The Complete Guide to Linux Desktop Environments in 2023

For those wanting maximum control over their Linux user experience, choosing the right desktop environment (DE) is essential. With varied strengths across performance, customization, and aesthetics, I will equip you to navigate the DE landscape.

In this comprehensive walkthrough, I compare the 9 best options and offer actionable recommendations based on individual needs. Let‘s dive in!

What Exactly is a Linux Desktop Environment?

Simply put, your DE provides the graphical window dressing defining how you interact with Linux. It includes vital components like:

  • Window/Compositing Manager – Displays and manages open app windows and desktop effects
  • File Manager – Enables exploring files and directories
  • Panel or Dock – Houses shortcuts to programs and manages open windows
  • Settings Manager – Configuration options for UI customization
  • Themes and Plugins – Defines appearances and adds functionality

Together these pieces create a cohesive experience facilitating your use of Linux.

A Brief History of Linux Desktop Environments

The original Linux command line environment delivered efficiency but lacked user friendliness. Early desktop efforts like CDE and GNOME aimed to improve ease of use through graphically rich interfaces.

Over the decades, DEs have progressively upped aesthetics, functionality, and customization. Leading to exceptionally polished and flexible options today.

Worldwide Linux adoption continues gaining ground as desktop environments mature into intuitive and versatile interfaces rivaling proprietary operating systems.

Why Choosing Carefully Matters

With Linux ahora supporting a dizzying variety of DEs, selecting strategically based on individual priorities is key.

Carefully weigh factors like:

  • System resource usage
  • Software compatibility
  • Customization needs
  • Aesthetics
  • Configurability
  • Learning curves

I‘ll equip you to slice through the clutter and hone in on your perfect match.

Leading Linux Desktop Contenders for 2023

The following desktop environments stand at the forefront providing excellent overall polish, features, flexibility, efficiency, and usability.

1. Xfce – Lightweight Powerhouse

If your priority is potency even on modest hardware, Xfce should top your list. Its resource thriftiness creates a responsive desktop experience even on aging PCs.

Xfce Desktop

Performance

Speed and featherweight resource usage are the hallmarks of Xfce. It consumes significantly less CPU and RAM than bulkier DEs like KDE Plasma.

Benchmarks clock Xfce using ~200 MB RAM on startup. In contrast, GNOME may consume 600+ MB off the bat. Making Xfce an optimal pick for dated equipment.

Customization

An assortment of extensions allows fine-tuning functionality and interface elements. Handy additions include:

  • Customized application/category menus
  • Mini drop-down terminal
  • Clipboard history manager
  • Workspace pager

Plus accessible theming adjustments around:

  • Icon sets
  • Panel customization
  • Font selection
  • Complete UI layouts

Use Cases

With its brisk pace and polished UX, Xfce excels in environments like:

  • Dated workstations/netbooks
  • Lightweight Linux distro options
  • Raspberry Pi and single board setups
  • Remote access needs

Sample Distributions

Xubuntu, Manjaro Xfce, Mythbuntu

Verdict

Xfce delivers a top-tier Linux DE experience even on commonplace aging hardware. Perfect for breathing new life into old equipment.

2. GNOME – Refined Simplicity

As the default for major Linux distros, GNOME offers newcomers an accessible and easy-to-use desktop environment.

GNOME 42 Desktop

Ease of Use

Through strong human interface design principles, GNOME offers widespread coherence and minimizes complexity. Resulting in a polished out-of-box desktop requiring minimal configuring.

Feature Set

Despite emphasizing a simplified user experience, GNOME still packs functional punch including:

  • Streamlined system settings panel
  • Secure built-in disk encryption
  • Custom workspaces
  • Integrated local/web search
  • Handy Google Drive integration

Customization

GNOME Shell Extensions unlock extensive customization around:

  • Application menus
  • Top panel formatting
  • Desktop theming
  • Performance monitoring
  • Integrated chat apps

For early preview of the leading edge GNOME experience, check out the bleeding edge (and occasionally buggy) Unstable branch.

Verdict

GNOME delivers exceptional polish coupled with everyday feature richness. Particularly friendly for Linux newcomers.

3. KDE Plasma – Cutting Edge Beauty

KDE Plasma stands distinctly apart from more common desktop environments with its refined aesthetics, buttery smooth animations, and incredible degree of customization.

KDE Plasma Desktop

Appearance

The Plasma interface impresses with gorgeous widgets, background blur effects, and seamless window transitions. Complemented by the consistently excellent integrated Oxygen theme.

Workflow

Plasma bakes in enhancements for your daily grind including:

  • KRunner – quickly launch apps and run commands
  • Widget dashboard – display timely info like weather
  • Virtual workspaces – improved workspace management

Customization

As one of the most adjustable Linux desktops, Plasma tuning options span:

  • Mimicking Windows/MacOS layouts
  • Wallpapers/widget themes/icon sets
  • Animations & background effects
  • Per widget transparency & geometry

Whether desiring a distraction-free minimalist workspace or flashy effects-driven showcase, Plasma can be molded to match.

Verdict

From usability to eye candy, KDE Plasma sets the pace for innovation across the Linux DE landscape.

4. MATE – Old School Cool

MATE desktop environment carries forth beloved aspects of previous-generation interfaces. Making it a great starting point if most at home in a classic Windows XP-era desktop paradigm.

MATE Desktop

Nostalgia

For long-time Linux fans fondly recalling GNOME 2 and similar retro interfaces, MATE strikes an appealing balance between vintage look-and-feel and modern convenience.

Performance

As a fork of GNOME 2, MATE retains a slim footprint. Using noticeably fewer resources than bulkier Cinnamon or KDE Plasma. This allows it to fly on single board gear like Raspberry Pi.

Community

Widespread integration as the default desktop environment in distros like Linux Mint, Ubuntu MATE, and Manjaro MATE fuel an energized following and continued development.

Verdict

For those craving the coziness of an old school desktop interface, MATE delivers a polished and speedy open-source refuge.

5. LXDE – Featherweight Champion

If you seek resource thriftiness above all else, LXDE makes devices decades older than itself run with shocking vim. Allowing even antique silicon to stay speedily relevant.

LXDE Desktop

Resource Utilization

LXDE zealously conserves CPU cycles and RAM consumption through meticulous coding. It habitually uses less than half the overhead of comparable options like Xfce.

Letting it fly on aging single core processors and systems starved for RAM.

Performance

The miserly resource appetite directly catalyzes smoking performance – even on vintage Pentium 4 rigs. Mundane tasks feel gratifyingly snappy.

Portability

In addition to usual Linux suspects, LXDE also gracefully handles other UNIX-like platforms:

  • OpenBSD
  • FreeBSD
  • Solaris
  • macOS (yes, really)

If you need to revive crusty hardware or maximize utility from a Raspberry Pi, LXDE is a top contender.

Verdict

With its itty bitty resource footprint yet polished UX, LXDE laughs in the face of obsolete hardware.

6. Enlightenment – The Flashy Speed Demon

Typically desktop eye candy hogs resources. Yet Enlightenment uniquely fuses lighting fast speed with gorgeous composited effects.

Enlightenment Desktop

Aesthetics

Enlightenment desktop effects like animated wallpapers and transparency breathe life into your workspace. Complemented by collections of balanced themes/backgrounds.

Customization

You enjoy extensive control over:

  • Window manager tweaks
  • Themes/skins with matching backgrounds
  • Placement/behavior of docks/panels/gadgets
  • Granular widget settings

Performance

Even with bling enabled, Enlightenment astonishingly minimizes system overhead. Making it practical for lower powered single board setups.

Verdict

Enlightenment uniquely reconciles Linux eye candy with miserly resource usage for a best-of-both-worlds solution.

7. Deepin DE – Linux Made Elegant

Deepin Linux including its desktop environment aims for maximum user-friendliness. Offering newcomers a visually impressive and cohesive experience.

Deepin Desktop

Refinement

Honing macOS-esque aesthetic cohesion, Deepin DE looks uniquely polished out the gate. From font face to window controls, everything feels deliberately complementary.

Features

Deepin bakes in thoughtful perks like:

  • Handy cross-workspace search
  • Customizable app dock
  • System resource monitoring
  • Distraction-free mode

Compatibility

Originally exclusive to Deepin Linux, the DE now supports Arch, Manjaro, Ubuntu, Fedora, and other distros. Widening access.

Verdict

For those who believe Linux should look as great as it performs, Deepin Desktop makes a strong case.

8. LXQt – Featherweight Evolved

If LXDE whetted your appetite for utmost efficiency, meet its successor LXQt. Retaining the obsessive resource conservation – now built atop more modern toolkits.

LXQt Desktop

Double Espresso

LXQt sucks down laughably few CPU cycles and megabytes of RAM. Letting even crusty old hardware punch far above its weight.

The excess power allows dedicating maximum resources to the apps and workflows you care about rather than a bulky desktop.

Modularity

As a library of discretely packaged components, LXQt loads only the modules you need. Scale down to just the bare essentials or stack on supplemental functionality like:

  • Featureful file manager
  • Compositing & effects
  • Customizable panel
  • Extensible text editor

Verdict

If you still squeeze utility out of computers from last decade, LXQt revitalizes aging equipment with its energizing brew of potency.

9. Cinnamon – Supremely Customizable

Cinnamon desktop environment offers exceptional Polish and day-to-day utility along with no shortage of personalization capabilities.

Cinnamon Desktop

Productivity

An emphasis on refining daily workflow efficiency gives Cinnamon enhancements including:

  • Customizable keyboard shortcuts
  • Handy desktop widgets
  • Workspace previews for fast app switching
  • Multiple virtual workspaces

Hardware Support

Cinnamon shines supporting multi-monitor productivity:

  • Panel positioning across mismatched displays
  • High DPI configuration
  • Individual scaling settings

Customization

Theming options grant fine control over:

  • Window border art
  • Folder/app icons
  • Panel dimensions/positioning/transparency
  • Animations & UI effects

Verdict

Blending utility, speed, stability, and personalization, Cinnamon hits the Linux desktop sweet spot for many.

Choosing Your New Linux Desktop Companion

With so many appealing options on the table, narrowing the field can still feel overwhelming. Keep these priority aspects in mind:

Hardware Requirements

If saddled with an ancient relic from the early 2000s or a single board Raspberry Pi, I recommend more modest desktops like LXQt or LXDE so your limited hardware still feels feisty.

Whereas workstations with more ample CPU and RAM can stretch their legs with effects-rich options like KDE Plasma.

Prior Linux Experience

For those testing the Linux waters after decades running Windows or macOS, newcomer-friendly desktops like GNOME or Deepin make the transition less jarring.

Customization Compulsion

Tinkerers eager personalizing every UI element will feel at home getting lost for hours tweaking settings in infinitely flexible options like KDE Plasma and Xfce.

Visual Appeal

While Linux can look homely out the box, options like Enlightenment and Deepin DE will have your system looking sexier than a macOS setup. Maybe even inspiring a little desktop envy among your Windows-using friends!

What‘s Next for Linux Desktops?

It‘s remarkable how far Linux desktop environments have progressed from the days of exclusively memorizing obscure terminal commands.

As hardware continues advancing, we can expect environments like KDE Plasma pushing further into bleeding edge visual effects and presentation.

Similarly, the never-ending quest to improve battery life and reduce overhead should catalyze ongoing optimization of featherweight options like LXDE and LXQt – perhaps making systems feel even snappier.

Finally, growth in Linux adoption among desktop users should drive enhanced focus on accessibility and refinement. Leading to even friendlier onboarding to what historically felt like an insider‘s club of guru command line jockeys.

The future of Linux desktop looks consistently brighter thanks to the wealth of choice across aesthetics, configurability, and practical everyday utility.

Final Thoughts

I hope this guide has demystified the journey toward selecting your optimal desktop companion.

The awesome flexibility across resource usage, customization breadth, eye candy, hardware support, and general usability means your ideal Linux DE soulmate awaits.

Here‘s to many happy years together pursuing your computing passion on a personalized desktop that overflows with capability optimized for your needs!

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