5 Linux Graphical User Interfaces Compared
In this post, we will take a look at five different Linux graphical user interfaces: KDE, GNOME, XFCE, LXDE and MATE. We'll start with an introduction to what a GUI is and then provide a brief overview of each of the desktop environments.
What is a GUI?
A graphical user interface, commonly known as GUI, is the graphical environment of your operating system — where you have a desktop and mouse pointer. Your screen displays your application panels and icons as well.
Each item on your desktop represents files and programs on your system. You can click on those icons with your mouse to open them instead of typing out a command.
Why There's so Many GUIs
There are plenty of GUI options in Linux, unlike some operating systems that leave you with only one option. There are some good reasons why there are so many different types of GUIs in Linux.
The first reason is that the average Linux user appreciates choice. Linux has a real DIY spirit within its community, meaning a lot of users will build the solution that they want. Different types of users enjoy using Linux — and different GUIs are better suited for some than others.
Linux has exploded with different GUI options in recent years. They are all free and open-source, which is great for the community. However, with so many options available to users it can be a challenge to decide which one you want to use on your system.
Your choice of GUI will depend on what kind of user experience you are after. If enough Linux users want to see new features in a GUI, then a new project could be created just to satisfy that need.
Comparison of 5 Different Linux GUIs
We have chosen a few of the most popular Linux GUIs to compare and analyze. Not all of these different desktop GUIs have been created with the same goals in mind, so you will find that some are more suited to certain types of users.
1. KDE Plasma
KDE Plasma is a very popular desktop environment. Its lightweight design and customization options make KDE Plasma very versatile. You have convenient features like mobile phone integration with your Linux system using KDE Connect.
The browser integration allows you to connect with a smartphone browser and use it as a remote control for browsing on your desktop, skipping music tracks on your computer, receiving notifications, and more. You can also share the clipboard between all devices connected with KDE Connect which is very handy.
The KDE Plasma desktop experience gives users a lot of control over the desktop look and feel. Users can choose their color scheme, move panels anywhere they want them to be, or use a different system font. Users can download custom widgets and add anything from clocks to calendars straight on their panel.
KDE is available on Kubuntu, KDE Neon, OpenSUSE and Fedora KDE. For a full list you can check out the KDE website.
The GNOME desktop environment has been a popular choice for many Linux users over the years. It’s popularity is due to the clean, minimalistic look.
GNOME has been designed with usability in mind and is the perfect setup for people that just need the basics to get some work done on their Linux machine. All of the features that it offers are tucked away neatly in a desktop dock or application list.
This stability has meant that there are lots of popular Linux distros that use it as their default, and there are forks too like Cinnamon which is used with the very popular Mint Linux.
GNOME is a great desktop environment for those who want to customize their experience, but it can be heavy on resources. Older systems might struggle a little if they don’t have enough RAM, or if the processor is a few too many generations behind.
GNOME is a solid choice for experienced and new users alike. Most major distros ship with a few desktop environment options, and GNOME is very often included in this list. Distros that include it by default are Fedora, Ubuntu, Debian and OpenSUSE, to name a few.
The XFCE desktop environment is an excellent choice for those who want to have a more lightweight and customizable experience than GNOME offers. The interface can be customized, and the features that you use most are available with one click from your application dock or menu bar, so it's a good choice for PC enthusiasts that enjoy customizing their desktops.
XFCE proves to be a great choice if you need an environment that balances performance with user experience. It’s light on resources but still provides powerful customizations and features.
XFCE is so lightweight that it runs surprisingly well on older hardware. The interface, which might seem familiar to Windows users, thanks to its layout which feels modern and is visually appealing despite being quite light on system resources.
It falls a little short with its customization options, but if you are after a desktop environment that looks good and runs well right out of the box, then this is a good choice.
LXDE is another lightweight desktop environment that uses system resources sparingly, which means it can be used with a cheaper embedded board (like a Raspberry Pi) or an old salvaged computer.
There’s an active community behind LXDE as well. LXDE is highly customizable, so you can keep the components that you need and throw the rest out depending on what you want it to do.
The end result is that LXDE is a desktop environment that’s lightweight and fast. It uses less RAM than most of the other desktop environments in our list, and it has fewer dependencies on different distributions or platforms.
LXDE provides the user with an easy-to-use interface that is responsive and simple to learn. If you’re looking for a free, lightweight desktop environment that is easy to use and provides the basics of what a Linux interface needs, LXDE might be for you.
LXDE doesn’t have as many features as some of the other environments do , but it also means that your system components can be a little on the older side when choosing a computer to run it from.
MATE is a Linux desktop environment that forked from GNOME 2. MATE was created for users that didn’t like the direction that GNOME 3 was headed, which means that it has all of the features you would expect from a more polished desktop environment.
MATE has many applications within it that allow it to work as well as it does. It uses Caja as a filesystem, Pluma as a text editor, Atril for document reading, and much more.
MATE is a stable environment, and it also works well for users with older hardware. It’s not as flashy or updated as KDE Plasma or GNOME are currently, but that might be the perfect fit for a project PC.
It would also be suited for a hand-me-down computer that isn't quite up to the task of running anything too memory or CPU intensive.
And the Winner is…
Well, it's complicated. The Linux desktop has come a long way since its humble beginnings. Most Linux distros have a desktop environment that can rival more mainstream operating systems, in looks, and functionality.
It is no surprise that most Linux desktops share a common goal: to improve the desktop experience for the average Linux user. Great visuals, excellent performance, and enhanced functionality seem to be the hallmarks of a great desktop environment.
Each of our examples has a unique take on how to achieve these goals, and they all manage to provide an experience that suits the individual needs of their user base.
It is therefore not a clear cut race when deciding the best desktop within the Linux ecosystem. Instead, each desktop environment that we have chosen will work best in different situations, and for different people:
Choose KDE for cross device operation and great visuals for modern machines.
Choose GNOME for a no nonsense, minimalist desktop.
Choose XFCE for a familiar desktop that runs well on older systems.
Choose LXDE for low powered systems that need all the resources you can spare.
Choose MATE for users that long for the familiarity of GNOME with user led enhancements.
If you are undecided about which GUI is right for you, then the great news is that you can try as many Linux distros and desktop environments as you want, for free. Finding the right Linux setup is all about experimentation, evaluation, and most importantly learning through trial and error.