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Updated on May 9, 2013

One of the great advantages of Linux over Windows is the great variety of customization options. With Windows, you have one option... whatever version of Windows is in current production. Sure, you can use an older Windows system, but that may mean no support, lack of drivers, or feature that are not compatible with the latest computers.

Linux is a completely different animal. Not only are there different types of operating systems (Ubuntu, Debian, Arch...), but there are also a great variety of desktop environments available. From slim and sleek to highly customizable and everything in between, there is a desktop for everyone. But what is the right desktop environment for you?

With Linux, there is no reason to limit yourself to just one desktop environment. It is not only possible to add multiple desktops, it is relatively easy to do. Once you have added multiple desktops, you will simply select your preferred desktop from the startup screen before logging in.

Why would you want multiple desktops on the same computer? Perhaps you just want to try out several to find your favorite. Or maybe this is the family computer, and everyone has a different preference in desktop environments. Perhaps you like different desktops for different situations.

In this article, I will briefly discuss some of the more popular desktop environments available. I will also include the instructions to add that desktop environment to Ubuntu (currently in version 13.04), which is the most commonly used Linux system.

The Unity Desktop


Unity is the default desktop environment in Ubuntu, so no special steps are required to get this one. It is recognizable at once due to its vertical task bar on the left hand side. When Unity first came on the scene, it received a lot of mixed reviews. Many didn't like how different it was from previous desktops. And the initial builds of Unity were buggy, slow to perform, and hogged computer resources. Most of those problems have been fixed, however, and Unity in Ubuntu 13.04 is the best ever.

The idea behind Unity was to integrate all of your applications into a simple touch-ready environment. (As you may or may not know, Canonical, the parent company of Ubuntu, is pushing to move Ubuntu to phones, tablets, and televisions. Integrating Ubuntu into these other devices was part of the drive for Unity.) The vertical task bar gives the user access to every application on the computer, while at the same time conserving vertical screen space.

Unity is not a bad system, but it is like Windows in that it is not very customizable. You can change backgrounds, a few colors, download some new icons, change placement of icons on the taskbar, and that is about it. Still, it is a pretty good desktop environment for someone new to Ubuntu.

The LXDE Desktop


Need a lightweight, fast loading desktop environment? Then look no further... LXDE is your ticket. This is a great desktop for an older computer or a low powered netbook, as it uses very little resources. (Some time ago, I wrote a hub about using this desktop on a netbook. If you wish to read about the experience, click here.) It’s not exactly the prettiest desktop to look at, but if you’re someone who values simple function, this is a great desktop environment. This is the standard desktop for Lubuntu, but if you wish to add this environment to Ubuntu, open the terminal and type in the following command:

sudo apt-get install lxde

After typing the command, press enter and you will be prompted for your password. Enter the password, press enter, and wait for the package to load. After the installation, you will need to reboot your computer. Once you reboot, you will have the option of picking your desktop of choice at the login screen, making this system very easy to customize

The XFCE desktop


XFCE is another fast and light desktop, although it is not as light as LXDE. However, I think it is much more visually appealing and user friendly. This desktop used to be the no-choice alternative to KDE and Gnome. And for some time, those dissatisfied with the early versions of Unity came streaming in the doors of XFCE. In recent years, XFCE has seen a lot of improvement, and has become a unique and versatile desktop environment.

One relatively weak side of XFCE is that it comes bundled with so-called lightweight programs that are not as well-known or useful as some of the mainstream solutions, which can cause alienation with common users, although there is nothing to stop you from using the exact same programs on this desktop environment. Because of this, XFCE is definitely gaining in practicality and popularity.

XFCE comes installed with a dock-like panel at the bottom of the screen (you can move the panel to other places on the screen). You can place icons for your most commonly used applications in this panel for quick access, or completely hide the panel if you wish. There are also a wide variety of plugins for XFCE, making it very easy to tweak and modify.

XFCE is the standard desktop environment for Xubuntu (I recently wrote a hub about using this desktop environment on my stepdaughter’s laptop; you can read about it here.) If you wish to add XFCE to Ubuntu, open the terminal and type in the following command:

sudo apt-get install xfce4

Follow the same procedure I gave for LXDE, and you will soon have XFCE added to your computer.

The Cinnamon Desktop


Cinnamon is the default desktop environment for Linux Mint, and was developed due to their dissatisfaction with Gnome 3. I gave this a try not long ago, and was really impressed. It is quite stable and light of resources, although not as light as either XFCE or LXDE.

For someone coming from a Windows desktop, this is a good choice as the feel and layout is very similar. In stock form, it is very simple to look at. However, there are tons of applets (widgets) available for this desktop, making it easy to tweak to your liking. To get this desktop up and running, open the terminal and type in the following commands:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:gwendal-lebihan-dev/Cinnamon-stable

sudo apt-get update

sudo apt-get install Cinnamon

The Gnome Desktop

Gnome 3

The Gnome 3 desktop was designed to be all about simplicity and ease of use. Unfortunately, I feel the developers tried to make things so simple that it is now difficult to use. Derived from an eelier version of Gnome (Gnome 2), Gnome 3 was envisioned to bridge the gap between the keyboard and mouse platform to the touch screen generation. Unfortunately, the result was a desktop that was extremely controversial, causing many spinoffs and alternative solutions.

As you may have guessed, I'm not a big fan of Gnome 3. However, one of the features of this desktop that I do like is the activities overview. Everything is right in front of you, with no hunting for icons or trying to figure out how to start a certain application. My desktop has a touch screen, and I can say that the activities overview is great for use with a touch screen.

Gnome is developed by the Gnome community, which is a diverse group of international contributors. Because of this community, there are tons of add-ons, widgets, icons and themes to customize Gnome 3. And since Gnome has such a huge following, there is plenty of information on the web, from tips and trick to major customization.

Gnome is actually available through the Ubuntu Software Center, so installation is easy. Just open the center and do a search for gnome.

One word of warning: Cinnamon is derived from Gnome, and I have heard that you can’t have both installed on the same computer. I haven’t tried installing both at the same time, but just to be safe, I wouldn’t recommend installing both.

The KDE Desktop

The KDE desktop

I recently made the change to the KDE desktop, and I am still wowed by its awesomeness. If you like the idea of the most flexible, most customizable desktop, this is the environment for you. I will warn you up front that there is quite a learning curve with KDE, as it definitely marches to its own drummer. However, once you get the hang of KDE, you will love the ability to tweak and modify everything. (I am currently working on a tutorial on how to tweak KDE, so keep your eye out for it.)

Like Gnome, KDE is developed by an international community. In addition to developing the KDE desktop, the community has developed a set of applications that not only function on the KDE desktop, but can also be used with other Linux distributions as well. Some of these include the Calligre Office Suite, digKam, and the Rekonq internet browser.

To install KDE, open the terminal and type in the following:

sudo apt-get install KDE-full

In Conclusion

As you can see, there are lots of different flavors of desktop environments for Linux systems, and in this article we have just scotched the surface of what is available. However, what I have described here does give you a variety of systems to try. From lightweight to robust, I think there is a desktop environment for everyone.

I hope you have enjoyed this hub. What is your favorite desktop? Feel free to comment below.


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    • Sherry Hewins profile image

      Sherry Hewins 

      5 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      I usually just stick with XFCE. Maybe I should experiment with some of these others.


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