Ultimate guide to Linux desktop environments

A compilation of one Linux expert's adventures with 10 desktop environments.

Network World's resident Linux enthusiast Bryan Lunduke set out on a mission to immerse himself in a variety of Linux desktops, using each exclusively for both work and personal computing for at least one week, and documented his experiences on his Linux Tycoon blog.

He ended up writing 10 reviews, which we've compiled here in one place so you can compare desktop environments or just read about the ones you haven't tried yet.  We've added brief summaries of each review below, and the hyperlinked subheads take you to the full piece:

elementary OS's Pantheon

For clarity, this review applied to the Pantheon desktop environment and not the elementary OS itself.

That environment, however, pleasantly surprised our reviewer. Pantheon stood out for its clean and simple user experience. For example, the application launcher was extremely useful for Bryan:

"The application launcher doesn't try to be your music player. It doesn't search for you. It just lets you find and launch your apps and then gets the heck out of the way. So many Desktop Environments (Linux and otherwise) have been suffering from a serious case of feature-bloat – resulting in slower, buggier and more... let's just say "cumbersome" desktops. But not Pantheon. With Pantheon, every aspect of the environment does what you expect it to do...and nothing more. This applies to the system settings, the text editor, the video player -- all of the default applications."

The application launcher is just an example of an environment that is so easy to learn upon first use that Bryan recommended it for those who have never even used Linux before – or even for long-time Linux experts who just want something they can get comfortable using quickly.

Ubuntu Unity

This review required Bryan to live in an environment that had once driven him away from his Linux desktop of choice – Unity. Its limitations on customization, particularly the fact that the user couldn't move the dock from the left side of the screen, had forced him to find another environment.

Upon returning to Unity, Bryan found that it performed much better, in terms of both speed and reliability. Although he insisted Unity did not feel as fast as other environments – namely Enlightenment and MATE – he didn't feel like it was slowing him down, nor did it crash while he used it. The Unity Dash feature, which provides a set of tabs to launch apps or access files, among other things, was also useful.

However, the lack of customization and poor design (at least in comparison to GNOME Shell and elementary OS) still bothered Bryan. He did clarify that Unity is not a bad environment, but makes it clear that those who like to tinker with their Linux desktop environments might find Unity a bit limiting.

ChromeOS with Aura and ASH

This review was not about using a Chromebook as a primary PC – although Bryan has done that, too – but rather documented how he fared running the Aura hardware-accelerated display system and its Aura Shell (ASH) desktop environment on ChromeOS.

ASH was deemed pretty standard in the way it allowed users to manage windows, as was the "very traditional" navigation bar for accessing apps. The right-hand side of that nav bar, which features status indicators for certain functions like volume adjustment and Bluetooth, was "profoundly obvious and intuitive" for such a simple function. That was indicative of Bryan's overall experience with this environment:

"And that's really where ASH shines – simplicity and polish. It provides you with enough functionality to let you launch your apps (or open web pages) and then gets completely out of the way. And it does so while looking quite classy.

As for ChromeOS in general, Bryan touted it as a great option for those who want their desktop to make it easy to find and launch apps, but leaves them alone while they're using them. This is one of the main reasons Bryan said he'd consider this environment one of the five best he's used.

The only real downside was that ASH cannot handle running standard desktop Linux apps like Gimp and LibreOffice. If it could, Bryan said he'd probably use it every day.

Android as a desktop environment

One week after testing ChromeOS, Bryan stepped into the world of Android as a desktop environment.

One of its default settings can be considered either an asset or a deterrent, depending on what you're using the device for. Android is a single window interface, meaning those using it to work in one application get the full screen for increased productivity, and they aren't distracted by several other windows or tabs.

However, this can be extremely frustrating for work that requires access to two apps at once – say, reading a document while entering data into a spreadsheet. Bryan also found it frustrating to have to launch a full-sized window every time he received an instant message.

Overall, though, Bryan concluded that those who could get over this fact would find that "Android actually makes for an astoundingly usable, easy to learn, fairly peppy and relatively good-looking desktop environment."


Although this desktop environment was "blisteringly fast" and "damned lightweight too," Bryan found it to be largely unremarkable otherwise.

That's not to say that it wasn't useful – Bryan said it's default look and feel were "nothing to write home about;" its file manager was deemed a perfectly good way of managing files, albeit with an outdated design; and its interface is basically "what a generic desktop environment looks like."

Ultimately, none of this takes away from LXDE as a useful desktop environment, particularly for those who don't put any value into design. Or, as Bryan put it, LXDE could be a "perfect fit for something like a Raspberry Pi – a resource-light device focused on education."


Taking into account Bryan's history of criticizing Cinnamon, which he once called a "waste of time," this review deemed the desktop environment "pretty damned great," although "there weren't any features that blew me away."

The traditional user experience failed to set it apart from other desktop environments, Linux and Windows included. However, actually using Cinnamon helped enlighten Bryan to its advantages.

I found that after using it for roughly a week... I started to truly like it. The look and feel is polished. I encountered very few bugs (and none of them were bad bugs... teensy-tiny things, mostly) and performance was, if not amazing, at the very least "extremely adequate" – there was never a point where I felt Cinnamon was forcing me to wait for it. When I clicked something, it responded. Nice and snappy.

The configuration options are certainly quite extensive. Plenty of options to customize nearly every aspect of the user experience, including the placement of the close/minimize/etc. buttons on the title bar. That sort of flexibility goes a long way in winning over my love for a system.

And win me over it did.

Bryan couldn't help but point out how similar it is to MATE, which he still sees as faster and lighter, but he still credited the team behind Cinnamon for creating a "high-quality, beautiful" desktop environment.


Just read this excerpt from Bryan's review and decide how his week with ratpoison went:

Normally, I'd make you wait for the end of the article to discover my ultimate conclusion. But I just can't do that this time. You see... I hated it. No. That doesn't do my feelings on ratpoison justice. The heat of my hatred burned hotter than a thousand suns. Ratpoison should be sent to The Hague and put on trial for crimes against humanity.

That may not be the same takeaway for people who prefer to make the traditional PC mouse obsolete, as it was designed to be controlled by the keyboard exclusively (hence the name "ratpoison"). Bryan found the use of hotkeys to do things like switch workspaces frustrating, but not nearly as frustrating as ratpoison's guide to its many hotkeys.

So, for those who might be interested in a desktop environment designed to live without a mouse, ratpoison might be worth a shot. If you don't think you'd have the patience, heed Bryan's advice.

KDE Plasma

The resource-intensive KDE Plasma actually exceeded Bryan's expectations when it comes to speed and performance, but disappointed in visual design.

Version 4.13 of KDE Plasma was found to be remarkably faster and more responsive than older versions, at least when used on a laptop with 8 GB of RAM (Bryan speculated that it might not perform as fast on a device with less memory).

Some of the default aspects of the design were frustrating, from a "glowing" effect to the default active window to the excess of empty space in the toolbar. The environment is customizable, but these minor design issues took away from an otherwise well-performing experience.


Awesome seemed like a perfect fit for Bryan – a lightweight, easy-to-use environment that offered extensive customization.

However, it was that very customization that perplexed our reviewer. Awesome uses the Lua programming language for its widgets and themes, which is a very capable language that also requires a lot of work to actually build custom widgets. This experiment did not go well for Bryan, resulting in buggy widgets that he eventually deleted anyway.

After deleting them, though, Bryan found Awesome extremely useful again. So, essentially, Awesome could be great for those who are confident in their ability with the Lua programming language – or even for those who just to use want the environment out of the box – but might prove too difficult to handle for the uninitiated tinkerer.

Enlightenment (E17)

The first in this series of reviews was E17, the second-to-most-recent release of Enlightenment, chosen specifically because it was likely to be more stable at the time than the still-under-development E18.

Bryan found the E17 design and layout "gorgeous," and reported that it responded well when he used it on a touchscreen device. It also featured the "best-looking terminal" our reviewer had ever seen, and it performed extremely fast to boot.

E17 also promised customization capabilities, but this is where Bryan ran into some roadblocks. Because he found re-sizing windows irritating with "an incredibly small re-size region at the bottom right corner," he set out to modify the theme, but found it too difficult and ended up selecting one of the other themes available.

Those concerns seem pretty minor in retrospect, but for those who like to customize, it's something that should be taken into account.


Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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