Alternative Linux desktop environments

Distro Walk – Alternative Desktops

© Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash

© Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash

Article from Issue 242/2021

If you are looking for an alternative desktop interface, Bruce gives a rundown of seven Linux distros with unique desktops worth exploring.

Two decades ago, Linux desktops were limited to Gnome and KDE, with Xfce a distant third. All three are thriving today and have been joined by Linux Mint's MATE and Cinnamon, as well as LXDE. Together, these six provide the interface for the majority of Linux distros. Many distros support more than one of them as well.

However, not every distribution is content with the Big Six. Under the interface, these distributions may share the same applications and technologies, but they also want something more – minimalism, speed, or aesthetics. Here are seven desktop distributions that have chosen to go their own route that are worth exploring if you are looking for something different. Some of these distros' desktops have found their way into another distribution, but it is always worth seeing them in their original settings, the way they were intended to be seen.


Around the turn of the millennium, Enlightenment was a popular interface somewhere between a window manager and a desktop. In 2015, Bodhi Linux [1] took Enlightenment 17, removed half-finished and broken code, and applied bug fixes from Enlightenment 18 and 19 to produce Moksha (Figure 1), which it has offered ever since.

Figure 1: With Moksha, the once-popular Enlightenment window manager became a desktop environment at last.

The result is one of the most lightweight, minimalist desktops available – and, according to my observations, the fastest. Not only is the desktop no more than a dock, but fewer than a dozen utilities and apps are installed, leaving users to add whatever else they want. This approach not only makes Moksha ideal for older systems, but it is in keeping with the basic security principle to install only what is necessary. From Bodhi, Moksha spread to most major distributions.


Deepin [2] is a distribution based on Debian's Stable repository. The Deepin Desktop Environment (DDE) is written in Qt (Figure 2), the same framework as KDE's Plasma desktop. Its window manager, dde-kwin, is a modified version of KDE's KWin, which makes for a fast and flexible desktop

Figure 2: Written in Qt, DDE is fast and highly customizable.

DDE is a generic desktop in its layout, with a fully-populated bottom panel. Its customization features, however, almost rival Plasma's in many ways with a well laid out organization that makes it exceptionally similar to use. In addition, DDE has many custom-built components. Its installer is often praised for its simplicity, and tools like Deepin Repair give the distro a usability that is unusual even today. With these advantages, deepin is suited to regular users, especially those who appreciate Debian technology but are looking for something easier to use.

elementary OS

First released in 2011, elementary OS [3] has always emphasized aesthetics in its desktop Pantheon (Figure 3). Pantheon's three main design guidelines are minimal redundancy, accessible configuration, and minimal documentation [4]. The result is an interface that is often compared favorably to Apple, although advanced users sometimes complain about a lack of choice in customization.

Figure 3: Pantheon is a desktop aimed at simplicity and aesthetics.

Pantheon is built on top of Gnome. However, over several releases, much of Pantheon has been rebuilt from scratch, including its email client, music player, panel, and application launcher. Probably its best known application is Plank, a Linux dock that is the inspiration for Planky in other distributions. The first icon on the left of Plank is always a multitasking overview. Despite all these innovations, the overall look and feel remains Gnome-like.

Pantheon is best-suited for new users, although users of all experience levels have praised it.

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