Linux Jargon: What Is A Desktop Environment In Linux?

A desktop environment is a set of components that provide you with common graphical user interface (GUI) elements, such as icons, toolbars, wallpapers, and desktop widgets. Thanks to the desktop environment, you can use Linux graphically with the mouse and keyboard, as is done in other operating systems such as Windows and macOS.

There are several desktop environments, and these environments define what your Linux system looks like and how you interact with it.

Most desktop environments have their own set of integrated applications and utilities, so that users get a unified feel when using the OS. So you get a file explorer, desktop search, application menus, utilities for creating wallpapers and screensavers, text editors, and much more.

Without a desktop environment, your Linux system will only have a terminal like a utility, and you will only have to interact with it using commands.

Screenshot of the GNOME desktop environment

Various desktop environments in Linux

The desktop environment is also sometimes referred to as DE.

As I mentioned earlier, there are different desktop environments for Linux. Why?

Think of the desktop environment as clothing. Clothes determine what you look like. If you wear thin jeans and flat shoes, you will look good, but running or hiking in these clothes will not be comfortable.

Some desktop environments, such as GNOME, are focused on a modern look and feel and user experience, while desktops, such as Xfce, are more focused on using less computing resources than fantastic graphics.

Screenshot of the Xfce desktop environment

Your clothing depends on your needs and determines your appearance, the same applies to the desktop environment. You have to decide whether you want something that makes you look good or something that makes your system run faster.

Some of the popular desktop environments:

  • GNOME-Uses a large amount of system resources, but gives you a modern, polished system.
  • Xfce is a vintage look, but not demanding on hardware.
  • KDE is a highly configurable desktop with moderate use of system resources.
  • LXDE – All the focus is on using as few resources as possible.
  • Budgie – Modern appearance and moderate on system resources

Linux distributions and their DE-variants

The same desktop environment can be available on multiple Linux distributions, and a Linux distribution can offer multiple desktop environments.

For example, Fedora and Ubuntu use the GNOME desktop by default. But both Fedora and Ubuntu offer other desktop environments as well.

The beauty and flexibility of Linux is that you can install a desktop environment on any Linux distribution yourself. But most Linux distributions save you from this problem and offer a ready-to-install ISO image for various desktop environments.

For example, Manjaro Linux uses Xfce by default, but you can also download ISO versions from GNOME if you prefer to use GNOME in Manjaro.


Desktop environments are an important part of the Linux desktop, while Linux servers typically rely on a command-line interface. It’s not that you can’t install a desktop environment on Linux servers, but that it’s an overkill and a waste of important system resources that can be used by applications running on the server.

I hope that now you understand the term “desktop environment in Linux” a little better.


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