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Desktop environments provide a complete graphical user interface (GUI) for a system by bundling together a variety of X clients written using a common widget toolkit and set of libraries.
X Window System
The X Window System provides the foundation for a graphical user interface. Prior to installing a desktop environment, a functional X server installation is required. See Xorg for detailed information.
- X provides the basic framework, or primitives, for building such GUI environments: drawing and moving windows on the screen and interacting with a mouse and keyboard. X does not mandate the user interface — individual client programs known as window managers handle this. As such, the visual styling of X-based environments varies greatly; different programs may present radically different interfaces. X is built as an additional (application) abstraction layer on top of the operating system kernel.
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.
A desktop environment bundles together a variety of X clients to provide common graphical user interface elements such as icons, windows, toolbars, wallpapers, and desktop widgets. Additionally, most desktop environments include a set of integrated applications and utilities.
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 and avoid software bloat often avoid such mixed environments, or look into lightweight alternatives.
List of desktop environments
- Cinnamon — Cinnamon is a fork of GNOME 3. Cinnamon strives to provide a traditional user experience, similar to GNOME 2.
- Enlightenment — The Enlightenment desktop shell provides an efficient yet breathtaking window manager based on the Enlightenment Foundation Libraries along with other essential desktop components like a file manager, desktop icons and widgets. It boasts a unprecedented level of theme-ability while still being capable of performing on older hardware or embedded devices.
- GNOME — The GNOME project provides two things: The GNOME desktop environment, an attractive and intuitive desktop for users, and the GNOME development platform, an extensive framework for building applications that integrate into the rest of the desktop. GNOME is free, usable, accessible, international, developer-friendly, organized, supported, and a community.
- KDE — KDE software consists of a large number of individual applications and a desktop workspace as a shell to run these applications. You can run KDE applications just fine on any desktop environment as they are built to integrate well with your system's components. By also using the KDE workspace, you get even better integration of your applications with the working environment while lowering system resource demands.
- LXDE — The "Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment" is a fast and energy-saving desktop environment. Maintained by an international community of developers, it comes with a beautiful interface, multi-language support, standard keyboard short cuts and additional features like tabbed file browsing. Fundamentally designed to be lightweight, LXDE uses less CPU and RAM than other environments. It is especially beneficial for cloud computers with low hardware specifications, such as netbooks, mobile devices (e.g. MIDs) or older computers.
- 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.
- EDE — The "Equinox Desktop Environment" is a DE designed to be simple, extremely light-weight and fast.
- http://equinox-project.org/ || AUR
- Étoilé — Étoilé is a user environment designed from the ground up around the things people do with computers: create, collaborate,and learn.
- http://etoileos.com/ || AUR
- 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.
- Hawaii — Hawaii is a lightweight, coherent and fast desktop environment that relies on Qt 5, QtQuick and Wayland and is designed to offer the best UX for the device where it is running.
- http://www.maui-project.org/ || AUR
- MATE — MATE is a fork of GNOME 2. Mate provides an intuitive and attractive desktop to Linux users using traditional metaphors.
- 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 Mac OS X.
- http://elementaryos.org/ || AUR
- Razor-qt — Razor-qt is an advanced, easy-to-use, and fast desktop environment based on Qt technologies. It has been tailored for users who value simplicity, speed, and an intuitive interface. While still a new project, Razor-qt already contains all the key DE components.
- http://razor-qt.org/ || AUR
- ROX — ROX is a fast, user friendly desktop which makes extensive use of drag-and-drop. The interface revolves around the file manager, following the traditional UNIX view that 'everything is a file' rather than trying to hide the filesystem beneath start menus, wizards, or druids. The aim is to make a system that is well designed and clearly presented. The ROX style favors using several small programs together instead of creating all-in-one mega-applications.
- 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.
- http://wiki.sugarlabs.org/ || AUR
- 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.
- Unity — Unity is a shell for GNOME designed by Canonical for Ubuntu.
- http://unity.ubuntu.com/ || AUR
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.
In terms of system resources, GNOME and KDE are expensive desktop environments. Not only do complete installations consume more disk space than lightweight alternatives (Enlightenment, LXDE, Razor-qt 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.
Enlightenment, LXDE, Razor-qt 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).
Many users describe KDE as more Windows-like and GNOME as more Mac-like. This is a very subjective comparison, since either desktop environment can be customized to emulate the Windows or Mac operating systems. See Is KDE 'more Windows-like' than Gnome? and KDE vs Gnome for more information. (Linux is Not Windows is also an excellent resource.)
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 should none of the popular desktop environments meet their requirements. Generally, building a custom environment involves selection of a suitable Window Manager and a number of lightweight applications (a minimalist selection usually includes a terminal emulator, file manager, and text editor).