Introduction

In a world in which desktop environments have become an everyday feature on computers, a user migrating to the world of Linux from one of the two larger operating systems, Microsoft Windows or Apple Mac OS, often come across a choice of environments which the latter don't have. In this article I will be discussing some of these choices of Desktop Environments, or "DE" for short, in the hope that it will help you choose which DE will suit your personal preference and needs.

What is a Desktop Environment?

Before we talk about the choices on offer, let's talk about what a DE actually is. This is the Graphical User Interface (GUI) that you use to click and open your internet browser, open up your email and even type that essay or report with. Around 95% of desktop users will be familiar with something like this in Windows:


Fig 1. Microsoft Windows 7

Or this with Mac OS:


Fig 2. Mac OS x Lion

Desktop Environments for Linux

Now we will discuss the choices on offer for you when choosing a Desktop Environment for your distribution. Some distributions even give you the option to install more than one DE on your installation. Please note that not all of the DE's we will be discussing will be available for your chosen distribution. Although most of the main distro's such as Ubuntu and Fedora normally have most DE's available for download, some are designed for specific distributions; low resource distributions may only have LXDE or Xfce readily available.

KDE 4.7

KDE, which stands for nothing more than "K Desktop Environment", is the DE that users most familiar with Windows will feel more at home with. This is thanks to the Plasma desktop that KDE integrates, and using features such as the Kmenu and Dolphin file manager to give KDE a "windows-like" feel when browsing your system. KDE comes with it's own set of applications such as Konqueror internet browser, Kplayer media player and much more as well as being able to install programs from other repositories as well, allowing almost endless of customization of installed packages to your system.

To summarize, KDE is a good looking Desktop Environment which comes with plenty of features that Windows users will feel more comfortable with. However, it is because of these features that it is the one of the heaviest of Linux Desktop Environments on resources. Minimum Requirements mostly start at 512mb RAM and a 1GHz processor but at least 1GB RAM and a 1GHz or higher processor for comfortable and full featured usage. Beginners to Linux should feel comfortable using KDE.


Fig 3. OpenSuse KDE standard plasma desktop

Gnome 3

Gnome, or the "GNU Object Model Environment", has been subject to some controversy recently since making a complete overhaul from the "traditional desktop" in favour of a revolutionary new type of desktop. Instead of the traditional menus and a taskbar, Gnome 3 uses an Activities menu which is your gateway to the new "Gnome Shell" which uses icons to access an application. A shell is a user interface that sits on top of the underlying Gnome code.

If however this "Gnome Shell" is not for you and you prefer the traditional style of a Desktop Environment then distributions such as the next release of Linux Mint (Mint 13) will also come with the new "Cinnamon shell" which uses the underlying power of Gnome 3, but integrates the traditional menus and Windows style. Gnome also comes with it's own set of applications such as Gparted partition manager and Gnome MPlayer which is a media player.

To summarize, Gnome 3 is a new revolutionary Desktop Environment which, thanks to many volunteers in the Gnome community's hard work, comes with new options for using your desktop, whether you opt for gnome-shells new icon menu system or prefer Cinnamon's more traditional menu and looks.

Minimum requirements for using a Gnome 3 based distro are usually 512mb RAM and a 1GHz processor but at least 1GB RAM and a better processor for comfortable and full featured usage, making Gnome 3 now just as resource heavy as KDE. Beginners to Linux will feel comfortable using Gnome.


Fig 4. Gnome 3 "Gnome -Shell" with activities menu


Fig 4.1. Gnome 3 "Cinnamon Shell" showing traditional style menu

Xfce

A lightweight Desktop Environment designed to be light on resources, but still visually appealing, using the same GTK+ 2 toolkit as Gnome version 2, which uses the traditional desktop. It uses a low resource and quick file manager "Thunar", as well as its own set of applications based on the Xfce libraries such as Xfmedia player and Xfburner CD/DVD burner.

To summarize, Xfce is built for much lower specification computers without sacrificing looks and usability. The Xfce Desktop environment will work comfortably with 40mb RAM using an Intel Pentium 1 Processor, but for full featured distributions using Xfce recommend 192mb RAM and a 300+ MHz processor.


Fig 5. Xfce Desktop with various programs and windows opened.

LXDE

LXDE, or "Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment", is a lightweight and energy saving desktop environment making it suitable for older laptops and netbooks, as well as lower specification desktops. It is the lightest of all the Desktop Environments on CPU and RAM usage, and uses the GTK+ 2 toolkit, similar to Xfce, giving you the looks as well as performance. One of the main features that makes LXDE unique is that the developers designed this DE for Cloud Networking. Applications are included for fast and simple cloud computing. It also has its own lightweight file manager, "PCMan-FM".

To summarize LXDE focuses all it's efforts on being a lightweight and responsive Desktop Environment. System requirements recommend 128mb RAM or more and 266MHz or more processor.


Fig 6. Mandriva LXDE Desktop with various windows opened.

Conclusion

Linux gives users choice to customize your environment the way you see fit. Whether we have top of the range high spec computers that can run KDE or Gnome, or older computers that will run LXDE and Xfce as if the computer were a brand new, Linux gives you plenty of options to customize the way your computer works.