Linux Desktop Environments

Written by Mike on September 27, 2008 – 3:00 am -

You’ve heard about “Gnome” and “KDE” and more—these Linux-related things are “Desktop Environments.” If you’re making the switch, which one is for you?

If you’re a Windows user who hasn’t experimented with the myriad of free Linux distros available, this one’s for you. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular Linux Desktop Environments that sit on top of the Operating System (OS). A Desktop Environment (DE) typically provides a GUI: windows, icons, folders, toolbars, and abilities like dragging and dropping of files from one folder to another. Any DE will therefore include a window manager, file manager, taskbar, and more.



The GNU Network Object Model Environment, or GNOME, is an international open source effort to build the simplest and most intuitive GUI for a DE. It’s one of the few DEs that have consistently matched their production timelines, releasing a new version every six months. Currently, it stands at version 2.24. This version focuses on document security, and incorporates privacy features that enable you to digitally sign or authenticate files using Seahorse, an application created for the purpose. That apart, this version also focuses on managing laptop batteries efficiently, and increases the stability and responsiveness of the OS. GNOME’s popularity in the open source world is due to its exhaustive set of developer guidelines— known as Human Interface Guidelines—to be followed when creating an application for the environment. The guidelines ensure applications don’t look too different from each other, and that some basic options like closing, minimizing, and re-sizing, among others, are placed in the same location across all applications. GNOME’s design keeps novices in mind. The DE does not have a lot customization options, and contains menus with an exhaustive set of explanation notes. The main reason most Windows converts should stick to this DE is because it provides a well-documented FAQ section, and a very active online community that will answer any newbie’s questions.



The K Desktop Environment, or KDE, is another DE that runs on UNIX and Linux distros. KDE believes in the manifesto that all components used to build the DE, and the applications that come bundled with it, have to be free and open source in the truest sense of the word, with no restrictions whatsoever on the user. The major difference from GNOME lies in the fact that KDE is not entirely geared towards the novice. It allows for complete customization, which might intimidate; having said that, there are a good set of applications that allow you to start using a KDE-based distro as soon as you install it. Applications like KOffice, Amarok, and Konqueror are some of the more popular KDE applications. KDE allows you to mimic OSes such as Mac OS X, so if you’re the type who likes to have complete control over each and every aspect of his OS, this is the platform you might want to use. The most popular distributions on this platform include Fedora (formerly Fedora Core)—though it’s not the default environment—and Knoppix.


XFCE Unlike GNOME or KDE, Xfce is a lightweight DE designed to work with computers that have both older and newer hardware. It is very user-friendly, and incorporates a minimal set of customizable options. The file system hides system and configuration files from view so they can’t be tampered with by the novice. In comparison to GNOME or KDE, Xfce is regarded the most responsive DE. It uses its own file manager, called Thunar. One advantage of using Xfce is its install size, all of 50 MB to be exact. Popular distros that use Xfce as their default DE include Xubuntu, SLAX, and dyne:bolic.

There are other DEs not as popular as the three above, but worth a mention:


A proof-of-concept DE based on the “Laws of Interface Design.” It aims at presenting all information collectively, in one place, thereby completely debunking popular concepts such as the Desktop being a folder, and the menu system having nested folders. Instead, it presents all the needed information on the Desktop, and holds tasks and files related to “System”, “Files”, “Programs”, and “Trash” in four windows on the screen. Mezzo is available as a .deb package, which is like an .exe file in Windows, for installation on all

Debian-based distros like Ubuntu, Freespire, and Knoppix.

Project Looking Glass

A DE written entirely in Java, Project Looking Glass aims at creating 3D Desktop Environment that can run on computers with low-end hardware. One of the most notable features is the creation of “reversible windows”: you can write notes or leave comments on the back of any window! Windows can be tilted or rotated to the angle of your choice, and can also be made semi-transparent.

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