The Linux desktop is one of the most important things about your Linux experience, aiding or supporting your workflow and tasks in many ways. We look at the top ten available for various distros right now to try and help you decide.
The first part can be found on our website.
The first major lightweight desktop takes some design notes from GNOME 2 but forges its own path
Best for: old computers, veteran users
Associated distros: Xubuntu, Debian
Workflow: A simplistic design utilising panels and a program menu that’s best manipulated by mouse, with open windows listed separately
With its built-in GTK+ 2 toolkit like the previous version of GNOME, XFCE apes its panel layout and basic workflow. It’s one of the oldest lightweight desktop environments around and more than likely popularised the concept once it was used for Xubuntu in the late Noughties. It’s not the most well-known light desktop, with LXDE winning the popularity contest between the two these days. XFCE still has its loyal followers, though, due to being reminiscent of the older GNOME 2 design and being one the few desktops with a dock bar.
XFCE is comprised of said dock bar as well as a main panel on the top of the screen. This includes a program menu that not only includes the main software categories but also contains separate categories for system settings and preferences. Open windows are listed on this top panel while quick links to a customisable selection of apps is located on the dock bar. The dock bar doesn’t hide by default; it acts like a border for open windows, reducing screen real estate unless it’s removed or the hiding feature activated. You can also make the top panel hide to truly maximise screen real estate.
As for lightness, recent benchmarks put XFCE at about 89 MB of memory, which is slightly higher than LXDE. XFCE is slowly making the update to GTK+ 3, which will increase this number. For now, though, it’s still a lot lighter than the likes of KDE and Cinnamon and will likely still be significantly less resource- intensive even when on GTK+ 3. It’s also slightly more functional than LXDE, with more going on in terms of the panel and the dock bar and more. Choosing between the two is very much a balancing act and depends on whether or not your system can spare a few more megabytes for a slightly more usable desktop.
The lightest desktop that doesn’t sacrifice usability for the sake of a few extra cycles
Best for: very old systems, underpowered and single-board computers
Associated distros: Lubuntu, Raspbian, Knoppix
Workflow: LXDE uses a minimal traditional desktop metaphor, with a panel at the bottom with access to programs and a mouse-orientated navigation system
LXDE is so ubiquitous with being lightweight it’s in the name. The Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment is newer software than XFCE, debuting in the late Noughties when GNOME and KDE were still the top two desktops around. Like XFCE it’s built on GTK+, but it resembles KDE 3 more with its take on the desktop. It’s about as minimalist you can get without actively losing the features of a standard or traditional desktop. It’s so concerned with resource use that a CPU monitor is incorporated into the panel by default.
LXDE is a very mouse-driven desktop. There are no important keyboard shortcuts and everything needs to be accessed via point-and- click. Windows are typically arranged on panel and the window styling is incredibly minimalist. The program menu holds the standard range of categories for programs and access to settings and such. All the default LXDE apps are quite basic but they’re all quite customisable in the process. There’s nothing really quantifiably special about LXDE in terms of workflow – it’s just that it has a good basic workflow while being as lightweight as it is.
Specifically, LXDE uses only 78MB of RAM, which is 20MB on top of Openbox as a pure window manager. While this is only 11MB less than XFCE, if you’re only running on 256MB of RAM, that’s a big enough amount to care. This is why LXDE is used on Raspbian, as the Raspberry Pi really cannot handle much.
In terms of eking out every last drop of a more powerful system, the gains made between XFCE and LXDE are extremely negligible as you’re getting into serious diminishing returns when you’re concerning yourself over ten megabytes on an eight gigabyte system.
A fork and continuation of the GNOME 2 code
Best for: veteran users looking for modern features
￼￼Associated distros: Linux Mint, Snowlinux
Cinnamon’s lighter counterpart is the continuation of the older GNOME 2 line, forking the code when some users were unsatisfied with the direction of the GNOME Shell. The MATE team’s design goals are to keep the GNOME 2 style of desktop alive and up-to-date, incorporating modern desktop features such as notifications and application/file search.
It’s best for veteran users that prefer the workflow style of the classic GNOME 2 desktop: everything accessible from the top bar without hunting through separate apps, windows displayed on the bottom panel and a mouse-centric design. It’s currently in a fair few distros and is being added to more all the time. It’s much lighter than the likes of GNOME, KDE and Cinnamon too, but can’t really compete with LXDE or XFCE.
An alternative lightweight option with a unique yet familiar look
Best for: Highly custom, light setups
Associated distros: Bodhi Linux, Elive
Enlightenment relies on a slightly atypical panel on the screen that contains system info and a list of open windows. The program menu is accessible from this panel, but right-clicking anywhere on an empty part of the desktop will also bring up the options. As the panel doesn’t properly take up the whole bottom of the screen it actually seems like you’re missing out on screen real estate, but Enlightenment uses it quite well.
It’s very fast, light and mouse-heavy in its use. Due to the way the program menu is hidden away, it’s not the best candidate for a touchscreen, and it doesn’t really have a range of useful keyboard shortcuts either. It’s a very overlooked desktop that doesn’t use GTK or Qt to power it, making it much better at running a mixture of differently coded apps.
The Qt port of the lightweight desktop has some visual differences
Best for: old computers, test machines
Associated distros: none
A port of the excellent LXDE to Qt instead of the GTK it’s currently built on, LXQt is also the successor to a desktop called RazorQt that we had the pleasure of using for a period last year. It certainly rates as one of our favourite desktops. LXQt takes some of the aesthetic flourishes of KDE and other Qt apps and applies it to the LXDE framework – perfect for if you’re the sort of person who uses a lot of Qt apps and would prefer a lightweight desktop, as it’s the only lightweight Qt-based one around.
Recent benchmarks show RAM usage around 96MB, which puts it slightly higher than XFCE and significantly above LXDE. However, the developers of LXDE admit that with some better optimisation this number will surely go down and will definitely be lower than a GTK+ 3 XFCE.
The workflow is basically the same as LXDE, so moving over from one to the other isn’t a big hassle.
The window manager can easily be used as a hyper- minimalist desktop
Best for: developer systems
Associated distros: CrunchBang Linux, Lubuntu
Openbox is usually thought of as more of a window manager – the thing that controls the window’s aesthetics and placement within the desktop environment. However, Openbox can also be used entirely on its own without any other desktop overlay for the most minimal desktop imaginable, using the lowest amount of resources possible.
There are no panels by default, although if you want to then you can add some with other software, and clicking on the desktop opens a program menu that lets you access the different apps and some of the settings. However, Openbox can be not only quite impractical but difficult to get used to if you don’t add any extra UI elements.
If you’ve installed LXDE then it will usually show up as an alternate desktop environment on login and is the main window manager of the lightweight desktop.