Lightweight Desktop For Linux: What’s the Best One for You?

When it comes to Linux, it seems like most people talk about the desktop environments with the most eye candy. While those desktops are great in their own way, they’re not for everyone. Not everyone is looking for something graphically intensive and pretty.

Some Linux users would prefer a more lean and streamlines approach when it comes to their Linux computing experience. It is because of this we’ve decided to make a list of all the different lightweight desktop environments that are currently available for the Linux operating system.

Note: each desktop environment in this list will most likely be found in your Linux distribution’s package repository.

the-best-lightweight-desktop-xfce4

Xfce is, undoubtedly the most popular lightweight desktop environment currently available for Linux right now. Everyone knows about it! There’s a reason for that. It’s the most complete and feature-filled desktop when it comes to being lightweight.

When it comes to customization, Xfce4 is the clear winner on this list. This desktop environment makes it really easy to change almost every aspect of it. And best of all, the customization is welcomed. The settings area for Xfce covers just about everything you could ever want to change (icons, GTK theme, window manager themes, splash screen, and a whole lot of other things too).

This desktop environment is indeed a lightweight one. It’s a little heavier than others on this list, I wont lie. Still, if what you want is light but also options, you should seriously consider Xfce4.

the-best-lightweight-desktop-mate

Mate. You may have heard of it. It’s a desktop environment specifically created to carry on the Gnome 2.x project. And when you use it, that’s what you get – everything that you remember from the old days of Gnome. It’s a great desktop for people who love that classic desktop feel.

The great thing about Mate is that everyone who’s used Linux in the last ten years already knows exactly what Mate has to offer. It has the same easy to understand customization settings, and also has its light resource usage and useful features that the old Gnome 2 had (which, admittedly isn’t as much as other desktops).

If what you’re looking for an advanced, lightweight desktop that plays nice with your resources, but retains that classic old-school feel, Mate is probably what you want.

the-best-lightweight-desktop-lxde

The LXDE desktop environment is Xfce’s faster, less user-friendly cousin. This desktop environment really isn’t the most friendly to casual users. Still, you shouldn’t let that scare you off. When you get down to it, the LXDE desktop has some seriously impressive things under the hood.

For starters, LXDE is so low on memory and CPU usage that it can run on machines with as little as 128 megabytes of RAM. This is the kind of desktop environment you’d want to run if your Linux machine isn’t exactly the most powerful. You’ll still be able to get a full experience.

The desktop has all the features any other DE has: appearance customizing options, a file manager, bundled applications, window manager options and many, many other things. The only real issue is that these settings are a little more complex than what most users are comfortable with.

Some people don’t mind that LXDE takes a little bit of fiddling to get it to a place worth using. In fact, some prefer their desktops that way. If a little bit of complexity doesn’t scare you away, and you’re interested in the amazing performance that it has to offer, this might just be the lightweight Linux desktop environment for you.

the-best-lightweight-desktop-lxqt

When it comes to desktop environments, most of them are built using the same kind of technology – Gtk. Not LXQt though. It’s a Qt framework powered desktop. This gives it a serious performance advantage.

What’s the advantage? Well, consider this: the GTK2 version of the LX desktop is fast and runs on very little memory. The Qt version? Even better! The change in framework makes this lightweight desktop even more lightweight. How awesome is that?

LxQt is basically the LXDE desktop in Qt mode. The desktops are one in the same feature-wise. It is because of this, there’s not really much to talk about. Still, if you love the Lx desktop, but prefer Qt over GTK, this desktop environment is a no-brainer.

Lightweight desktop environments are incredibly underrated and tend to be passed over. Many people are under the impression that desktops like XFCE4, LXqt or Mate couldn’t possibly measure up to KDE Plasma, Unity or Gnome Shell.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Most lightweight desktop environments, though they look visually unimpressive (for the most part), have serious power behind them. I hope, with the help of this list, that you’ll come to this realization as well.

image sources: lxde, xfce4, lxqt, mate

16 comments

  1. Nice article. I have to use Windows most of the time, but I like to play with some Linux virtual machines. In a virtualization environment are really useful theese humble and lightweight desktops.

  2. LXDE is less user-friendly but it is usable by newbies. It just has a steeper learning curve. I’ve used Lubuntu which is great and it was not too difficult.

    My current LinuxMint desktop uses XFCE because it’s my favorite environment. I’ve used it since Ubuntu Dapper Drake 6.06.

    MATE doesn’t feel light, in fact I moved to XFCE because MATE felt too sluggish in my laptop.

    BTW, whatever happened to Fluxbox? It seemed to have lost favor with the users. I tried Fluxbuntu once and it seemed to have potential. Same with Enlightenment Desktop. It seems only niche distros are using them.

    • I too use mainly Fluxbox, but that is a standalone window manager, not a desktop environment. It works just fine for me, though.

      • You are correct. But from what I’m seeing, these standalone window managers (fluxbox, openbox, fvwm, Enlightenment) are being deployed as stripped-down desktop environments and/or DE replacements, which makes comparisons between them apt.

        • Still, there is a difference. If you install just fluxbox atop the xorg you don’t get much to work with. You need to add some file manager (thunar, pcmanfm,rox, whichever..), a terminal (unless you’re happy with xterm… I am…), volumeicon, some more applets (nm-applet, or wicd in my case), conky (tipically), icon bar/dock (wbar, perhaps) and all other things that make a desktop experience. In other words, you sort of compile your custom DE. I like doing things that way, but I imagine it can be overwhelming for someone with no interest in tinkerink with GNU/Linux.

          • Agree with vasakq. To have a full “desktop” with fluxbox you have to start some services (from. LXDE, MATE or even KDE). I am a MATE user (Linux MInt), but fluxbox is my second option (just in case :) ) with mate-settings, pcmanfm (as file manager) and wbar as launcher support. Works nice! An even more it is a good ocasion to learn something more…

    • Enlightenment is my favorite, I’ve been using it since I switched to Bodhi 1.x. I even installed it on my Arch laptop. I think the reason so few distros use it is that it has been under fairly heavy development. E17 was a huge upgrade from E16 and they have now released a (relatively) stable E19. It’s a fantastic DE, but I think most distros prefer something a little more proven.

    • I use Fluxbox as well. Here is an image of my desktop http://imgur.com/a/FarvK

      The dock apps are great. They only take up 68 pixels on the left hand side of the screen. I have my instant messenger status, volume control, mp3 player and internet radio player out of the way yet always available. Below the dock apps there is even room for wbar as a launcher so I dont even need desktop icons

      In addition to that I use tilda as a drop down terminal where I am able to run Finch for doing instant messaging.

      Fluxbox allows me to run dock apps, put a series of apps into one tab group, customize my hotkeys and menus. It is fast, stays out of my way and lets me customize it how I want to.

  3. What is your definition of “lightweight?”

    XFCE Desktop Environment does not take that much less disk space than KDE. It is only slightly less memory hungry than KDE.

    MATE is the new version of GNOME 2 so it is no lightweight either.

    LXDE and LxQt are the lightest of the desktops in the article but that is not saying much.

    Shouldn’t you have mentioned Fluxbox, Open Box, FVWM-Crystal or Ratpoison as they are more lightweight than the DE’s in your article?

    • Same here, I never considered any of those to be particularly lightweight. They may be lighter than the most used ones, but still consume quite a lot of resources compared to others.
      I would mention a couple more : awesome WM and Xmonad.

      If the point was made for “Lightweight among usable by anyone”, I would have understood the choices, but not if no regards were given on user proficiency with Linux.

    • I think the subject of the article is what is lightweight among full desktop environments. Things like Openbox and Ratpoison don’t fall into that category.

  4. Dragonmouth answer is correct, but I think it also depends on the linux kernel. The perfomance linux desktop environment could be appreciated at Phoronix.com under different Linux distros and then you could also choose the best lightweight desktop environment. You could visit Phoronix site and search perfomance linux desktop environment for several distros.
    At last, I agree with Frenchbeard that user proficiency matters. User experience may be the distros next step to improve in order to attract people to their desktops environment. I will never leave Ubuntu or Xubuntu because they suits very well to my work as a chemical engineer. Others can think different, I hope.

  5. I haven’t done one in a couple of years, but the last time I did a memory footprint and resources usage study, IceWM defeated Fluxbox by a couple MB of initial memory consumption.

    On the systems I was using at the time (2007-2009 vintage Duo Core laptop systems from Gateway and Lenovo) each had 2 GB of memory so they were not memory constrained for either window manager or desktop environment use, but they were already processor and I/O bound and continue to be that way. In other words, both units were low to midrange in capacity even new, and definitely low end by any standard today.

    They are capable of supporting KDE, Unity, Mate, Cinnamon, or GNOME desktop environment configurations, but perform far better with Xfce, a good overall compromise, and better still with Fluxbox, Openbox, or IceWM.

    All DE consume well over 100 MB of memory, more often between 200-300 MB with little going on. KDE and the other heavyweight desktops often open at start-up consuming 400-600 MB but may start their own integrated apps with few additional resources. However, adding Chrome or Firefox to anything can easily add 200-400 MB of additional memory consumption, so with a DE and a web browser alone you can use 33-50% of physical memory with 2 GB on board. You’re OK, but with 1 GB or less on board memory you are almost certainly constrained to using a lightweight system or enduring memory swapping in and out of a swap file.

    Prior to 2009 I had a Dell Dimension 4100 desktop computer with 256 MB of memory. With KDE I could easily witness memory swapping with more than one active application. Not even sure that it would handle a DE today if I still used it!

    So that is why alternative window manager configurations are used; they conserve resources and provide flexibility in exchange for your involvement in setting up the resources to use them.

  6. Why wasn’t bodhi included in this list? It’s been around quite a while and it’s latest version dropped around the same time this article posted. http://www.linuxscreenshots.org/?release=Bodhi%20Linux%203.0.0

    Bodhi uses less resources than XFCE needs more memory than LXDE. LXQT needs more memory than LXDE. XFCE need more memory than LXDE and finally LXDE needs more memory than Bodhi. Enlightenment which is what bodhi uses is very configurable…..you can even make it look more like lxde or kde….example: http://i.imgur.com/sYrZGTg.jpg (the current look of my desktop)

Comments are closed.

Sponsored Stories