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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.

Fedora Workstation uses the latest version of GNOME as its default desktop, which makes it a good place to see GNOME in action. Debian uses GNOME as its default, too, but Debian 8 offers a slightly older version of GNOME.

KDE Plasma 5

Traditionally, KDE and GNOME were the biggest desktop environments available for Linux. The GNOME desktop has now splintered into GNOME, Unity, Cinnamon, and MATE, but the KDE project is still going strong. The Plasma 5 interface is more polished than ever.

KDE has always been much more configurable than GNOME and GNOME-derived Linux distributions. Whether this is a good thing depends on the user. Some revel in having many options available, while others consider all those options clutter and prefer GNOME's minimalist approach. KDE has definitely become less overwhelming with time, however--all of that power is often hidden behind sensible defaults.

Using KDE is actually very different from using Unity, GNOME, Cinnamon, or MATE. Those desktop environments all use similar GNOME applications built with the GTK toolkit. KDE has always been built on Qt, and it has its own suite of applications to go along with it. Any application can run on any desktop, but these applications are more at home and integrated on the desktops they were designed for.

Download Kubuntu 15.04 to get KDE Plasma 5. Most Linux distributions offering KDE still offer the old KDE 4 environment.

Cinnamon

Cinnamon was originally built for Linux Mint, but it's now made its way to other Linux distributions like Ubuntu, Fedora, and Debian.

This was originally a fork of GNOME 3, built on top of that modern code but reworked to provide a more traditional desktop interface. Where GNOME abandoned a taskbar and Start-menu-like interface for showing your installed applications, Cinnamon built its desktop environment around those more traditional features. While GNOME strips out features and options to simplify the desktop and Unity chases smartphones, Cinnamon adds features and improvements for desktop users.

Cinnamon will be most familiar to users who loved older Linux desktop environments, or Windows users who never liked that new taskbar on Windows 7 and preferred the traditional window list.

Try Linux Mint with Cinnamon for the best experience here.

MATE

MATE and Cinnamon are similar desktop environments--in fact, Linux Mint is available with either the Cinnamon or MATE desktop environments. While Cinnamon took the GNOME 3 code and forked it to create a more traditional desktop, MATE took the older GNOME 2 desktop code and began updating it to continue working on modern Linux distributions. It's made its way from Mint to other Linux distributions like Fedora, Ubuntu, and Debian.

 

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