My Take on Linux Desktop Environments

Note: This is an archived page. I am keeping it available because people still find it useful - but the contents of this page will likely become gradually out of date.

If you want to run a graphical shell on Linux, you're going to need to choose a desktop environment (i.e. Gnome, Enlightenment, KDE). I realize everyone has their own adamant opinion on their choice's great superiority over all others, but as I'm more concerned with useability than with politics I (of course) thought my opinion might be worth sharing.

If you're new to Linux graphical environments, be sure to read the section "Themes" at the bottom of this page.


Gnome is, in my opinion, the most useable desktop environment out-of-the-box. Gnome 2 should be useable by most people out-of-the-box. Gnome lets you choose different themes that dramatically affect the look and feel of your system, and it's reasonably easy to build your own themes as well. Gnome does a lot of the little things a Windows refugee expects to happen - auto-loading CDs, for instance.

On the down side, Gnome seems to be getting rather large - it'll run with less memory, but for good performance 256MB of RAM seems to be necessary (true of any operating environment, but Linux used to be pretty light-weight). Its default window manager, Metacity, does the job; but it's not all that configurable - understandable, since it was designed to "Just Work" rather than to satisfy tweak-a-holics like myself.

Bottom line: You'll want Gnome on your machine, even if you choose another environment. The applications are too indispensable, and many of them rely on Gnome's underlying framework.


Every so often I play around with other windows managers, but I keep coming back to Enlightenment. Enlightenment's great strength is its configurability - if you're willing to hack things a bit, you can put together a great looking, very useable, fast desktop. Enlightenment does things quickly, and visually it flat-out rocks! Enlightenment can even run under Gnome as a window manager, although it runs best as its own Window manager.

There are a couple bad things about Enlightenment. First, it isn't particularly user-friendly as first installed. You basically have to MAKE it user friendly, and the documentation you need to hack it is hard to find - you have to search the Web for various peoples' notes and comments. Second, while Enlightenment aspires to be a desktop environment, on occasion it'll surprise you with what it won't do (to be fair, its developers don't claim that the current version is a complete environment - E17 will be the first). Also, while Enlightenment provides some nifty abilities that programs could take advantage of - like anti-aliased text support - the applications aren't there yet. Since it handles Gnome apps quite well, though, this isn't a real drawback - as long as you have Gnome installed too.

Bottom line: Enlightenment is a great hacker's desktop environment. If you're just getting used to Linux, though, my suggestion is to try using Gnome + Metacity first; but consider giving Enlightenment a try down the road.

The latest "official" version is 0.16.7. It is very stable, and works quite well with all current Gnome applications.


A lot of people just love KDE. It does do some nice things, and is fairly useable right away. KDE was what I used when I first started using Linux on my laptop.

My dissatisfaction set in pretty early, though. KDE is too "busy" - it puts too many things in front of you without adequately differentiating between what you're likely to need and what you probably will never use. Also, it feels very bloated and slow. I know I complained about Gnome's lack of peppiness in a previous section, but KDE is worse (plus it rivals Windows for taking up disk space). In addition, the quality of the major applications (word processor, spreadsheet, calendar and such) is generally much lower than that of their Gnome counterparts.

Bottom line: Unless there's a specific KDE application you want to run, you'll be much better off with Gnome and/or Enlightenment. Even then you can run KDE apps out of Gnome anyway, as long as you have the core KDE packages installed.


If you're newly arrived from a Windows environment, IceWM is another desktop worth considering. It is quite small, very fast, and will look rather familiar to you. It is intentionally designed to be useable by people who are used to Windows.

The main drawback to this desktop is its lack of configurability. There may be ways to customize it, but (other than some predefined themes) I didn't discover them.

Bottom line: IceWM provides a good, no-frills, no-nonsense desktop environment. Since it doesn't take up much room at all, why not give it a try?


One of the really great things about Linux desktop environments is they are all themeable to at least some degree. KDE seems a bit stodgy in this regard, but Gnome and especially Enlightenment allow themes to dramatically change their look and feel.

The thing that throws a lot of people is how compartmentalized themes are. There are themes for Sawfish and Enlightenment that affect the appearance and function of the windows themselves, but there are also themes for GTK (Gnome ToolKit) that affect the look and feel of the programs that run within the windows! And on top of all that, some programs like Nautilus, XMMS and Gkrellm have their own themes.

FreshMeat Themes is the more-or-less official site for Linux themes. You will not believe how many Gnome themes exist! Anyway, check them out.

I've put together my own Enlightenment 16 theme, called chaosT, that I like very much. I think it looks best when used in conjunction with the GTK themes chaos-gtk or BHgtk.

Click here to download 'chaosT' Modified 04/12/03

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All contents © 2001-2006 Travis Saling
Document last modified on 02/04/2006