In 2016, I included a graph from Layer 3 Networking blog, in a rant about the tendency to put on weight over time that I’ve seen in even the most lightweight GNU-Linux DE (Desktop Environment). The blog piece I took that graph from gave a detailed run-down of the lightweight DE ecosystem, as it stood in 2013, which still serves as the most thorough introduction I’ve found on the subject.

Being 5 years old now, the graph can’t be treated as a true indication of how much RAM more recent versions of these DEs might use. But it does offer an idea of just how different free code DEs are out there, some screenshots of what some of the lighter ones look like installed, and roughly how much RAM a wide range of them use relative to each other. It also gives the exact methods used to make the RAM use comparisons between DEs, which is important to whether their results are a fair comparison, and another reason I still consider this a useful guide despite being five years old.

Obviously, being 2013 data, some of the DEs mentioned are now superseded or defunct (eg E17, Unity), or merged (LXDE and Razor-QT are now LXQT), and other newer ones aren’t mentioned (Artemis, Moksha, Pantheon, Yunity, Zorin etc). Based on the numbers from the graph there, I’d say in 2013 you could break DEs down into 3 categories (RAM use numbers assume a freshly booted system running no extra user apps):

  • Small (0-20MB): TinyWM, 9wm, miwm, wm2, dwm, Ratpoison, olvwm, TWM, xmonad/mobar, JWM, i3, Blackbox, Sawfish, IceWM, PekWM, Openbox, Window Maker, awesome, FVWM, Fluxbox, Mutter
  • Medium (20-100MB): E17, LXDE, KWin, Mate, Trinity, XFCE, Cinnamon
  • Bloated (>100MB): Razor-QT, GNOME 3, Unity, KDE

The DEs I describe as bloated are clearly targeted at providing every imaginable widget and performance boost, for users with fairly new hardware, or middle-aged hardware that’s been upgraded or is unusually powerful. Unless you are a business with deep pockets, or someone else who upgrades your computer every couple of years so you can always run the newest software, I suggest avoiding the bloated category. That is, if you don’t want to end up switching to a lighter DE in a couple of years, as the hardware requirements of the bloated DEs continue to creep up towards the latest hardware.

Cinammon, a fork of GNOME 2 developed for the Mint distro, offers everything the average user needs from a desktop experience, while using significantly less RAM than older and more common DEs like KDE Plasma or GNOME 3. Mate, Mint’s lightweight DE, uses even less RAM, while still providing a familiar point-and-click desktop, with the bells and whistles familiar to Windows users who have used any version of Windows from 95 to 7. I’m typing this on an Acer Aspire One that’s nearly 10 years old, and the Mate desktop in the about-to-be-released Trisquel 8 runs fine, although I have improved the performance by doubling the RAM to 2GB and, more importantly, replacing the internal drive with an SSD (Solid State Drive). I can’t emphasize enough what a big difference the SSD makes.

If you still want to be using your computer in ten years time, especially if you bought a netbook or some other unusually under-powered PC like I did, I strongly recommend getting familiar with the pros and cons of the DEs in the small category. If I just want to play a game, I use Openbox, and I really notice how much better the heavier games run without all the extra desktop bells and whistles taking up resources. I intend to get into a habit of logging into Openbox whenever I plan to work on a long piece of writing, or anything else that doesn’t really require flipping back and forth between apps.

In summary, I can’t tell you which DE is right for you, and just to confuse you even more, the same DE can use a different amount of resources depending on which GNU-Linux distro you’re running it on, and even whether or not it’s the default DE for that distro. But it’s definitely worth doing some reading, and choosing one that not only does what you want right now, but will keep doing it for as long as you don’t want to have to switch to keep your computer usable.

Filed April 16th, 2018 under Uncategorized

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