Linux Desktop Environments

7 min read

(For more resources related to this topic, see here.)

A computer desktop is normally composed of windows, icons, directories/folders, a toolbar, and some artwork. A window manager handles what the user sees and the tasks that are performed. A desktop is also sometimes referred to as a graphical user interface (GUI).

There are many different desktops available for Linux systems. Here is an overview of some of the more common ones.


GNOME 2 is a desktop environment and GUI that is developed mainly by Red Hat, Inc. It provides a very powerful and conventional desktop interface. There is a launcher menu for quicker access to applications, and also taskbars (called panels). Note that in most cases these can be located on the screen where the user desires.

The screenshot of GNOME 2 running on Fedora 14 is as follows:

This shows the desktop, a command window, and the Computer folder. The top and bottom “rows” are the panels. From the top, starting on the left, are the Applications, Places, and System menus. I then have a screensaver, the Firefox browser, a terminal, Evolution, and a Notepad. In the middle is the lock-screen app, and on the far right is a notification about updates, the volume control, Wi-Fi strength, battery level, the date/time, and the current user. Note that I have customized several of these, for example, the clock.

Getting ready

If you have a computer running the GNOME 2 desktop, you may follow along in this section. A good way to do this is by running a Live Image, available from many different Linux distributions.

The screenshot showing the Add to Panel window is as follows:

How to do it…

Let’s work with this desktop a bit:

  1. Bring this dialog up by right-clicking on an empty location on the task bar.
  2. Let’s add something cool. Scroll down until you see Weather Report, click on it and then click on the Add button at the bottom.
  3. On the panel you should now see something like 0 °F. Right-click on it.
  4. This will bring up a dialog, select Preferences.
  5. You are now on the General tab. Feel free to change anything here you want, then select the Location tab, and put in your information.
  6. When done, close the dialog. On my system the correct information was displayed instantly.
  7. Now let’s add something else that is even more cool. Open the Add to Panel dialog again and this time add Workspace Switcher.
  8. The default number of workspaces is two, I would suggest adding two more. When done, close the dialog.
  9. You will now see four little boxes on the bottom right of your screen. Clicking on one takes you to that workspace. This is a very handy feature of GNOME 2.

There’s more…

I find GNOME 2 very intuitive and easy to use. It is powerful and can be customized extensively. It does have a few drawbacks, however. It tends to be somewhat “heavy” and may not perform well on less powerful machines. It also does not always report errors properly. For example, using Firefox open a local file that does not exist on your system (that is, file:///tmp/LinuxBook.doc). A File Not Found dialog should appear. Now try opening another local file that does exist, but which you do not have permissions for. It does not report an error, and in fact doesn’t seem to do anything. Remember this if it happens to you.

KDE desktop

The KDE desktop was designed for desktop PCs and powerful laptops. It allows for extensive customization and is available on many different platforms. The following is a description of some of its features.

Getting ready

If you have a Linux machine running the KDE desktop you can follow along. These screenshots are from KDE running on a Live Media image of Fedora 18.

The desktop icon on the far right allows the user to access Tool Box:

You can add panels, widgets, activities, shortcuts, lock the screen, and add a lot more using this dialog.

The default panel on the bottom begins with a Fedora icon. This icon is called a Kickoff Application Launcher and allows the user to access certain items quickly. These include Favorites, Applications, a Computer folder, a Recently Used folder, and a Leave button.

If you click on the next icon it will bring up the Activity Manager. Here you can create the activities and monitor them. The next icon allows you to select which desktop is currently in the foreground, and the next items are the windows that are currently open. Over to the far right is the Clipboard.

Here is a screenshot of the clipboard menu:

Next is the volume control, device notifier, and networking status.

Here is a screenshot of Interfaces and Connections dialog:

Lastly, there is a button to show the hidden icons and the time.

How to do it…

Let’s add a few things to this desktop:

  1. We should add a console. Right-click on an empty space on the desktop. A dialog will come up with several options; select Konsole. You should now have a terminal.
  2. Close that dialog by clicking on some empty space.
  3. Now let’s add some more desktops. Right-click on the third icon on the bottom left of the screen. A dialog will appear, click on Add Virtual Desktop. I personally like four of these.
  4. Now let’s add something to the panel. Right-click on some empty space on the panel and hover the mouse over Panel Options; click on AddWidgets.
  5. You will be presented with a few widgets. Note that the list can be scrolled to see a whole lot more. For example, scroll over to Web Browser and double-click on it.
  6. The web browser icon will appear on the panel near the time.

There’s more…

You can obviously do quite a bit of customization using the KDE desktop. I would suggest trying out all of the various options, to see which ones you like the best.

KDE is actually a large community of open source developers, of which KDE Plasma desktop is a part. This desktop is probably the heaviest of the ones reviewed, but also one of the most powerful. I believe this is a good choice for people who need a very elaborate desktop environment.


xfce is another desktop environment for Linux and UNIX systems. It tends to run very crisply and not use as many system resources. It is very intuitive and user-friendly.

Getting ready

The following is a screenshot of xfce running on the Linux machine I am using to write this article:

If you have a machine running the xfce desktop, you can perform these actions. I recommend a Live Media image from the Fedora web page.

While somewhat similar to GNOME 2, the layout is somewhat different. Starting with the panel on the top (panel 1) is the Applications Menu, following by a LogOut dialog. The currently open windows are next. Clicking on one of these will either bring it up or minimize it depending on its current state. The next item is the Workspaces of which I have four, then the Internet status. To complete the list is the volume and mixer apps and the date and time. The screen contents are mostly self-explanatory; I have three terminal windows open and the File Manager folder.

The smaller panel on the bottom of the screen is called panel 2.

How to do it…

Let’s work with the panels a bit:

  1. In order to change panel 2 we must unlock it first. Right-click on the top panel, and go to Panel | PanelPreferences.
  2. Use the arrows to change to panel 2. See the screenshot below:

  3. You can see it is locked. Click on Lock panel to unlock it and then close this dialog.
  4. Now go to panel 2 (on the bottom) and right-click on one of the sides. Click on AddNewItems….
  5. Add the applications you desire.

There’s more…

This is by no means an exhaustive list of what xfce can do. The features are modular and can be added as needed. See for more information.


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