Right after you have chosen your Linux distribution, the very next question comes to your mind is what desktop environment am I going to use? This was not a problem if you have used windows or mac, you do not have the choice at all! Linux gives you the freedom and the sweet trouble of which one to choose. Let’s see if we can help you here.
One thing we need to clarify before we proceed, not all desktop environments will work out of the box in all distribution. Why?? Because sometimes developers do not target all distributions and skip testing on distros other than their selected few. For example, Cinnamon is only supported on Linux mint. That does not mean you can not make that DE work on your non-mint system. Most probably you can, but you may need to go through additional pain to fix things if any trouble arises.
Okay, enough talking.
Gnome does not have the most extensive set of features, but that’s not its goal. Gnome wants to keep it's feature-set small but solid. It is most widely chosen as the primary DE among distributions because of this. It has a very large flock of developers supporting it. Its features can be extended easily by thousands of extensions. Its easy for developers to write these extensions with the help of the great API & documentation gnome provides. You can’t go wrong with gnome.
- Stable, robust, rock-solid
- Thousands of extensions
- Official support from distros
- Large developer base
- Minimal, unobtrusive design
- Wayland Support
- Fewer features, less customizability
- Extensions are not of good quality. Fails too often.
- Poor workspace management
- Resource hungry
KDE has tons of features on the contrary. Not only it provides the DE, it provides many softwares as well which suits best only on KDE (for example, KDE connect). while it has its pros on customizability and feature-set, it did not feel that stable to me like many others. The code-base is old and hard to maintain, as complained by many. It is also a bit heavier than most others.
KDE plasma has improved a lot over the past year. I can't complain it's 'heavy' anymore. Plasma fans have fried me down there in the comment section with some very valid statements. Kudos KDE for the revamped plasma!
- HUGE feature-set
- Large developer base
- KDE softwares
- More Customizable
- Wayland Support
- Not so robust
- May seem cluttered and distracting to many
It looks old and boring, honestly. Fortunately, it's only when you first unpack it. You can customize it to your heart’s content. The look, the feel & the behavior. XFCE is very efficient in using resources. You can expect solid, robust performance although it is maintained by only a handful of developers. If you have a low spec system, XFCE can be your friend. I have seen many high spec folks using XFCE because they like the efficiency and no-bullshit principle of XFCE
- Fast, Efficient on resources
- Good workspace management
- Old school design out of the box
- Slow development
- No real sign of Wayland support
Gnome took some radical decisions when they upgraded from Gnome 2 to Gnome 3. Many gnome developers and fans did not like the move at all. They decided to take the existing codes of Gnome 2 and keep making it awesome in their way. Mate is the end result. It does not have that many extensions like Gnome 3. But it's fast, simple, customizable and robust.
- Many active developers
- Very easy to customize
- Simple, lightweight, fast
- Robust and stable experience
- Slow to pick up trends
- Conservative principles to hold on Gnome-2 like experience
- Looks and feels old by default
- No Wayland support yet
There are many Windows refugees out there in Linux world. Many of them prefer a Windows-like look and feel in their desktop environment. Cinnamon can be the way to go. It's also a child of the mighty Gnome DE. Unlike MATE, it is born from Gnome 3 (MATE is a fork of Gnome-2).
- Windows look & feel
- Nice UI, theming
- More modern fork of Gnome
- Fairly Customizable
- Not that robust
- Only supported on Linux mint
- Sometimes buggy
A Desktop environment mainly consists of a window manager, panels, menu, system tray, launcher and so on. I3 is not a full desktop environment. It is basically a window manager with a bit of panel support. Unlike the DE’s that we have discussed already, this one does not have a floating window manager. This is a tiling window manager which can provide a very fast workflow for power users. Many former DE users moved to such tiling window managers and you can try one too!
- Crazy fast workflow
- No need for mouse 90% of the time
- Extremely customizable
- Configuration (aka rice) can be replicated easily
- Difficult for beginners
- Hard to set up as a full DE
- Panels, menu, system tray set up can be hard
There are other DEs worth mentioning, like Budgie. And if you like an window manager like i3, openbox is another big name to try out. However, I haven't personally tried these so not commenting too much on them. However, do check out the comment section to read other people's experiences!