The Linux Desktop Environment is the graphical portion of a computer that most users experience. The Desktop Environment would be the opposite of a command line or text-based interface. In the programming world, there are two key phrases: User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI). You can compare the different Linux Desktop Environments based on their UX and UI.
User Interface (UI) vs User Experience (UX)
The User Interface deals with how the user is interacting with the system. These inputs typically are from a mouse or keyboard. The user interface on an operating system will usually have a control panel, a menu to access the application, and have icons on a desktop. This is the part you usually see when on a computer.
Another term common spoken in the programming realm is the User Experiences. This goes just beyond the user being able to access different features within the software but relates more to the design a user may experience. This would be like button placement and organization of particular menus.
The Desktop Environment is where programmers place the user’s interface and the choice of one over the other is usually a matter of preference within the User Experience. Within Linux, you can interact and customized most of the interfaces in Desktop Environments.
Windows typically has a very rigid user interface. Most Windows users have become accustomed to the interface they have and the design limitation of it. macOS users often have their own expectations, but still have very little flexibility with their desktop environment.
Command Line Interface vs Graphical Interfaces
I remember the old Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 days. Back then, if you did not have a particular script running at boot up, you would often have to type the command ‘win’ into the DOS command prompt to bring up the graphical interface. When it was time to shut off the computer, you would exit Windows and return to the DOS prompt where you could then shut off the computer.
Windows has taken its command-line interface and integrated it on top of its graphical system. Prior to this, Windows sat on top of DOS (the command line interface). Linux still to this day is a command-line system with the graphical environment living above it.
Understanding Linux Runlevels
How this works is Linux is built around Runlevels. As the computer boots, it usually goes from Runlevel 1 to Runlevel 5. During this time it fully loads the command line interface with networking capability at Runlevel 3.
A Linux system can be configured to stop along the way, if necessary. When it finally starts Runlevel 5, it runs the graphical environment from the command line, which has already been loaded. Technically Runlevel 5 is Runlevel 3 plus the Display Manager.
If you want to know more about Linux, you can check out my article here on ‘What is Linux and why you need to learn it.’
Linux Desktop Environments
Some distros of Linux are designed for only one display manager. For instance, Kubuntu is Ubuntu for KDE. Other distros of Linux will allow you to pick and choose which display manager you want. That is the beauty of Linux, you can pick a user experience that you want.
For many years, Linux had three main Desktop Environments, Gnome, KDE, and Xfce. Since then several new Desktop Environments have started up. Let’s look at some of the options you can pick for a Desktop Environment on your Linux system that can be compared.
The GNOME Desktop Environment was originally released in 1999, since then it exploded among Linux. It has started falling out of use some over the years but still has a strong following. Originally GNOME stood for GNU Network Object Model Environment, but eventually, the team dropped any use of the acronym and now just goes by The GNOME Project.
GNOME has had three major releases over the years, GNOME 2 launched in 2009 and then GNOME 3 in 2011. The focus of the team in recent years has been moved away from the traditional menu and menu bars. It has recently fallen out of favor with major Linux distros, such as Debian.
The most recent release, GNOME 3, has focused on a mobile-type environment. This design choice was to ease a user from quickly moving back and forth from a mobile device and a desktop. They have gained much criticism for the move.
You can find try out GNOME by clicking here.
- Initial Release: 1999
- Current Version: 3.34.2
- Designed for: Mobile-like UX
Since 1996, XFCE has had a strong following in the Linux World. Today, XFCE is the oldest Desktop Environments for Linux that is still commonly used. The focus of the XFCE team has been a focus on speed and for the Desktop Environment to be lightweight.
There have been four major versions of XFCE over the years. Version 4 was originally released in 2003, but it has been recently updated to version 4.14 in August of 2019.
Recently a handheld system was released using the XFE Desktop environment. Manjaro Linux, one of the most popular distros of Linux right now, uses XFCE by default. If you have not tried XFCE, you should try it today.
You can visit XFCE’s website to test drive it by going here.
- Initial Release: 1996
- Current Version: 4.14
- Designed for: Being fast and lightweight
Like XFCE, KDE has its start also in 1996. KDE is currently on its 5th major release and has branded version 5 as KDE Plasma. You can find KDE running by default on many openSUSE distros.
KDE has focused on being flexible, allowing the use of many widgets. They have focused on being fully customizable and to be easy to use. Recently KDE has been focusing on mobile devices.
This is definitely another must-try Desktop Environment to try to choose from. You can visit their website by going here.
- Initial Release: 1996
- Current Version: KDE Plasma 5
- Designed for: Customization and Widgets
Cinnamon is the first one on this list to be a split-off of the first three major Desktop Environments. Released in 2011, Cinnamon was based on GNOME 3. While GNOME 3 was going for a more mobile device look, Cinnamon remained in the traditional desktop style.
Cinnamon is the default Desktop Environment of the popular Linux Mint distribution. I currently have one of my desktops using Linux Mint with the Cinnamon. I have found it very Windows-like. It uses X-Apps to give a traditional look to its windows.
One of the nice features of Cinnamon is the dark mode. The dark mode has been becoming more and more popular over the years. It is claimed that dark mode reduces eye strain and power usage.
You should definitely check out this great Linux Desktop Environment. You can find the Cinnamon website here, if you want to take it out for a spin.
- Initial Release: 2011
- Current Version: 4.4.5
- Designed for: Microsoft Windows-like feel
One of the newer kids on the block is Budgie. Budgie has focused on simplicity in its design. Originally released in 2013, it is now on its 10th version.
Budgie is the default Desktop Environment of EvolveOS distro. They designed Budgie to work with the GNOME stack to produce a unique experience.
Budgie is great for the minimalist and if that is what you are looking for, you should try it out. You can download this Linux Desktop Environment here.
- Initial Release: 2013
- Current Version: 10.5.1
- Designed for: Minimalism
Released in 2011 and itself also based off of GNOME, Mate launched as a rebuke of GNOME 3 dropping the taskbar. Mate is named after a South American plant called Mate, in which a local tea is brewed from.
UbuntuMate is been designed around this Desktop Environment. Mate has a similar overall design to a macOS system.
If you are coming from a MAC environment, this Desktop Environment one should be one on your list to play with. Check them out here.
- Initial Release: 2011
- Current Version: 1.22
- Designed for: Mac Users
elementaryOS is the main supporter of Pantheon, another great Linux Desktop Environment. It is promoted to being open, fast, and privacy-protecting. They are definitely focusing on replacing your Windows or MAC system with this Desktop Environment.
elementaryOS has a unique model where they expect a fee to use their distro, but it is a choice that you pay. You will have the option to pay a little or a lot, depending on how charitable you feel.
It has a clean look and to me looks almost identical to macOS. If you have a background with MACs then I recommend you check out this one as well. You down download elementaryOS from their website here.
- Initial Release: 2018
- Current Version: 5.1
- Designed for: Mac Users