How to choose the best Linux Desktop Environment for your needs

In the previous chapter of the Linux for Beginners course we were trying to find out how to choose the best Linux distro for your needs. We already concluded that it is not possible to choose one Linux distribution that is best for every use case or persona. That is why I showed you different Linux distributions for different kind of users and situations. In this chapter of the beginners course I can already say that we we will conclude the same for the numerous graphical desktop environments that are available for you to choose from: it is not possible to choose one desktop environment that is best for every use case or persona. So the question we will try to answer in this chapter is how to choose the best Linux Desktop Environment for your needs.

Why do I need to choose a desktop environment

So you want to switch to Linux? But you already experienced the first signs of the “getting overwhelmed syndrome”? Switching to Linux isn’t as clear cut as buying a pre installed Windows computer or an Apple computer. When you visit a site called www.Linux.com and expect there to find the option to download and install something called Linux, then that will be very disappointing experience for you. Linux is just a kernel, which forms the core of different distributions. And as there is a multitude of use cases there are numerous distributions that try to connect to those specific use cases, as we already saw in the previous chapter. In your decision making process you also have to decide on which desktop environment you prefer. The desktop environment determines the complete look and feel and can have tremendous impact on your Linux experience.

Each Linux distribution already has one or sometimes more desktop environments to choose from. Like Linux Mint offers variants with Cinnamon, MATE and Xfce. But as Linux is all about flexibility and choices, it is no problem at all to just install a different desktop environment on your Linux distribution of choice. It is even possible to have multiple desktop environment alongside each other, so you can choose which desktop environments you want to use at login. And the next time you choose another one.

But let’s not directly talk about using multiple desktop environments, as just choosing one that perfectly matches your needs can already be a cumbersome task. And it is probably even better to let the distribution you need, as described in How to choose the best Linux distro for your needs, determine the desktop environment that is being included with it instead of letting the desktop environment determine which Linux distribution you should choose. But in my experience in practice it is a grey area which starting point to choose. It is all about use cases and personas. Most beginning Linux users want a great out-of-the-box experience, which depends mostly on the type of distribution. But if you are a former macOS user you probably find the look and feel of your desktop highly important as well. But there are distribution – desktop combinations that already fit both needs very well.

As this is a beginners course, in this chapter I don’t want to focus on installing a desktop environment yourself. For now I think it is more important to find out what kind of user you are to see which desktop environment best suits your needs and then see which distributions offers that specific environment out-of-the box. In my experience a distribution native desktop environment works more reliable than a desktop environment that you installed yourself on top of a distribution.

What is a Linux desktop environment

To word it very formally a desktop environment is a specific implementation of the natural desktop metaphor. But basically a desktop environment is a collection of tools which make it easier for you to use your computer. But a desktop environment is also very much focussed on the way these tools are presented to you, like the icons, the colors, the workflow and the overall presentation. The components of a desktop environment include components like:

  • Window manager
  • Icons
  • Windows
  • Folders
  • Wallpapers
  • Panels
  • Menus
  • Widgets
  • File Manager
  • Display Manager

And all these components can be linked together according to a certain user interface experience or user interface design. A design determines how interwoven the components are presented to you as a user and how smooth the experience of using these components will be. Further the design impacts functionality, flexibility, extensibility and adaptability.

How to choose the best desktop Linux Desktop Environment for your needs

As I already said before, this is a beginners course, so I only want to focus on finding out what kind of user you are to see which desktop environment best suits your needs. Based on that I will give my two cents on which distributions offers that specific environment out-of-the box. But keep in mind that it is just a starting point, as it is my opinion, and as with everything else in the Linux and Opens Source world, there are many other opinions as well.

The personas I like to focus on are:

  • The eye candy lover
  • The macOS switcher
  • The Windows switcher
  • The functionalist
  • The minimalist user
  • The tweaker
  • The do it yourselfer
  • The can not let go user
  • The command line user
  • The gamer

The eye candy lover

Those people who want a very slick, colorful, easy to use and very well put together desktop environment should have a look at the Deepin desktop environment, or DDE. The user interface is dazzlingly beautiful, the animations are visually inviting but also functional. The designers of the Deepin desktop environment have build their own tool kit called “Deepin Tool Kit”, and they themselves uses it for their own projects. The Deepin desktop environment is specifically designed and created for the Deepin distribution, but is available for distributions and derivatives like Arch, Manjaro, Gentoo, Ubuntu, Fedora, OpenSUSE, Pardus and Antergos. There are lots of Deepin specific applications that merge perfectly with the desktop environment.

Source: https://www.deepin.org/en/deepin-official-video/

You can download the Deepin distribution at https://www.deepin.org/en/download/.

The macOS switcher

To make a former OSX or macOS user at home in a Linux environment probably the best way to do that is with the Pantheon desktop environment. Pantheon offers the user a beautiful and refined user interface with for former Apple users recognizable design philosophy, like aesthetics, the sense of details, the dock for your favorite apps, the system settings overview, smooth animations, recognizable color schemes and their own interface guidelines for Elementary os dedicated app development. It has a great out-of-the-box experience, it is extremely stable and things like HiDPI work like a charm. Pantheon is seamlessly integrated into Elementary OS, which is in my opinion the best Linux distribution for macOS switchers.

Source: Linux Scoop

Find Elementary OS with the Pantheon user interface here: https://elementary.io/

The Windows switcher

What defines a beginning user. Is that a user who doesn’t know anything about using a computer? Or is it an experienced user but doesn’t know alternative operating systems? In this article I assume a user who knows how to find his or her way in Microsoft Windows and uses it for regular functions on a daily basis, but is not a Windows techie. So the question is which desktop environment best suits a switch from for example Windows 7 or Windows 10 to a Linux distribution and desktop environment? In my opinion, the most natural and effective transition from Windows to Linux is possible via the Cinnamon desktop environment on the Linux Mint distribution. Here opinions will be strongly divided. Many say that for example Gnome via Ubuntu is the best transition environment for a former Windows user, but I do not share that opinion. If you really want to convince a Windows user to switch to Windows, you have to stay close to the familiar user experience. And that means a recognizable user metaphor, with the start button in the left down corner, categories for your different applications in the start menu, recognizable use of windows, an out of the box working Window + E combination for opening the file explorer, the standard showing of icons on the desktop, the use of desklets, the recognizable panel with the opened applications and standard indicators and the possibility to effortless add icons on the desktop yourself.

Source: Linux Scoop

You can download Linux Mint Cinnamon edition here: https://www.linuxmint.com/edition.php?id=254

In my opinion the second best desktop environment for Windows switchers is KDE Plasma. Although it is more complex to use and setup, it offers a comparable user experience. But it is probably better for Windows users that are a bit more tech savvy than for regular Windows users. There are more distributions with a standard integration of KDE Plasma, but if you want the same out of the box experience as Linux Mint Cinnamon, than you should probably use Kubuntu.

Source: Linux Scoop

You can download Kubuntu here: https://kubuntu.org/getkubuntu/

The minimalist user

In my opinion the minimalist user and the macOS switcher are comparable personas. They don’t want to fiddle constantly with settings and are mainly focussed on content creation while having a clean, slick and minimal desktop experience, that is not hampering the normal way you work. Their life is not primarily about the operating system, but about the applications you can use on it.

So to make the minimalist user at home in a Linux environment probably the best way to do that is with the Pantheon desktop environment. Pantheon offers the user a beautiful and refined user interface with a design philosophy focussed on aesthetics, sense of details, the dock for your favorite apps, the system settings overview, smooth animations, subtle color schemes and their own interface guidelines for Elementary os dedicated app development. It has a great out-of-the-box experience, it is extremely stable and things like HiDPI work like a charm. Patheon is seamlessly integrated into Elementary OS, which is in my opinion the best Linux distribution for minimalists.

Source: Linux Scoop

Find Elementary OS with the Pantheon user interface here: https://elementary.io/

The tweaker

There are users who want to use their Linux distro as delivered without touching anything and there are users who want a construction box metaphor in which they can decide on every individual component of the desktop experience. In my opinion the best desktop environment for these users is KDE Plasma. Plasma is built on widgets, allowing you to move, mix, add, and remove just about everything to perfect your personal workflow. You can choose different presentations in the start menu. You can set numerous windows rules, remap your keystrokes and there are numerous system settings on high level and detailed level. There are more distributions with a standard integration of KDE Plasma, but if you are a former Windows user and want the same out of the box experience as Linux Mint Cinnamon, than you should probably use Kubuntu. If you are someone who really wants to start from scratch and decide yourself on which applications to instal, as well, then have a look at the very basic KDE Neon.

Source: Linux Scoop

You can download Kubuntu here: https://kubuntu.org/getkubuntu/
You can download KDE Neon here: https://neon.kde.org/download

The do it yourselfer

I started this chapter by telling that we should not directly talk about installing a desktop environment ourselves, but that finding the right distro – desktop environment is a better start. But it is important not to forget the people who actually want to do that when they are getting more experienced.

The ultimate in the world of Linux is the complete self-assembly of your Linux-based work environment, in which you determine for each component what it is and how you use it. And the ultimate challenge can be found through the Arch Linux distribution. Arch Linux is a distribution that targets advanced Linux users who want to build up a system that is optimally fit to someone’s needs, with the components they actually need. And that also applies to the desktop environment, since Arch is delivered in its most basic format and you make the choice for whatever desktop environment you want to install.

If you want a more user friendly version of Arch than you should have a look at Antegros Linux, which is being delivered with Cinnamon, Gnome, KDE Plasma, MATE Desktop, OpenBox and Xfce and uses the GNOME 3 desktop environment by default.

You can find Arch here: https://www.archlinux.org/
You can find Antegros here: https://antergos.com/

The can not let go user

The can not let go user is focussed on using his or her old hardware for as long as possible. This user does not need a better or faster computer every few years and does not believe in throwing away equipment if it still works fine. Even though a distribution like Linux Mint with the Cinnamon desktop runs pretty well on my late 2008 old MacBook, the performance could be much better with a very light desktop environment on top of a very light Linux distribution. For these users probably the LXDE desktop environment is the best option. LXDE, which stands for Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment, is a desktop environment created with old hardware in mind, so it runs smoothly on really old and according to modern standards underperforming hardware. But although it is build for low spec it has enough functionalities to offer to keep it interesting, like support for multiple panels, a strong file manager, multiple desktops and multiple options to change the look and feel of your desktop.

Source: Linux Scoop

You can download Lubuntu here: https://lubuntu.me/downloads/

The command line user

There are all kind of users and some of them just prefer not to use a graphical desktop environment at all. Although it is possible to just use the command line tool in every distribution and run your commands straight from the command line, if you are a real Linux core lover, you could run a Linux distribution without a desktop environment whatsoever. It is for example possible to install Ubuntu as command line only implementation and a lot of server distributions usually boot up into command line first. But there are others as well that are initially desktopless distributions like MicroCore and Damn Small Linux. Another option that should be of great interest for non graphical UI Linux users is Awesome, which is a highly configurable, next generation framework window manager for X. It is primarily targeted at power users, developers and people who want to have fine-grained control on what they are doing.

Source: punkalert1

You can download MicroCore here: http://tinycorelinux.net/downloads.html
You can download Damn Small Linux here: http://www.damnsmalllinux.org/download.html
You can download Awesome here: https://awesomewm.org/download/

The gamer

For a gamer probably the main focus is on performance, so the desktop environment should have no or at least minimal negative influence on the task what it is all about, namely playing a game. So in theory you should use the most simplistic desktop environment like LXDE, LXQt or Enlightenment, which all only use 128 Mb of memory. Compare that with Budgie (671 Mb) and Gnome (718 Mb). In practice though, most enthusiastic gamers run powerful hardware and mostly the memory consumption of the desktop environment is therefore not that important. In the previous article we discussed the best distributions for gaming, like SteamOS, Ubuntu GamePack, Fedora – Games Spin, SparkyLinux – GameOver Edition, Game Drift Linux and Manjaro Gaming Edition.

Source: The Linux Experiment

An overview of Linux distros and their desktop environments

In this article we only discussed a handful of use cases and their matching desktop environments. Below a more extensive overview of the best known desktop environments and some distributions they are delivered with.

Desktop Environment Distribution
Budgie Ubuntu Budgie, Solus
Cinnamon Mint, Antegros
Deepin Deepin
Enlightenment Bodhi
Gnome 3 Manjaro, Ubuntu, Fedora, Solus, Antegros
KDE Plasma Manjaro, OpenSUSE, KDE Neon
Lumina PCLinuxOS
LXDE Lubuntu
MATE Mint, Solus
OpenBox Antegros
Pantheon Elementary
Trinity PCLinuxOS
XFCE Manjaro, Mint, Antegros
Zorin Zorin

Final words

As you can see above, we can find different desktop environments for different use cases, situations or personas. As we already saw for Linux distributions, also for desktop environments it is not possible to choose one solution that rules them all. It all depends on your personal preferences, your requirements, your hardware and maybe your emotions. If I can make a cautious bid then Cinnamon and KDE Plasma will be the winners being the best fit desktop environments for the widest possible audience, since most new Linux users are Windows switchers, so they will value the recognizable interface metaphor. But for switchers of macOS, Pantheon is probably the best choice and maybe Gnome as second best. But who am I to decide. It is you who decide at the end and I hope the above information will help you a little bit in the process.

 

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