One of the cool things about Linux is the freedom it brings. The ability to customize and change between desktop environments it’s just as important as changing between applications we use on a daily basis. Opposed to Windows, which offers only one graphical user interface, Linux allows you to choose from a two-digit list of graphical environments, based on your personal preferences, and nonetheless, hardware resources. This means that instead of always upgrading your hardware to the newest and greatest, you can still use in great conditions the hardware you already own. It’s really hard to say which one is the best but at the end, a good desktop environment makes using your computer fun and simple so basically, it’s really up to you to say which one suits your needs and preferences best.
Most Linux distributions have at least five desktop environments to choose from so let’s find out more about each of them.
Gnome desktop environment has been around since forever and it’s always been considered as the traditional desktop for Linux. But since April 2011, when Gnome 3 was released, it has been changed to a new and minimalist desktop, which made many users abandon it. Developers at Gnome explain the new design decision by saying:
“The Shell is designed to minimize distraction and interruption and to enable users to focus on the task at hand. A persistent Window List or Dock would interfere with this goal, serving as a constant temptation to switch focus.
The separation of window switching functionality into the overview means that an effective solution to switching is provided when it’s desired by the user, but that it’s hidden from view when it’s not necessary. The omission of a Window List or Dock also reduces the amount of screen space occupied by the Shell, and therefore makes it better suited to devices with smaller screens.”
Basically, everything has been taken off the desktop and moved to the Activities Overview. Here is the the starting point for everything you need: t can be used to launch applications, switch windows and move them between workspaces, find search results for documents, files, system settings and installed software. Besides, it’s not asking for powerful hardware capabilities so it’s most likely to smoothly run on old systems, as well.
Alongside Gnome, KDE has also been around for a long time and over the years, has developed into the most complete, complex and highly customizable desktop environment available out there. Whether this is a good or a bad thing, this is for you to decide. It comes with a complete set of applications and utilities and also it allows you to highly customize the graphical side in such a manner that beginner-level Linux users will find it hard to recognize if it’s KDE or another desktop environment. KDE also has a huge community which provides support, documentation and access to KDE-related software. Being a complex desktop environment comes with a price, though. It has a pretty high hardware requirements and shouldn’t be used on old computers.
In 2010 when Gnome 3 was released, Ubuntu decided not to include it in their releases and instead, created their own desktop environment project called Unity. At first sight, one could say that it very much resembles with Gnome 3 but in reality, it’s pretty much different. It includes an application launcher that provides easy access to applications and utilities and also a vertical task management panel that displays icons for frequently used applications and currently running programs. It also provides sweet eye-candy which, needless to say, requires powerful hardware capabilities so not for use on old computers.
Cinnamon was initially developed by the Linux Mint development team as a fork of Gnome but from the 2.0 release, it’s no longer a frontend built on top of the Gnome desktop, but an entire desktop environment and no longer requires Gnome itself to be installed. It provides nice desktop effects, a panel with a main menu, launchers, window list and system tray. Also, it allows various applets to appear on the panel and provides similar functions to Gnome. A major plus about Cinnamon is that it doesn’t require high-end hardware performances and can easily be installed on rather old computers.
The MATE desktop environment is the continuation of Gnome 2 and got it’s new name to avoid conflicts with Gnome 3. Currently it’s supported by the Linux Mint developers, alongside Cinnamon. MATE uses the concept design of traditional desktops and provides a simple, intuitive and attractive graphical interface, which makes it a good alternative for lower end hardware.
Xfce is a lightweight desktop environment created with the purpose of being fast and low on system resources, yet still being visually appealing and user-friendly. Its components provide full functionality you could expect from a modern desktop environment, like launcher panels even though these aren’t as graphically attractive as in more powerful desktops.
This desktop environment is even lower on system resources than Xfce but at the same time it’s extremely fast-performing. It comes with a simple, but beautiful interface and its components provides the least amount of utilities for you to get your work done. It’s especially designed for low hardware specifications like notebooks using cloud computing and basically older computers that can’t handle more complex desktop environments.
Any of these desktop environments are presented as an installation option in most Linux distributions during the install process so it’s up to you to choose from one of them based on your hardware specs and personal preferences.