Linux Distro Reviews: Desktop Environment Toolkits

In the second article of the series, we're going to take a detour into desktop environments (DEs) toolkits....
Linux Distro Reviews: Desktop Environment Toolkits
Written by Matt Milano
  • In the second article of the series, we’re going to take a detour into desktop environments (DEs) toolkits.

    One of the biggest issues with many Linux reviews is the confusion between a distro and a DE. A DE is the graphical interface and general workflow the user is greeted with. For those new to Linux, think of the difference between macOS and Windows, or Windows XP and Windows 11. While they share many similarities, there are obvious differences in how they look and function that have nothing to do with the inner workings of the operating system (OS).

    The same is true on Linux. DEs arguably have more impact on the user experience than the underlying distro. In fact, many distros ship with the option to use different DEs, greatly changing the overall experience of working with that distro.

    GTK vs Qt

    In the world of DEs, they tend to break down into two camps: GTK and Qt (pronounced “cute”). These aren’t DEs but rather the graphics toolkits used to create them. Gnome, Xfce, Mate, Pop!_OS Cosmic, and others use GTK, while KDE Plasma, LXQt, Deepin, and others use Qt.

    Applications made with either toolkit tend to follow that toolkit’s theme and use its specific widgets and window decorations.

    That’s not to say that you can’t run a GTK app in a Qt-based DE or vice versa. You absolutely can, and many do. Doing so may result in slight differences in how the app looks, and it may not look quite as “native” as an app using the same toolkit as the DE.

    In terms of which is better, both have their pros and cons. GTK is completely open source, while some of Qt’s development is done by The Qt Company and is partially covered under commercial licenses. For some, that ideological issue is enough to point them to GTK, while others are perfectly fine using Qt-based DEs since the toolkit is also covered under open-source licenses.

    Another point of differentiation is resource usage and mobile use. Qt was originally designed for handheld devices and inherits the efficiency that goes along with that. Even now, Linux phone development often utilizes Qt-based DEs as a result of that heritage. GTK, and especially Gnome, are sometimes known for using far more resources.

    While knowing the particular toolkit a DE uses is probably the least important element in choosing a distro, it nonetheless helps newcomers to Linux understand why some DEs look drastically different from another, even when running on the same distro.

    Next Up…

    In the next article, we’ll be looking at our first desktop environment: KDE Plasma.

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