.
Desktop layout – As I mentioned above, KDE is all about customization. And in the spirit of customization, KDE provides its users with a wide range of tools in which to get the most from their desktop. One of the best examples of this has to be the ability to use KDE activities to provide a customized desktop with launchers and widgets for a specific task.
For example, you could have a "Work" activity. This activity might have a To-Do list widget, specific application launchers for work related software, along with a non-distracting wallpaper. Another activity might have a desktop setup for gaming, with comic strip widgets and other silly stuff. By having each of these activities set up ahead of time, you're able to better focus on the task at hand when sitting down at your computer. It's actually a brilliant concept.
Best suited for: KDE is a natural fit for anyone who loves control, customization and aesthetics. However, it's not necessarily the best desktop if you're looking for simplicity and a light weight desktop.
The GNOME desktop
I honestly think that GNOME 3 onward is about a vision its developers have for the desktop. My thinking is they felt the move from GNOME 2 needed to be substantial and drastic, in order to provide the developer's vision of a modern desktop. The core idea behind its layout seems to be centered around keeping stuff out of your way. A blank slate for lack of a better description.
Software – These days, GNOME software seems to be a balancing act between minimalism and simplicity. Unlike KDE, however, GNOME's personal information manager is designed to keep things pretty simple. Named Evolution, this personal information manager lacks some of the features found with its KDE counterpart. Evolution also doesn't offer much in the appearance department. It's quite functional, but it's all business with next to zero consideration for aesthetics.
The GNOME software title Cheese, however, gets it right by keeping the focus off of the application. With Cheese, you're free to take photos and videos using your webcam without being buried in tons of configuration options. Select your source, resolution and go – it's very straight forward. This is where GNOME software really shines because it's extremely simple to master. If you're someone who doesn't need a lot of configuration options, then you're going to feel right at home with software designed for the GNOME desktop.
Desktop layout – In line with the developer's vision for a minimalist, out of your way desktop environment, GNOME is not big on traditional menu launchers. Instead, GNOME loves hot corners and an Activities launcher. From there, you're free to browse through the installed software.
GNOME also provides you with easy access to the applications or directories you rely on the most, by providing a dock of sorts. This dock, combined with the Activities area labeled "Frequent" allows GNOME users to access software quickly and easily.
Finally, we have the GNOME tweak tool. Because GNOME is known for its basic simplicity and not deep customization, the tweak tool allows GNOME users to install/manage extensions, alter workspaces/fonts, and provides a unified tool for handling other aspects of the overall desktop layout.
Best suited for – Honestly, GNOME is best for those who value a minimalist desktop environment. Like KDE, it has a very modern feel to it and provides oodles of applications to choose from. But the single biggest takeaway from GNOME's current desktop design is that it's for those who value a blank slate.
Software – Both desktop environments provide their own applications. To best reflect their differences however, I think the two best examples are LXmusic and Parole. LXmusic is basically a very simple music player based on XMMS. It plays music only and provides LXDE users with limited playlist support. It's extremely lightweight and will work on the most modest of computers. Back on the XFCE front, we have Parole. This is a media player that supports music and video files.
Another difference between the two desktop environments is that XFCE defaults to Midori as its browser of choice whereas LXDE doesn't have a specific browser by default. If I was to recommend one for LXDE or even as an alternative for XFCE, it would have to be QupZilla. It's the lightest weight browser I've ever used on any platform. Some claim Midori uses less resources, my experiences have been that on older PCs, QupZilla preforms the best.
Desktop layout – While both XFCE and LXDE can be themed within reason, neither desktop screams modern. XFCE tends to provide tools that LXDE lacks, such as a Session and Startup manager whereas LXDE does not. Same thing exactly when it comes to handling multiple monitors.
I will say that for slower PCs, both desktop environments provide a fantastic alternative to running a bloated desktop environment. Besides, with a decent desktop wallpaper, new theme installed and carefully thought out set of icons, both desktops can be made to look pretty good in a pinch. But by default, both are pretty ugly.
Best suited for: Low resource PCs or those who simply want a basic desktop experience. For years, I was a dedicated XFCE user. Not because my desktop wouldn't support a flashier desktop, but because I preferred to stick with something a bit more traditional.
MATE and Cinnamon
Again, I decided to group these two desktop environments into the same section because they share similar goals. Traditional menus and a commonsense workflow. The difference between MATE and Cinnamon really comes down to bells and whistles in my opinion.
Software – MATE tends to be a bit less flashy than Cinnamon, and its provided software reflects this pretty well. MATE has its own text editor, image viewer, among a couple of other applications. These are lower resource applications that provide a very distro agnostic experience.
Cinnamon, on the other hand, is a product of the Linux Mint project. This means the software and tools found with Cinnamon are designed specifically for Linux Mint users. This means the file manager, system monitor and other integrated software are tied directly into Linux Mint's feature set. Both MATE and Cinnamon utilize a lot of common GTK applications that might also be found with GNOME.
Desktop layout – One specific area where these two desktop environments differ is with their emphasis on bells and whistles. What I mean by this is Cinnamon is a desktop that emphasizes a very modern user experience with lots of extensions and so forth. MATE, by contrast, is closer to XFCE in terms of keeping things simple and functional. Neither is better than the other, they're simply offering very different user experiences. Both are menu-centric desktops, but one offers a flashy user experience while the other one keeps to the basics.
The two core areas where the two desktops share a common layout is with their panels and their use of panel applets. Even though Cinnamon also offers extensions like GNOME, they both share very similar applet options as well.
Best suited for: Both of these desktops are best suited for those folks who love a traditional desktop. Figuring out which of the two is best for you depends on how powerful your PC is and how important a fancy desktop experience is to you. For those people like myself, who genuinely loved using GNOME 2 years ago, MATE is a natural fit. We know the desktop well and have no desire to "upgrade" to a new way of doing things. Others still, need that slick modern feel that Cinnamon provides.
Other desktops not included here
You may have noticed that I left out Unity. The reasons are simple – it's best suited for Ubuntu only and it's not a desktop environment. That's right, it's actually a graphical shell that runs on top of GNOME. So if you enjoy Unity, hey, that's awesome. Enjoy Unity for what it is – a wrapper for GNOME.
What say you? Are you put off that I forgot to include your favorite desktop environment? No problem! Hit the Comments and tell us why you think it's awesome. I look forward to hearing about which desktops make it or break it for each of you.