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 choose alternatives which depend on only a few external libraries.
Furthermore, KDE-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.
The Best Desktop Environments:
|KDE - known as Plasma||KDE is one of the most popular desktop environments out there. You may also refer it as the “Plasma” desktop. Even though it’s not my primary choice, it is highly customizable and extremely lightweight.
It looks like KDE has managed to beat XFCE as one of the lightest desktop environments. Not just limited to Jason’s test, you will find numerous benchmark comparisons and tests that point to the same result.
KDE also makes it easier to connect your phone with your Linux system using KDE Connect. You will also find Plasma’s browser integration that connects your phone directly to your browser for establishing quick communication.
Overall, it looks like KDE is an incredibly lightweight desktop environment while being one of the most flexible as well. Some Linux distros using KDE as the default are openSUSE, Kubuntu and KDE Neon. You may also refer to one of our tutorials to install KDE on Ubuntu, if that’s what you want.
|MATE||MATE Desktop Environment is based on GNOME 2. MATE was initially developed for the users who were disappointed with the latest iteration of GNOME shell — GNOME 3.
Even though it’s based on the good-old GNOME 2, the MATE team has improved the desktop environment on a lot of grounds. To get some idea, you might want to check out what Ubuntu MATE 20.04 has to offer.
If we take the example of Ubuntu MATE 20.04, MATE desktop is suitable for almost everyone. And, of course, especially for the ones who loved GNOME 2 but hate the new GNOME. In addition to the user experience, it is also worth noting that it is a lightweight desktop environment as well.
MATE comes with a collection of basic applications and includes a number of built-in useful tools.
|GNOME||GNOME is arguably the most popular desktop environment out there. Many of the popular Linux distros use GNOME as their default desktop environment and it has some popular forks, such as Cinnamon.
GNOME is designed to be easy to use and customizable. The user interface aims to provide a unique experience (kind of tailored for both mobile and desktops).
Unfortunately, GNOME isn’t a lightweight desktop environment. So, it’s not a great choice to go with if you are looking to install a Linux distribution on older computers or systems with less than 4 Gigs of RAM.
It’s good to see that GNOME is also focusing on the performance side of things with their recent GNOME 3.36 release.
So, if you want a good user experience with something that looks different from the likes of a traditional Windows layout, GNOME should be the perfect pick.
|Cinnamon||Cinnamon, a fork of GNOME 3, was initially developed to be and is the default desktop environment for Linux Mint. It is known for its similarities with the Windows user interface which helps new Linux users get comfortable using easily.
Cinnamon tries to present itself as a modern desktop environment while offering a traditional user interface. And, being somewhat light on resources makes Cinnamon a balanced choice for many Linux users.
|Budgie||Budgie desktop has been developed by the Solus project. In case you didn’t know, Solus is an independently developed Linux distro where they utilize GNOME technologies such as GTK to develop the Budgie desktop environment.
It’s a mixed bag of modern UI and a traditional user interface. It’s not exactly resource heavy but not a complete lightweight desktop environment either.
Ubuntu Budgie — an official Ubuntu flavor - features the Budgie desktop as the default. Not a lot of major distributions support Budgie desktop environment out of the box. So, you’d be better off using Solus or Ubuntu Budgie for the most part.
"Desktop environment" by Multiple Contributors, Wikipedia s licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
"The Best Desktop Environments For Linux (We Tested Them So That You Don’t Have To)" by Ankush Das, It's FOSS is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0