The Best Linux Desktop Environments of 2024

A fully-themed KDE desktop on Arch Linux

As Linux users, we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to software. There are some basic programs that we keep coming back to that are so integrated into the stack that we forget they’re even there. However, when it comes to things like desktop environments, it can be hard to determine the best option for exactly what you’re going to use it for. We have reviewed all the best Linux desktop environments and, although there’s a lot of overlap between use cases, each one has something that might make it optimal for you!

Note: The following list is not in any particular order, and Window Managers are not included.

1. GNOME Shell

For (New) Laptop Users

For users of new laptops, I would recommend GNOME. There’s just one caveat: It’s not the easiest desktop environment to use straight away. Its design deviates from what users of other OS platforms expect, and you need extensions to enable some features that some would argue should be there from the start.

However, the way GNOME integrates Wayland as the default display server protocol means that it has great built-in touchpad gesture support and its extensions enable you to stretch its functionality further. You can easily transform GNOME into something tailor-made for you within minutes!

GNOME desktop with a file explorer open in Fedora

With a large suite of extensions, this desktop environment can get heavy on system resources, so this is a recommendation for those users who have a mid-range laptop.

For Desktop Users

GNOME works very well for desktops as well, which is why Ubuntu, one of the most widely used desktop Linux distros, uses it. Ubuntu is a great choice for all sorts of users because of its stability and ease of use. Beyond this, it also has such a large user base that finding support for the operating system is trivial.

For the most pure GNOME experience, you should try something like Fedora.

2. KDE Plasma

If you’re the kind of person who likes to constantly tinker and change your desktop experience, Plasma may just be the best Linux desktop environment for you. In our review, we called it the “Swiss army knife” of DEs. You can change every aspect of Plasma, meaning you can make it look almost exactly like macOS, or Windows, or make it truly your own. With this environment, the possibilities are only limited by the work that you’re willing to put into its appearance and function.

KDE Plasma's application menu open with the Black Arch application suite and a custom theme

If you want to look at how much you can change Plasma, take a look at some of the modifications made by Garuda Linux. Configured correctly, KDE Plasma is hands-down the best-looking Linux desktop environment. It might take you a bit of work to get everything tuned just right if you don’t like the out-of-the-box aesthetics.

The only real disadvantages to using this desktop environment are the wonky ways the Edit Mode (used to modify your panel and other nifty things) works on some systems and the sheer “overengineering” of its Settings menus, which can intimidate people who are used to simpler interfaces.

3. Cinnamon / Pantheon

If you’re coming from either Windows or macOS, I would highly recommend Cinnamon or Pantheon, respectively.

Cinnamon is a kind of gateway DE. It has many customization options, but it’s also just exactly what you’d expect coming from Windows. It feels much like Windows 7 or 10 in its workflow, and it’s even very gentle on system resources, which makes it an ideal fit for your relatively old machine that doesn’t run Windows very well anymore. Things will fly once you install it.

The Cinnamon desktop in Linux Mint on boot

Pantheon is modeled a lot like macOS. If you’re coming to Linux from macOS, I would highly encourage you to try out elementaryOS, which is home to the most natural and integrated experience with this desktop environment. The workflow is the same as macOS, and there are more touchpad gestures and features that are set to make Pantheon work even more like a MacBook would.

The Pantheon desktop in elementaryOS on boot

Pantheon also has one of the most seamless experiences for HiDPI displays, which makes total sense for a DE designed to draw in users accustomed to macOS. It will automatically detect the resolution of your display and make things look appropriately sized for your monitor.

If you don’t want to use elementaryOS on your system, on Ubuntu and Debian-based systems, you can install elementary-desktop to get Pantheon. If you want to install this on Arch, the process is a bit complicated, but you can check the Arch Wiki for guidance.

4. XFCE

If you have an older or less powerful machine, particularly an old netbook, XFCE would be a great choice. It’s incredibly lightweight when pared down and strikes the balance between extremely lightweight DEs like LXDE or LXQt and “fat” DEs like KDE and GNOME. Its resource usage may be low, but there are still many options for customization and configuration. One of the cleanest and easy-to-use implementations of XFCE is in Xubuntu, with a great icon theme and high-quality menus.

XFCE desktop in Ubuntu with some theme alterations

The XFCE desktop environment may be a great performer, but it has more limited personalization capabilities compared to the other options on this list. Although many die-hard fans love the look and feel of it, this is less of a priority for the developers than ensuring that it minimizes its use of your system’s resources.

5. Budgie

If you want a fluid and modern experience like KDE Plasma offers, but without the high learning curve, Budgie provides an excellent canvas for you. Users of the eponymous environment or Cinnamon will find Budgie very familiar, though with a more modern, flat look and feel. At the same time, those accustomed to GNOME will find many of the applications familiar, as there’s a lot of overlap between both of their meta packages.

Budgie desktop within Solus with the Raven information panel open

Though Budgie out of the box may look a bit familiar to KDE Plasma users, it’s not as hyper-configurable. You have a lot of freedom to edit your panel, but there aren’t as many granular theming options as you’d find in the latter. Nonetheless, this is by far one of the best Linux desktop environments that combine sheer beauty and utility with low resource usage.

6. Deepin

If you want a complete out-of-the-box experience, Deepin offers a unique, sleek visual style that was tailor-made for the Chinese market. Although it’s lacking in customization options, many of its fans point out that the styling and workflow is already more than satisfying as-is.

Deepin's desktop environment with the application menu open

The desktop environment has impressive visuals and the inclusion of more modern, flatter icon themes that make it stand out among all the other contenders. From a pure aesthetics perspective, it’s surprisingly pleasant to use despite its limited configurability. If you want something with fantastic visuals out of the box that requires minimal tweaking, you might just fall in love with it.

Deepin is meant to be used with its namesake distro, but that shouldn’t stop you from installing it somewhere else! Almost every other distro contains a Deepin desktop package.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I install more than one desktop environment?

Absolutely! But you can only use one at a time. In addition, some desktop environments might not play well with your current configuration. Sometimes, they won’t show up on your display manager (the thing that starts up when you see a graphical login screen). Other times, applications and visuals from one desktop environment will “bleed” into the other.

This happens, for example, when you install Budgie over Cinnamon in Linux Mint. Since they use the same files for styling and visuals, a thematic change in one will affect the other.

Remember to make a proper backup of your system using applications like Timeshift or rsync before installing a new desktop environment so you can reverse the changes if you experience a catastrophe.

Should I pick my distro based on the environment it comes with?

You’ll have a better experience and less headache using a distro that ships with your desktop environment. Installing KDE on vanilla Ubuntu, for example, will be less intuitive than using Kubuntu (a variant of Ubuntu that ships with Plasma). That doesn’t mean you can’t use your favorite distro and your favorite desktop environment at the same time, but it does mean you may have to work for it a little.

How is KDE Plasma different from Cinnamon?

While these two desktop environments may look similar at first, they provide entirely different application suites that come from a difference in goals for the developers.

KDE’s developers diverged their desktop away from GNOME several years ago and have since branched out so much that they no longer have much in common with the original project.

Cinnamon, instead of completely abandoning the GNOME suite, adapted to use some of it (Gedit, GNOME Terminal, GNOME System Monitor, etc.) while providing an entirely different visual experience. Because of this, Cinnamon’s interface might not be entirely uniform, as some of the GNOME applications it uses don’t conform completely with the visual styling.

KDE applications, on the other hand, adopt the universal system theme seamlessly, providing a more uniform experience.

Image credit: Featured image and screenshots by author

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Miguel Leiva-Gomez

Miguel has been a business growth and technology expert for more than a decade and has written software for even longer. From his little castle in Romania, he presents cold and analytical perspectives to things that affect the tech world.

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