Ode to Open Source: Desktop Environments

| linux | foss | tech |

In the early days there was no such thing as a desktop environment. Everything was pretty much controlled through a shell terminal and window managers did not exist. Mac pioneered the windows system which was quickly followed by Windows 3.1 and Linux followed suite. It is hard to imagine modern computing without the window system. I think that the thing that pretty much made the computer “usable” for practically anyone was the point and click ease of a window manager.

You no longer had to understand command line interfaces, and could execute many programs, files, and utilities simply by selecting it from a menu. Most popular desktop environments in Linux use the X Window System.

Unlike Windows or Mac which essentially only offer one type of desktop environment, the world Linux is full of all different types. This provides for an extremely customizable desktop experience to fit anyones taste. Each variant has its advantages and disadvantages, at the end of the day they all get the job done and its up to an individuals personal taste to choose their favorite one. Just like there are countless distributions of Linux, there are also a large amount of various desktop environments. The following sections will highlight the most popular environments which include Gnome, KDE, and XFCE.


Gnome is a very popular desktop environment. It has a strong focus on usability, accessibility, and international access. It is a dynamic development platform that allows seamless integration into the rest of the desktop. It uses the Metacity window manager, the Nautilus file manager, and various other modules that separate it from the other environments. It uses the GTK+ toolkit.


KDE is another very popular desktop environment. They essentially slap a K in front of every program and make it unique to KDE. Personally, I have never been a huge fan of KDE. I found it a little too bubbly for my taste but many people seem to enjoy it. Their latest release looks a lot more professional in my opinion and I am glad to see them moving in that direction. KDE uses the Dolphin file manager, Qt toolkit, and Kwin as the window manager.


The XFCE desktop environment is much more lightweight than any of the others and is designed to run on older machines that do not require as much juice. It is very similar to Gnome in my opinion and if it was not for the little mouse and dark blue theme at times it would be difficult to tell the difference.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. There are dozens of window environments out there. The most important thing to take out form this is that it does not matter what distribution you use, you can download and use any type of desktop environment that you like. Some programs are only designed for certain environments. For example when it comes to music, gnome has banshee while KDE has Amarok. But you can still use Amarok in Gnome, and banshee in KDE. A good way to look at a desktop environment is like a paint job. You can paint your Honda Civic red, or yellow, or silver, or black but at the end of the day it is still a Honda Civic. :) For more in depth information about the various desktop environments check out the links below!

Further Reading Comparison of X window Systems

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