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Freedom of choice: 7 top Linux desktop environments compared

Chris Hoffman | Aug. 12, 2015
Linux is all about choice, and choosing a distribution is only the first step. Linux distros usually have a default desktop environment, but there are a slew of desktop environments available to use. Heck, Ubuntu alone offers nine official alternate "flavors" with different desktop configurations.

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Linux is all about choice, and choosing a distribution is only the first step. Linux distros usually have a default desktop environment, but there are a slew of desktop environments available to use. Heck, Ubuntu alone offers nine official alternate "flavors" with different desktop configurations.

None of these desktop environments is better than another. They have different aesthetics, functionality, and features. They may perform better or worse on different hardware. Only you can decide which you prefer.

Curious? Here's a run-down of some of the most popular Linux desktop environments.

Unity

Unity is Ubuntu's own desktop, developed by Ubuntu for Ubuntu. No other Linux distributions have adopted Unity.

This represents Ubuntu's vision of what a desktop should look like, and it's a bit different from traditional Windows desktops. One of Unity's most interesting features is "scopes," which allow you to search for different types of content on the web and your local computer from the "dash," which lists your installed applications. This is one of the headline features of Ubuntu for phones, too. Unity also has some other unique features, like the " HUD" that allows you to search for a program's menu options and activate them right from your keyboard.

While a lot of experienced Linux users complain about Unity, it's still a polished desktop environment anyone can get used to.

Unity's detractors tend to dislike the lack of configurability. The Unity launcher bar always sits on the left side of your screen and can't be moved. The window buttons (minimize, maximize, and close) sit at the top-left corner of each window--like on a Mac--and can't be moved. Unity has seen little change over the last few years, but the Ubuntu project is nearly ready to unleash a massive change with the convergence-optimized Unity 8 for both phones and desktops.

Unity is only available as part of the main Ubuntu desktop.

GNOME 3

Ubuntu once used an older version of the GNOME desktop, as most popular desktop Linux distributions did. But, with the shift from GNOME 2 to GNOME 3 and the GNOME Shell desktop, Ubuntu decided to go its own way. GNOME hasn't given up, though. GNOME Shell has improved dramatically and won over former detractors. Even users who prefer a more traditional desktop environment can get it via GNOME's classic mode. GNOME is also fully configurable with extensions.

Unity and GNOME are actually fairly similar, and use a lot of the same applications. Both desktop environments make use of your 3D graphics hardware for fancier effects. GNOME 3.16 added a centralized notification center, pulling past Unity in functionality. Thanks to its extensions, GNOME is also more configurable than Unity.

 

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