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12 Best Linux Desktop Environments for a Stunning User Experience
Distros

12 Best Linux Desktop Environments for a Stunning User Experience

Even though a good portion of Linux users prefers to interact with the operating system using the command-line terminal, there’s nothing wrong with using a graphical user interface instead. The UI of an operating system is often referred to as a desktop environment, especially when talking about Linux. Unlike Windows or MacOS, Linux doesn’t ship with a standard desktop that comes with every single distribution. Instead, each distro (usually) supports multiple desktops and it’s up to you to decide whether you want to stick to the default one or switch things up.

As most veteran users will tell you, there isn’t an absolute best Linux desktop environment that you should use regardless of the situation. Functionality, aesthetics, resource consumption, and ease of use, among other things, are all important factors to consider when choosing your desktop environment. But don’t worry about having to test all of them yourself because we already did all the heavy lifting for you.

Down below you can find what we believe to be the best Linux desktop environments available in 2020. Keep in mind that this isn’t necessarily a ranked list, however, we do think the average user will enjoy the first few entries more than the bottom ones.

1. Gnome 3

  • The default desktop of many distros, including Ubuntu
  • Highly customizable, though it does require some third-party tools
  • Very intuitive and beginner-friendly

The Gnome project had a fair number of ups and downs over the years, with some past iterations being hit or miss at times. When it comes to the latest version, however, Gnome 3 easily one of the best Linux desktop environments on the market, as well as one of the most well-known ones. Gnome 3’s popularity has a lot to do with the fact that is it the default desktop environment of Ubuntu and many other highly acclaimed distributions.

Gnome 3
Gnome 3 Desktop

The desktop has a very clean and modern look while also being remarkably simple to use. Gnome 3 was built with convenience in mind and comes equipped with an ‘Activities Overview’ panel that contains all the important applications you may want to use. No need to stumble around trying to find the browser or music app because here you have everything in one place. To make things even easier, the panel also includes a search function.

Gnome 3 is fairly minimalistic compared to other desktop environments and borrows quite a few elements from mobile UIs. The layout is certainly different from something like Windows but you don’t have to stick with the default look if you don’t like it because Gnome 3 is highly customizable. If you don’t mind working with third-party tools, you can use the Gnome Tweak Tool along with various shell extensions to spice things up a bit.

2. Cinnamon

  • Designed for users who are switching from Windows
  • Provides a very traditional desktop experience
  • Not recommended for older systems due to relatively high resource consumption

Cinnamon is a variation of Gnome but the two desktops look very different from each other. In fact, Cinnamon resembles Windows more than it does most other Linux desktops. This design choice was very much intentional as the goal of Cinnamon is to make the transition as easy as possible for users who are thinking about switching from Windows to Linux. Cinnamon is the default desktop environment of Linux Mint, which we consider to be one of the best distros for beginners right now.

Linux Mint 19.3 Cinnamon
Linux Mint 19.3 Cinnamon Desktop

Cinnamon uses a very traditional desktop layout, complete with a menu button, system tray, and a panel located at the bottom of the screen. The start menu is located in the lower-left corner and contains a list of all applications along with the power button, search bar, and a few other important UI elements. Meanwhile, the bottom panel acts just like that of Windows and can hold application shortcuts for quick access.

Just like Gnome 3, Cinnamon can be customized in a wide variety of ways using extensions, themes, and widgets. Keep in mind, though, that adding too many bells and whistles to the desktop will have a direct impact on its resource consumption. Cinnamon is known to be relatively resource-intensive compared to other desktops even without any extra bits, so this isn’t necessarily the best Linux desktop environment for older computers.

3. KDE Plasma 5

  • One of the most customizable desktops out there
  • Built using the Qt toolkit instead of the more common GTK
  • Plays well with Android devices thanks to the KDE Connect app

If you like the idea of designing your own custom desktop you’ll have plenty of opportunities to do exactly that with KDE Plasma 5. KDE provides nearly unlimited customization potential, allowing you to move, edit, or delete every single component that makes up the desktop environment. If that sounds a bit intimidating don’t worry because Plasma 5 looks great out of the box as well. But having the option to personalize things to your liking is definitely a big advantage.

KDE Plasma 5
KDE Plasma 5 Desktop

KDE Plasma 5 was built using the Qt toolkit, which makes it fairly unique considering most of the other well-known desktops use the GTK toolkit instead. Another aspect that allows Plasma 5 to stand out from the crowd is its ability to be customized for specific purposes, such as browsing the web, editing images, or enjoying multimedia content.

Since we’re talking about standout features, we also have to mention KDE Connect, a tool that lets you share pretty much anything between your Linux computer and your Android device. KDE Connect can be used to control any media running on your computer from your phone, essentially turning it into a remote control. In addition, it also allows you to share files between devices, synchronize notifications, and more.

4. LXDE

  • A great choice for laptops and microcomputers
  • Can be considered very lightweight compared to most desktops
  • Designed for maximum simplicity and efficiency

The Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment, or LXDE for short, is one of our favorite desktops to use on old laptops. LXDE can breathe new life into outdated hardware and is the default desktop environment of many lightweight Linux distros. Needless to say, this is exactly the type of desktop you want to get if you’re looking to save up on resources or if you want an environment that runs on microcomputers like Raspberry Pi, which uses a modified version of LXDE by default.

Linux Mint 11 LXDE
Linux Mint 11 LXDE Desktop

Despite requiring a relatively low amount of resources to run, LXDE doesn’t look particularly bad. The design seems to have inspired by the older versions of Windows, which could be considered a bit outdated by this point, but it’s not too distracting all things considered. A lot of effort went into making the desktop as efficient as possible and it definitely shows. LXDE uses the OpenBox window manager and the layout should be immediately familiar to Windows users but, like all the other desktops on this list, can be customized to give it a more unique look.

Ease of use is the main reason why we think LXDE is one of the best Linux desktop environments. The very definition of a desktop that doesn’t get in the way, LXDE doesn’t include any flashy visual effects and themes with the base installation, opting instead for a more minimalistic approach. Admittedly, LXDE does take some getting used to if you’re switching to Linux from something like Windows 10 but you’ll definitely come to love it if you value simplicity above all else.

5. Mate

  • Often considered the spiritual successor to Gnome 2
  • Supported by many distros but works best when paired with Ubuntu
  • Is a bit more difficult to customize than other desktops

Whereas Cinnamon is an attempt to take the Gnome project in a new and interesting direction, Mate takes a more traditional approach. Mate is considered a continuation of Gnome 2, a desktop that was different in many ways when compared to its sequel. While many Linux users enjoy the current version of Gnome, its predecessor still has plenty of fans who swear by it. Mate was initially created to fill that void, however, the project has evolved a lot since its inception 9 years ago and has become one of the best Linux desktop environments for all types of users.

Ubuntu Mate
Ubuntu Mate Desktop

Mate only features two panels in its base form, one of which contains menus and shortcuts while the other displays currently open windows. You can add extra panels if you feel like mixing things up and there’s also a very convenient Control Center that lets you access the most important system settings. You can customize certain parts of the desktop from the settings menu but, for the most part, customizing Mate is a bit more difficult than other desktop environments.

Mate is a lightweight and simple desktop that doesn’t need to be configured as adding extra bits and pieces to it tends to defeat its very purpose. However, if you prefer modern desktop environments we recommend skipping the default version and opting for something like Ubuntu Mate instead. Just as its name indicates, this is a version of Ubuntu that comes equipped with the Mate desktop environment. The difference is that this variant looks crisper and offers more customization options while still being relatively lightweight.

6. Xfce

  • Very minimalistic and resource-friendly
  • Works with pretty much every Linux distro
  • Not the best when it comes to configuration options

Xfce is one of the oldest Linux desktop environments out there, initially having been released way back in 1996. Similar to LXDE, the desktop is meant to be used to older hardware and works just fine on computers that are long past their prime. Because of that, Xfce has support for pretty much any Linux distribution you can think of, including old-timers like Debian, which uses it as its default desktop. In addition, Xfce also compiles on many other Unix-like operating systems like FreeBSD, OpenBSD, Solaris, and more.

Slackware 14
Slackware 14 Xfce Desktop

People who are used to modern operating systems like Windows 10 may find it unusual that Xfce’s main toolbar sits at the top rather than the bottom of the screen. That was a common design decision back in the day and many Linux veterans still prefer it, however, you can easily move the panel to the bottom or the side or customize in a few other ways. Xfce is known for having a fairly low amount of system-wide configurable options but it does excel when it comes to panel customization.

If you’re a novice in terms of minimalistic desktop environments, you may be surprised by the fact that Xfce ships with only a handful of core components. You’ve got the aforementioned main panel, a window manager, desktop manager, file manager, application finder, settings menu, and session manager. You can also find a couple of apps like Xfburn and Orage, and that’s about it. Naturally, you can add anything else you need by issuing a few simple terminal commands.

7. Budgie

  • Created for Solus OS but also works with a few other distros
  • Blends traditional and modern elements to create a unique look
  • Comes bundled with interesting apps and utilities

Most of the best Linux desktop environments we all know and love have been around for ages but Budgie is pretty new to the scene, having launched less than 7 years ago. Budgie is a pretty unique desktop created for a pretty unique distribution known as Solus OS. In time, Budgie was adopted by many other distros like Manjaro, Debian, Arch Linux, and even Ubuntu. We think it would be fair to say that Ubuntu Budgie is among the most popular variations of the distros, which says a lot about this desktop.

Budgie 10.4
Budgie 10.4 Desktop

In stark contrast to something like LXDE or Xfce, Budgie was designed with the modern user in mind. Some layout elements were clearly inspired by Windows while others feel closer to Gnome. Interestingly enough, Budgie also incorporates plenty of traditional elements in an attempt to appeal to Linux veterans and newcomers alike. The end result is a very beautiful desktop environment that’s less resource-intensive than one might expect.

Looks aside, Budgie also packs a few interesting apps and technologies that allow it to stand out from the crowd. These include an all-in-one control center known as Raven as well as a settings app that gives you full control over the customization and, more importantly, makes the entire process fun. If you want the original Budgie experience, we strongly recommend checking out Solus OS before trying out any other variations.

8. Pantheon

  • Used almost exclusively by Elementary OS
  • Good choice if you’re switching from MacOS
  • Features a marketplace with both free and paid apps

Pantheon is similar to Budgie in the sense that it was created for a specific distribution. In this case, Elementary OS. This is another desktop environment designed to make the transition to Linux as smooth as possible, but it’s aimed more at MacOS users rather than Windows ones. Both Pantheon and ElementaryOS were built essentially from scratch in order to provide a modern alternative to MacOS. As well as also many of the popular Linux desktops that are starting to show their age after having been around for decades in some cases.

Pantheon on Ubuntu 18
Pantheon on Ubuntu 18 Desktop

Pantheon isn’t as customizable as some of the other entries on this list, which can be considered both a good and a bad thing depending on how you want to look at it. On one hand, newcomers get a completely out of the box desktop experience without having to mess around with settings or configure anything. If you do like to tinker, you may be disappointed by the lack of options, however, advanced users do get a nice selection of toys to play with. A few examples include separate workspaces for various activities, a picture-in-picture mode, built-in productivity tools, and more.

One of the most unusual things you’ll notice about Pantheon is the AppCenter. Many distros have somewhat similar marketplaces, however, here you can find a lot of paid apps in addition to free ones. You don’t generally expect to have to pay for anything when using Linux but in the case of this particular AppCenter, you may want to consider it. The store was created for indie developers and gives them the option of setting their own prices. The apps are usually very cheap and are a great way to support independent devs, many of which are doing their best to create very unique apps for Pantheon.

9. Deepin DE

  • Created for Deepin OS but works with a few other distros as well
  • One of the best looking desktop environments out there
  • Comes bundled with many useful apps and utilities

Deepin is a Debian-based Linux distribution that launched back in 2004 and was initially based on Ubuntu. The distro never became as big as Ubuntu or Debian but it does have a decently sized following, which seems to be getting bigger as of late. The primary reason for that is Deepin Desktop Environment (Deepin DE or DDE for short), a standalone user interface that’s been getting a lot of attention recently after being successfully integrated by Fedora, Gentoo, Arch Linux, and other major distros.

Deepin Arch Linux
Deepin Arch Linux Desktop

In terms of pure aesthetics, we don’t think it’s a stretch to say that DDE is one of the best looking Linux desktop environments currently available. The interface looks gorgeous on all types of devices but shines particularly bright on laptops. So much so, in fact, that in 2019 Chinese tech giant Huawei started shipping Linux laptops that come bundled with Deepin by default in order to attract new customers. Linux has a surprisingly low market share in China but the country has created many distros over the years, with Deepin being the most popular one so far.

Just like KDE Plasma, Deepin was built using the Qt toolkit and has its own custom window manager and package manager, as well as custom applications. Deepin provides a complete desktop experience right out of the box so expect to find a lot of pre-installed applications. A few of the highlights include Deepin Remote Assistant, Graphics Driver Manager, Deepin Repair, Deepin Boot Marker, and Deepin OpenSymbol. In addition, there’s also an easily accessible storefront that contains a large variety of other software packages.

10. Unity

  • Former default desktop environment of Ubuntu
  • Requires little mouse usage thanks to keyboard optimization
  • Only supported by a relatively small selection of distros

Unity is a desktop developed by Canonical, the makers of Ubuntu, and used to serve as the distro’s default UI pre-version 17.10. After Ubuntu’s default desktop was replaced with Gnome, Canonical stopped maintaining Unity, however, the project didn’t die right then and there. In fact, it lives on this day thanks to a passionate community that still considers Unity to be one of the best Linux desktop environments ever made.

Unity Ubuntu 20.4
Unity Ubuntu 20.4 Desktop

Interestingly enough, it’s possible to install the revived Unity on current versions of Ubuntu even though it’s not officially supported. Fun fact: Unity was originally created to replace an older version of Gnome so there’s quite a lot of history between these two desktop environments. And a lot of bitter rivalries some might say, though the rivalry is mainly between their fans, many of which are fighting hard to keep Unity relevant. Which is entirely understandable in our opinion. While we definitely love Gnome 3, Unity is a very good desktop as well and quite easy to recommend for certain types of users.

So who can benefit the most from using Unity? Well, if you’re the type of person who doesn’t want to bother with a mouse, you should definitely check out Unity. The desktop makes it very easy to go about your work without taking your fingers off the keyboard thanks to smart key shortcuts and productivity tools. This makes it a natural fit for laptop users. It also helps that Unity has a very distinct look that immediately catches the eye. If you need a unique desktop environment to complement your fancy new Linux-powered laptop, Unity is an excellent choice.

11. LXQt

  • One of the lightest desktop environments out there
  • You’ll get the most out of LXQt by getting Lubuntu
  • Not very easy on the eyes in its base form

LXQt can be considered somewhat of a niche desktop environment but is still worth looking into if you need a good alternative to LXDE. The two desktops are fairly similar, both focusing on performance above all else, however, LXQt is even lighter than its counterpart. Or most other desktops for that matter. LXQt probably won’t win any prizes in terms of looks but it might if you’re looking strictly at functionality. And that’s what really matters for a desktop-like this at the end of the day.

LXQt 0.15.0
LXQt 0.15.0 Desktop

Although LXQt has been dropping in popularity in recent times, most of the big Linux distributions still support it regardless. The desktop pairs very well with resource-friendly distros like Debian or Arch Linux and can also be installed on more demanding ones like Ubuntu. Speaking of which, there is an excellent Ubuntu derivative called Lubuntu that comes equipped by default with a customized version of LXQt. Lubuntu is the best way to experience LXQt in our opinion as the distro looks very modern while still managing to remain lightweight.

If you’re not interested in trying out Lubuntu, you might have a tough time getting used to LXQt because the base version is quite bare-bones. The desktop isn’t necessarily aimed at newcomers and it doesn’t offer as many customization options as some of the other entries on this list. Still, if you want substance over the style you likely won’t be disappointed by what LXQt has to offer since it can definitely get the job done just as well as LXDE or any other lightweight desktop environment.

12. Sugar

  • Designed for educational purposes
  • Offers loads of apps and games
  • Works on pretty much any hardware

Sugar easily stands out as one of the best Linux desktop environments for kids. This beginner-friendly desktop environment was designed with education in mind and serves as a great introduction to Linux for children of all ages. Needless to say, this isn’t a typical desktop and we can only recommend checking it out if you’re a parent and want to teach your child how to use Linux the easy way. The best part is that you don’t need a dedicated desktop computer for it since Sugar’s modest hardware requirements allow it to run smoothly on old laptops and even microcomputers.

Sugar Distro Preview
Sugar Desktop

While there are other good educational Linux distros out there, including Edubuntu and Ubermix, Sugar is by far the easiest to use of the bunch. The desktop comes with a very simple user interface that consists of a series of applications and games, neatly arranged into a circle. That’s pretty much all there is to it. No complicated menus, panels, or widgets and no need to configure anything either. There are a handful of settings you can play with, including changing the time and time, language, keyboard layout, or background image but those are all optional.

As far as the applications are concerned, they are commonly known as Sugar Activities and there are a few hundred of them to choose from. Activities range from very simple mini-games to more complicated applications that can help improve dexterity, memory, reaction time, and many other skills. The desktop ships with a nice selection of activities right off the bat, however, most of them need to be downloaded manually. Luckily, you can grab as many as you want from the official website completely for free.

Linux Desktop Environment vs. Window Manager

Linux is all about giving users the option to personalize their operating system as they see fit. One of the ways it manages to achieve this is by offering a wide selection of desktop environments to choose from, many of which are compatible with almost any distribution. However, one of the other things that make Linux special is the fact that you can use it without requiring a desktop at all.

Quite a few distributions, especially Arch-based ones, ship with just the Linux kernel and a command-line interface, allowing you to fully customize the rest. But doing so is entirely optional. Many tech-savvy Linux users are comfortable using just the terminal. In many instances, a desktop environment simply gets in the way and isn’t needed for certain activities, such as bashing scripts for instance. But of course, relying solely on the terminal isn’t a viable option unless you’re working in a very specific field.

As it happens, there’s also a third option that sits somewhere between the terminal and a desktop environment. This third option is known as a window manager and you should already be familiar with the concept since every desktop uses one. In basic terms, a window manager controls the placement of various elements on the screen, as well as their look. Whenever you’re customizing elements or moving them around you’re using the window manager component of your operating system.

The interesting thing about window managers is that they don’t require a desktop environment. Thanks to that little feature, developers are able to create standalone window managers that function similarly to desktop environments but offer better customization potential and take up fewer resources. Some notable examples of window managers include Enlightenment, OpenBox, FluxBox, i3, VM, and Sway. A lot of desktops also tend to have their own custom window managers.

So it is worth using just a window manager instead of a full desktop? The short answer is yes but it depends on a few factors. Window managers are more flexible in some ways but more limited in others and require a higher level of technical know-how. If you love tinkering and in-depth customization we definitely recommend checking out a window manager. Just be aware that there is a pretty steep learning curve. If you’re looking for something more intuitive, on the other hand, a desktop environment is the way to go.

Final Thoughts

The desktop environments found on Linux aren’t quite the same as those offered by Windows or MacOS. Sure, they might look similar in many instances but that can usually be changed pretty easily. Linux desktop environments give you a lot of control to change things that simply wouldn’t be possible on other operating systems. But the best part is that you have so much variety at your disposal, from minimalistic lightweight desktops to incredibly flashy ones and everything in between.

So which is the best Linux desktop environment to start with? Generally speaking, we would recommend Gnome or Cinnamon as the best entry-level desktops since they are very intuitive and resemble UI’s that you’re probably already familiar with. But those are just our personal picks and your taste may differ from ours so don’t hesitate to try all of them to see what they have to offer. They’re all free, so there’s no reason not to check them out.

Distros

12 Best Linux Desktop Environments for a Stunning User Experience

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