How To Install A New Desktop Environment Using Raspberry PI OS

The default desktop environment for the Raspberry PI OS is a good place to start when you first get your Raspberry PI but there are lots of other choices available.

A desktop environment encompasses every visual aspect of your computer from the backgrounds, to the way windows appear and are managed, the panels, icons and in many cases a set of default applications.

Thus far unless you have followed my guide for customising the Raspberry PI desktop your desktop experience will consist of a panel at the top, a single wastebasket icon on the desktop and a menu that pulls down from the top left and a series of system tray icons in the top right.

There are many different desktop environments available and with Raspberry PI OS there is a fairly straight forward way to install the most popular ones.

In this guide you will be shown how easy it is to install desktop environments such as Cinnamon, XFCE and KDE..

Open a terminal window by pressing CTRL, ALT and T at the same time.

Now type the following:

sudo tasksel
Install Desktop Environment Using Tasksel

The tasksel tool lets you choose predefined collections of software and a desktop environment can be considered a collection of software because it encompasses many other software packages.

The following options are available:

  • Debian desktop environment (default PI desktop)
  • GNOME
  • XFCE
  • KDE Plasma
  • Cinnamon
  • MATE
  • LXDE
  • LXQT
  • Web server
  • Print server
  • SSH server
  • Laptop

As you can see as well as desktop environments you will see packages for setting the PI up as a web server, print server, ssh server and as a laptop.

The items with an asterisk next to them are already installed.

To install a new desktop environment, such as XFCE, use the down arrow until you are next to the item you wish to install and press the space bar to place an X in the box.

Press tab to highlight “<Ok>” and press return

Progress

The packages for the desktop environment will be downloaded and installed to your Raspberry PI memory card.

After the installation has finished you need to make it your default desktop environment for it to load the next time you reboot.

To do this type the following command:

sudo update-alternatives --config x-session-manager
Choose desktop environment

Look through the list and find the number next to the desktop you wish to use. For instance if you look at the image above xfce is set to 5, so to make xfce the default desktop environment I would press 5 and return.

To see your new desktop in action reboot your Raspberry PI by typing the following:

sudo reboot

XFCE Setup On The Raspberry PI 4

If you make XFCE the default desktop then the first time you boot your Raspberry PI after logging in you will see this screen:

XFCE on Raspberry PI OS

If you click on the “use default config” option you will get a taskbar at the top and a small dock at the bottom. The “single” panel option will just give you a task bar.

XFCE Default Config

KDE Plasma On Raspberry PI 4

KDE Default Display Manager

When you install KDE you will be presented with the above screen. This determines which display manager will be installed. The display manager essentially deals with logging into your computer.

Your choice of display manager is a personal thing and different people like different options. Lightdm is fairly standard and the one I would recommend.

Select the option you wish to use with the arrow keys and press tab to highlight the “<ok>” button and press return.

Default KDE Setup On Raspberry PI OS
KDE Desktop With New Theme Installed

The KDE desktop is very customisable and there are lots of themes you can download and install with a click of a button.

This will give those of you who like the bells and whistles of Windows a more familiar look and feel.

There is a price to pay as KDE uses up more resources that LXDE, XFCE and the default PI Desktop.

Cinnamon

Cinnamon Desktop – Raspberry PI 4

The Cinnamon Desktop is another modern looking desktop environment and also has a large number of downloadable themes available.

GNOME

One of the most popular desktop environments available is GNOME but the GNOME tasksel packages will not install.

To install GNOME run this command:

sudo apt-get install task-gnome-desktop gnome-core gnome gnome-software
GNOME GDM

During the installation it will ask about the GDM display manager. Press tab to highlight “<ok>” and press return.

To select the desktop manager use the arrow keys and then press tab to move to the “<ok>” button and press return.

Press “Y” when asked whether you want to install the packages and after about 5 minutes GNOME will be installed.

To make GNOME the default desktop type the following command:

sudo update-alternatives --config x-session-manager

This will bring up the list of desktop environments installed. Enter the number next to GNOME and press return.

To boot into GNOME type the following command

sudo reboot
GNOME on Raspberry PI

Summary

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. The GNOME desktop environment lags quite a bit even if you increase the amount of GPU memory.

It may be pretty but it sure does hog a lot of your system resources.

For this reason I would definitely steer clear of GNOME, highly recommend not using KDE plasma and I would even caution against using Cinnamon unless you really really want to.

The best desktop environments for the Raspberry PI are XFCE, MATE and LXDE or the default PI Desktop environment.