Comparison of X Window System desktop environments

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

A desktop environment is a collection of software designed to give functionality and a certain look and feel to an operating system.

This article applies to operating systems which are capable of running the X Window System, mostly Unix and Unix-like operating systems such as Linux, Minix, illumos, Solaris, AIX, FreeBSD and Mac OS X.[1] Microsoft Windows is incapable of natively running X applications; however, third-party X servers like Cygwin/X, Exceed, or Xming are available.[2][3]

Technical elements of a desktop environment[edit]

A desktop environment (DE) can be broken up into several components that function independently and interact with one another to provide the look and feel and functionality of the desktop environment. A fundamental part of a DE is the window manager or WM. A window manager creates a certain way for application windows to present themselves to the user. It manages the various application windows, keeping track of which ones are open and providing features to switch between them. Another important element of a DE is the file manager. This application manages files/ folders and presents them in a way that the user finds convenient. It provides file operations like viewing, copying or moving, changing permissions and deleting. DEs usually provide utilities to set wallpapers and screensavers, display icons on the desktop, and perform some administrative tasks. They may optionally include word processors, CD/DVD writing applications, web browsers and e-mail clients.

There are some exceptions: Window managers like Fluxbox, wmii and Ratpoison operate independently of a desktop environment and were written with this objective in mind. Additional hand-picked applications add functionality such as a panel and volume management which gives them some of the qualities of a full DE. This contrasts the behaviour of WMs like Metacity and KWin which were not written with the objective of operating independently of a DE.

KDE Software Compilation and GNOME are written almost completely on special software libraries Qt and GTK respectively.[4] This usually means that virtually every component of the desktop environment including the file manager explicitly depends on that library for its functioning.

X Window System desktop environments timeline.

Notably, nothing prevents the user from installing any number of software libraries of their choice. In practice, software written on major libraries can be run under any desktop environment. Running a package designed for one desktop (which essentially means that it's written using the same libraries as the desktop itself is) within a different desktop can be visually displeasing, as well as incurring the RAM penalty of loading libraries that wouldn't otherwise be required.

Some of the differences which can influence the choice of desktop environment are:

  • Look and feel of the desktop environment. The user will be more comfortable with a certain look and feel that they may or may not already be familiar with.
  • Flexibility and configurability of the desktop environment. A sophisticated user might want a highly configurable desktop environment to make the desktop environment work the way they want. A beginning user might just want an easy-to-use environment to which they will adjust.
  • Personal preferences for choice of software, which has two aspects:
    • Each desktop environment comes packaged with various default software and various "ways things are done" under that desktop. A casual user might like a highly integrated graphical interface to change various settings while a more experienced user might prefer to use individual configuration utilities or even CLI tools.
    • Desktops are also often closely tied into various major functional components of the desktop manager (example: file manager, browser, word processor); whilst "mix and match" is possible, it is generally pleasing to make choices which result in a consistent look and feel of programs under the chosen desktop environment. Making choices based on what software integrates with a chosen desktop environment necessarily limits the weight that can be given to other application features.

Desktop comparison information[edit]


Name Initial release Latest release Programming language Graphical toolkit License Notes
Version Date
Cinnamon 2011 5.2.1[5] Edit this on Wikidata 2021-11-28 C, JavaScript, Python GTK GPL Forked from GNOME 3 with the intent to create a traditional desktop built on modern technologies.
Deepin Desktop Environment (DDE) 2015 20.3[6] Edit this on Wikidata 2021-11-23 C++ Qt GPL The desktop environment of Deepin.
Enlightenment (E) 1997 0.24.2[7] Edit this on Wikidata 2020-07-26 C EFL BSD license Complete environment including centralized configuration of most settings.
Equinox Desktop Environment (EDE) 2003-01-06 2.1[8] Edit this on Wikidata 2014-06-22 C++ FLTK GPL, LGPL Seldom used environment, has seen little activity in recent years.
Étoilé 2006-02-22 0.4.2[9] Edit this on Wikidata 2012-04-11 Objective-C GNUstep MIT, BSD license Has seen little activity for several years, the last sign of activity having been in 2014.
GNOME 1999-03-03 41.1[10] Edit this on Wikidata 2021-11-05 C, C++, Vala, Python, JavaScript GTK GPL, LGPL GNOME is one of the most popular environments. Major design changes with the 3.0 release sparked the creation of Cinnamon (a fork of GNOME 3), Unity (an alternative Gnome Desktop Session to GNOME Shell) and MATE (a fork of GNOME 2).
KDE Plasma 5 (KDE5, KDE Plasma Workspaces, formerly K Desktop Environment or simply KDE) 1998-07-12[11] Edit this on Wikidata 2021-11-12 C++, QML Qt LGPL KDE has a strong and enthusiastic following. The project is largely community-centric, and encompass many other applications and frameworks, many built specifically for KDE.
LXDE (Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment) 2006 0.10.1[12] Edit this on Wikidata 2021-02-25 C GTK GPL, LGPL LXDE, with its low resource footprint, is a favorite among developers of lighter-weight Linux distributions. Development has largely moved to LXQt, but it is still maintained.
LXQt 2014-05-07 1.0.0[13] Edit this on Wikidata 2021-11-05 C, C++ Qt GPL, LGPL Formed by a merger of LXDE-Qt and Razor-qt, this is a lightweight Qt-based desktop environment.
MATE 2011-08-19 1.26[14] Edit this on Wikidata 2021-08-03 C, C++, Python GTK LGPL, GPL Revival and continuation of GNOME 2 environment after the release of GNOME 3. In recent releases, it has been ported to GTK 3, demonstrating the progress of the project.
Pantheon 2011 2018-10-16 Vala GTK GPL The desktop environment of elementary OS.
Razor-qt 2010 0.5.2[15] Edit this on Wikidata 2013-01-12 C++ Qt GPL Merged into LXQt
ROX Desktop 2000 (?) 2.11[16] Edit this on Wikidata 2011-10-09 C, Python GTK GPL
theDesk Desktop Environment 2020-06-17 Beta 4 [17] 2021-04-28 C++, QMake, other QT GPL theDesk is a successor to theShell [18] and is a desktop environment built on Qt libraries.
theShell 2017 8.0.2 [18] 2021-07-28 C++, QMake, C QT GPL theShell is a lightweight desktop environment built on Qt libraries.
Trinity Desktop Environment (TDE) 2010-04-29 R14.0.11[19] Edit this on Wikidata 2021-10-31 C++ Qt GPL (and other) Forked from KDE 3.x
Unity 2010-06-09 7.5.1[20] Edit this on Wikidata 2021-10-26 C, C++, Python, Vala, QML GTK GPL, LGPL Developed by Canonical for Ubuntu as an alternative graphical shell to GNOME Shell. Designed with "convergence" in mind, it was discontinued by Canonical in early 2017 because Unity 8 had some problems, including Mir and X app support. Was picked up by UBPorts and renamed "Lomiri."
Xfce 1996 4.16[21] Edit this on Wikidata 2020-12-22 C GTK GPL, LGPL, BSD license XFCE is often used in lightweight distributions targeting lower-end hardware.

Default programs packaged[edit]

This table shows basic information on the programs distributed with some desktop environments for the X Window System.

KDE Software Compilation GNOME Mate Cinnamon Xfce LXDE ROX Desktop Étoilé EDE Enlightenment
X window manager KWin Mutter Marco Muffin Xfwm4 Openbox OroboROX Azalea edewm Enlightenment
X display manager KDM, SDDM GDM LightDM LXDM elma Entrance
File manager Dolphin (Konqueror before SC 4) Files Caja Nemo Thunar PCManFM ROX Filer Efiler EFM, Entropy
Widget toolkit Qt GTK GTK+(legacy) / Qt GTK GNUstep FLTK (previously eFLTK) Elementary
Terminal emulator Konsole GNOME Terminal MATE Terminal GNOME Terminal Terminal LXTerminal ROXTerm aterm Terminology
Text editor KWrite (Kate before SC 4) gedit Pluma Xed Mousepad, Leafpad Leafpad Edit TextEdit Eyesight, Ecrire
Video player Dragon Player (Kaffeine before SC 4) Videos Celluloid Parole lxine mplayer-rox Enna (media center), Eclair
Audio player JuK, Amarok Banshee, Rhythmbox LXMusic MusicBox Melodie Enjoy
CD burners K3b Brasero Xfburn RoxISO
CD ripper K3b, KAudioCreator Sound Juicer Ripper Extrackt
Image viewer Gwenview Eye of GNOME Eye of MATE Xviewer Ristretto GPicView Picky Eimage Ephoto
Office suite Calligra Suite, KOffice GnomeOffice
Web browser Konqueror, Falkon Web Midori Eve
E-mail client Kmail Evolution GNUMail
Personal information manager Kontact Contacts
Instant messenger Kopete, KDE Telepathy Empathy Shotgun
Archive manager Ark Archive Manager Engrampa Archive Manager Xarchiver, Squeeze Xarchiver Archive
PDF viewer Okular (KPDF before SC 4) Evince Atril Xreader Vindaloo Epdf
IDE KDevelop Anjuta, GNOME Builder Gorm, ProjectCenter EDI
X session manager ksmserver gnome-session mate-session cinnamon-session Xfce4-session LXSession ROX-Session
Widget engine built-in – Plasma (SuperKaramba before SC 4) gDesklets Elementary
KDE Software Compilation GNOME MATE Cinnamon Xfce LXDE ROX Desktop Étoilé EDE Enlightenment

Note that Razor-qt has become LXQt, a port of LXDE to the Qt framework.

Comparison of ease of use and stability[edit]

GNOME's graphical file manager Files (Nautilus) is intended to be very easy to use and has many features.[22] KDE's file manager Dolphin is described as focused on usability.[23] Prior to KDE version 4, the KDE project's standard file manager was Konqueror, which was also designed for ease of use.

Both GNOME and KDE come with many graphical configuration tools, reducing the need to manually edit configuration files for new users. They have extensive bundled software such as graphical menu editors, text editors, audio players, and software for doing administrative work. All applications installed in most distributions are automatically added to the GNOME and KDE menus. No major configuration changes are necessary to begin working. However, by using graphical tools, the extent to which the desktops can be configured is determined by the power provided by those tools.

Compatibility and interoperability issues[edit]

Some desktop environments and window managers claim that they support applications made for other desktop environments explicitly. For example, Fluxbox states KDE support in its feature list.[24] Using software made specifically for the desktop environment in use or window manager agnostic software is a way to avoid issues. For software developers, the Portland Project has released a set of common interfaces that allows applications to integrate across many desktop environments.[25]

System resources utilization[edit]

A 2011 test by Phoronix with the default installation of Ubuntu 10.04 showed that LXDE 0.5's memory utilization was lower than that of Xfce 4.6, which in turn was lower than that of GNOME 2.29, with KDE 4.4 using the most RAM compared to the aforementioned desktops.[26][27]

In 2015, it was demonstrated in benchmarks that LXDE performed slightly faster than Xfce overall (in the average of all tests), using the Fedora Linux operating system.[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ XFree86 Official Website Archived 2003-10-20 at the Wayback Machine line 5
  2. ^ Cygwin/X website
  3. ^ Xming project homepage on SourceForge
  4. ^ Official websites of GNOME and KDE
  5. ^; publication date: 28 November 2021.
  6. ^; publication date: 23 November 2021; retrieved: 26 November 2021.
  7. ^ "Release 0.24.2". 26 July 2020. Retrieved 27 July 2020.
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ "GNOME 41.1 released". 5 November 2021.
  11. ^ "Plasma update for Discover". 12 November 2021. Retrieved 15 November 2021.
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^ "Release 0.5.2". 12 January 2013. Retrieved 23 July 2018.
  16. ^
  17. ^ "theDesk Desktop Environment / Github". Retrieved 2021-08-14.
  18. ^ a b "theShell / Github". Retrieved 2021-08-14.
  19. ^ "TDE R14.0.11 release is ready!". 31 October 2021.
  20. ^ "unity 7.5.1+22.04.20211026.2-0ubuntu1". 26 October 2021.
  21. ^ "Xfce 4.16 released".
  22. ^ Official Nautilus screenshots page
  23. ^ "Official Dolphin file manager page on KDE project site". Archived from the original on 2011-03-24. Retrieved 2020-07-26.
  24. ^ Fluxbox official website Archived 2008-05-14 at the Wayback Machine line 15
  25. ^ Linux leaps toward KDE/GNOME compatibility Archived 2008-02-26 at the Wayback Machine
  26. ^ Larabel, Michael. "Phoronix: Power & Memory Usage Of GNOME, KDE, LXDE & Xfce". Phoronix. Archived from the original on 3 September 2018. Retrieved 30 July 2011.
  27. ^ RAM use of LXDE vs Xfce in Porteus again confirms that LXDE is about 1/2 of that of Xfce
  28. ^ Phoronix

External links[edit]