Desktop environment

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A desktop environment provides a complete graphical user interface (GUI) for a system by bundling together a variety of components written using a common widget toolkit and set of libraries.

Overview

A desktop environment bundles together a variety of components to provide common graphical user interface elements such as icons, toolbars, wallpapers, and desktop widgets. Additionally, most desktop environments include a set of integrated applications and utilities. Most importantly, desktop environments provide their own window manager, which can however usually be replaced with another compatible one.

The user is free to configure their GUI environment in any number of ways. Desktop environments simply provide a complete and convenient means of accomplishing this task. Note that users are free to mix-and-match applications from multiple desktop environments. For example, a KDE user may install and run GNOME applications such as the Epiphany web browser, should he/she prefer it over KDE's Konqueror web browser. One drawback of this approach is that many applications provided by desktop environment projects rely heavily upon their DE's respective underlying libraries. As a result, installing applications from a range of desktop environments will require installation of a larger number of dependencies. Users seeking to conserve disk space often avoid such mixed environments, or chose alternatives which do depend on only few external libraries.

Furthermore, DE-provided applications tend to integrate better with their native environments. Superficially, mixing environments with different widget toolkits will result in visual discrepancies (that is, interfaces will use different icons and widget styles). In terms of usability, mixed environments may not behave similarly (e.g. single-clicking versus double-clicking icons; drag-and-drop functionality) potentially causing confusion or unexpected behavior.

Prior to installing a desktop environment, a functional X server installation is required. See Xorg for detailed information. Some desktop environments may also support Wayland as an alternative to X, but most of these are still experimental.

List of desktop environments

Officially supported

  • Budgie — Budgie is a desktop environment designed with the modern user in mind, it focuses on simplicity and elegance.
https://budgie-desktop.org/ || budgie-desktop
  • Cinnamon — Cinnamon strives to provide a traditional user experience. Cinnamon is a fork of GNOME 3.
http://cinnamon.linuxmint.com/ || cinnamon
  • Deepin — Deepin desktop interface and apps feature an intuitive and elegant design. Moving around, sharing and searching etc. has become simply a joyful experience.
https://www.deepin.org/ || deepin
  • Enlightenment — The Enlightenment desktop shell provides an efficient window manager based on the Enlightenment Foundation Libraries along with other essential desktop components like a file manager, desktop icons and widgets. It supports themes, while still being capable of performing on older hardware or embedded devices.
https://www.enlightenment.org/ || enlightenment
  • GNOME — The GNOME desktop environment is an attractive and intuitive desktop with both a modern (GNOME) and a classic (GNOME Classic) session.
https://www.gnome.org/gnome-3/ || gnome
  • GNOME Flashback — GNOME Flashback is a shell for GNOME 3 which was initially called GNOME fallback mode. The desktop layout and the underlying technology is similar to GNOME 2.
https://wiki.gnome.org/Projects/GnomeFlashback || gnome-flashback
  • KDE Plasma — The KDE Plasma desktop environment is a familiar working environment. Plasma offers all the tools required for a modern desktop computing experience so you can be productive right from the start.
https://www.kde.org/plasma-desktop || plasma
  • LXDE — The Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment is a fast and energy-saving desktop environment. It comes with a modern interface, multi-language support, standard keyboard short cuts and additional features like tabbed file browsing. Fundamentally designed to be lightweight, LXDE strives to be less CPU and RAM intensive than other environments.
http://lxde.org/ || GTK+ 2: lxde, GTK+ 3: lxde-gtk3
  • LXQt — LXQt is the Qt port and the upcoming version of LXDE, the Lightweight Desktop Environment. It is the product of the merge between the LXDE-Qt and the Razor-qt projects: A lightweight, modular, blazing-fast and user-friendly desktop environment.
http://lxqt.org/ || lxqt
  • MATE — Mate provides an intuitive and attractive desktop to Linux users using traditional metaphors. MATE started as a fork of GNOME 2, but now uses GTK+ 3.
http://www.mate-desktop.org/ || mate
  • Sugar — The Sugar Learning Platform is a computer environment composed of Activities designed to help children from 5 to 12 years of age learn together through rich-media expression. Sugar is the core component of a worldwide effort to provide every child with the opportunity for a quality education — it is currently used by nearly one-million children worldwide speaking 25 languages in over 40 countries. Sugar provides the means to help people lead fulfilling lives through access to a quality education that is currently missed by so many.
https://sugarlabs.org/ || sugar + sugar-fructose
  • Xfce — Xfce embodies the traditional UNIX philosophy of modularity and re-usability. It consists of a number of components that provide the full functionality one can expect of a modern desktop environment, while remaining relatively light. They are packaged separately and you can pick among the available packages to create the optimal personal working environment.
http://www.xfce.org/ || xfce4

Unofficially supported

  • EDE — The "Equinox Desktop Environment" is a DE designed to be simple, extremely light-weight and fast.
http://equinox-project.org/ || edeAUR
  • Liri — Liri is a desktop environment with modern design and features. Liri is the merge between Hawaii, Papyros and the Liri Project. Highly experimental.
https://liri.io/ || liri-shell-gitAUR
  • Lumina — Lumina is a lightweight desktop environment written in Qt 5 for FreeBSD that uses Fluxbox for window management.
https://lumina-desktop.org/ || lumina-desktopAUR
  • Moksha — Fork of Enlightenment currently used as default desktop environment in Ubuntu-based Bodhi Linux.
http://www.bodhilinux.com/moksha-desktop/ || mokshaAUR
  • Pantheon — Pantheon is the default desktop environment originally created for the elementary OS distribution. It is written from scratch using Vala and the GTK3 toolkit. With regards to usability and appearance, the desktop has some similarities with GNOME Shell and macOS.
https://elementary.io/ || pantheon-session-bzrAUR
  • theShell — theShell is a desktop environment that tries to be as transparent as possible. It uses Qt 5 as its widget toolkit and KWin as its window manager. It also incorporates a personal assistant.
https://vicr123.github.io/theshell || theshellAUR
  • Trinity — The Trinity Desktop Environment (TDE) project is a computer desktop environment for Unix-like operating systems with a primary goal of retaining the overall KDE 3.5 computing style.
http://www.trinitydesktop.org/ || See Trinity

Comparison of desktop environments

This section attempts to draw a comparison between popular desktop environments. Note that first-hand experience is the only effective way to truly evaluate whether a desktop environment best suits your needs.

See also Wikipedia:Comparison of X Window System desktop environments.

Overview of desktop environments
Desktop environment Widget toolkit Window manager Taskbar Terminal emulator File manager Calculator Text editor Image viewer Media player Web browser Display manager
Budgie gtk3 budgie-desktop budgie-desktop gnome-terminal nautilus gnome-calculator gedit eog totem epiphany gdm
Cinnamon gtk3 muffin cinnamon gnome-terminal nemo gnome-calculator gedit eog totem firefox lightdm-gtk-greeter
Deepin gtk2 gtk3 qt5-base deepin-wm deepin-dock deepin-terminal deepin-file-manager gnome-calculator gedit deepin-image-viewer deepin-movie chromium deepin-session-ui
EDE fltk pekwm edeAUR xterm fluffAUR zalcAUR fltk-editorAUR edeAUR flmusicAUR dillo xorg-xdm
Enlightenment efl enlightenment enlightenment terminology enlightenment equate-gitAUR ecrire-gitAUR ephoto-gitAUR rageAUR links xorg-xdm
GNOME gtk3 mutter gnome-shell gnome-terminal nautilus gnome-calculator gedit eog totem epiphany gdm
GNOME Flashback gtk3 metacity gnome-panel gnome-terminal nautilus gnome-calculator gedit eog totem epiphany gdm
KDE Plasma qt5-base kwin plasma-desktop konsole dolphin kcalc kwrite kate gwenview dragon konqueror sddm
Liri qt5-base greenislandAUR liri-shell-gitAUR liri-terminal-gitAUR liri-files-gitAUR liri-calculator-gitAUR liri-text-gitAUR eyesightAUR liri-player liri-browser-gitAUR sddm
LXDE GTK+ 2 gtk2 openbox lxpanel lxterminal pcmanfm galculator-gtk2 leafpad gpicview lxmusic midori lxdm
LXDE GTK+ 3 gtk3 openbox lxpanel-gtk3 lxterminal-gtk3 pcmanfm-gtk3 galculator l3afpad gpicview-gtk3 lxmusic-gtk3 midori lxdm-gtk3
LXQt qt5-base openbox lxqt-panel qterminal pcmanfm-qt speedcrunch notepadqq lximage-qt smplayer qupzilla sddm
MATE gtk3 marco mate-panel mate-terminal caja mate-calc pluma eom parole midori lightdm-gtk-greeter
Pantheon gtk3 gala-gitAUR plank wingpanelAUR pantheon-terminal pantheon-files pantheon-calculatorAUR scratch-text-editor pantheon-photos pantheon-videos epiphany

lightdm-pantheon-greeterAUR

Sugar gtk3 metacity sugar sugar-activity-terminal sugar sugar-activity-calculate sugar-activity-write sugar-activity-imageviewer sugar-activity-jukebox sugar-activity-browse lightdm-gtk-greeter
theShell qt5-base kwin theshellAUR theterminalAUR thefileAUR thecalculatorAUR kwrite kate gwenview themediaAUR konqueror lightdm-webkit-theme-contemporaryAUR
Trinity TQt TWin Kicker Konsole Konqueror KCalc Kwrite Kate Kuickshow Kaffeine Konqueror TDM
Xfce gtk2 gtk3 xfwm4 xfce4-panel xfce4-terminal thunar galculator mousepad ristretto parole midori lightdm-gtk-greeter

Resource use

In terms of system resources, GNOME and KDE are expensive desktop environments. Not only do complete installations consume more disk space than lightweight alternatives (LXDE, LXQt and Xfce) but also more CPU and memory resources while in use. This is because GNOME and KDE are relatively full-featured: they provide the most complete and well-integrated environments.

LXDE, LXQt and Xfce, on the other hand, are lightweight desktop environments. They are designed to work well on older or lower-power hardware and generally consume fewer system resources while in use. This is achieved by cutting back on extra features (which some would term bloat).

Custom environments

Desktop environments represent the simplest means of installing a complete graphical environment. However, users are free to build and customize their graphical environment in any number of ways if none of the popular desktop environments meet their requirements. Generally, building a custom environment involves selection of a suitable window manager, a taskbar and a number of applications (a minimalist selection usually includes a terminal emulator, file manager, and text editor).

Other applications that are usually provided by desktop environments are:

Custom window manager

In many desktop environments, it is possible to replace the supplied window manager. See below for instructions specific to your environment.

GNOME

Alternative window managers cannot be used with GNOME Shell however GNOME Flashback provides sessions for Metacity and Compiz. Furthermore, it is possible to define your own custom GNOME sessions which use alternative components.

Cinnamon

Alternative window managers cannot be used with Cinnamon.

Other desktop environments
  • theShell - In theShell settings, under the "Danger" category, enter the command to start the window manager in "Window Manager Command"