The Best Desktop Environments of 2021

Best Desktop Environments Feature

As Linux users, we’re often 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. I personally have reviewed different Linux Desktop Environments, and there’s a lot of overlap between use cases. Here we show you the best Linux Desktop Environments for your particular use case.

Note: the following list is not listed 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. One thing is for sure: Gnome is not the easiest to use straightaway. Its design deviates from the usual desktop design, and you need extensions to enable some features that should be there from the start.

However, the way it’s constructed with Wayland being the default display server protocol means that it has great built-in touchpad gesture support, and its extensions enable you to extend its functionality. It is heavier on system resources, so this is a recommendation for those users that have a more powerful laptop. I have a 2018 Dell Inspiron 7580 with an i7-8565u CPU and 16 GB RAM, and Fedora with GNOME sings when used on that machine.

Gnome Desktop

For Workstation Users

I recommend GNOME for workstations as well, particularly Pop! OS with GNOME. Pop! OS is such a great choice for workstation users because of the ease of installation on PCs with Nvidia GPUs. There’s a separate ISO file that already contains the proprietary Nvidia drivers, making it a total piece of cake to work with. It’s also such a polished workstation distro that’s so tightly integrated with GNOME that the whole package is simple to use.

KDE Plasma

If you’re the person who likes to constantly tinker and change the way your OS experience flows, Plasma is absolutely for you. I called Plasma the “Swiss army knife” of DEs when I reviewed it, and I stand by that. You can change every aspect of Plasma, meaning you can make it look almost exactly like macOS or Windows if that’s something you’d like to do. There are endless customizations you can do to Plasma, which means if you’re willing to put in the work, you can really make it work for any workflow.

Plasma Desktop

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 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 Cinnamon.

Cinnamon Desktop

Pantheon is quite like macOS, and I can see why. I am a long-time Mac user, and I grew very accustomed to that workflow and design language. If you’re coming to Linux from macOS, I would highly suggest that you try out elementaryOS, which is home to the most natural and integrated experiences with Pantheon in the community. The workflow is exactly the same as macOS, and with elementaryOS 6 on the horizon, there’s more touchpad gestures and features that are set to make Pantheon work even more like macOS.

Pantheon Desktop

Pantheon is also one of the easiest experiences for HiDPI displays, which makes total sense for a DE designed to swap in for macOS. It will automatically detect the resolution of your display and make things look appropriately-sized for your monitor.

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 full-fat DEs like KDE and GNOME. Its resource usage is very 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 Xubuntu Desktop

While this isn’t every use case, I think I’ve covered a wide gamut of work styles and use cases. However, the “best” desktop environment is what works best for you. In most cases, you can install various desktop environments to test them out and see which one is more suitable for you. If you are using Fedora, you can easily switch between desktop environments.

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John Perkins John Perkins

John is a young technical professional with a passion for educating users on the best ways to use their technology. He holds technical certifications covering topics ranging from computer hardware to cybersecurity to Linux system administration.

5 comments

  1. The best Desktop environment is the one that meets your needs, and that is always subjective.
    For myself Mate rises above the rest, and Gnome3 sinks to the bottom (yes I have tried gnome3 twice, for about 3 weeks each time). In other words there is no best for everyone, just opinion.
    I truly wish writers would quit using the word best, which makes it an ad, not an article.
    Good, great, useful, would all be better terms.

  2. Agree with James. The best DE is the one that meets your needs, you know how to use well and the one you are used to. Do not confuse “best” with “most popular” or “favorite”. What is “best” for one user, may be totally useless for other users. My personal preference is Trinity.

  3. Have tried quite a few DE’s and to me?..Fedora and GNome is it. ANd yes, I too agree with the general consensus, the BEST DE?…..is the one that you feel works best for your workflow.

  4. KDE has slimmed down and is now midweight. Along with looking good and customizable, it’s my favorite. Gnome is heaviest, Cinnamon close behind. My newest PC is a 2013 Chromebook, which runs Kubuntu fine. My desktop is 9 years old, runs MX-KDE.

    So far I haven’t found a distro or destop which is unuseble or really awful. It ‘s whatever you get used to. But I have stuck with Mint for years and recommend it to n00bs.

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