What matters more, distro or DE?

Consider this a theoretical question.
A hypothetical new convert to Linux is shopping for their “dream” OS. This person is a knowledgeable user, not a computer professional, but is their family’s go-to “geek” for common everyday issues.
In which of the following options is this person likely to find the biggest differences?
a. Five distros, all using the same DE (say, GNome or Maté)
b. Five environments in the same distro


b, if he is actually not that knowledgeable.
a, if he really is knowledgeable.

The reason for that is, that DEs mainly change looks and how you access features. Features, to the average end-user, may seem the same, even when using different distributions. E.g. typing on a keyboard and make that typed text appear on the editor seems the same both in Windows and Linux. The latter uses X for displaying everything, which is behind the scenes an entirely different way of display, compared to how Windows does it.

When you actually look behind the scenes you will see in what way features are implemented and what the differences are. The most basic example that comes to my mind right now is:


sudo apt install package


dnf install package


yum install package

Already these very basic scenarios show obvious and big differences between some major distributions. These use entirely different package managers and this is one of the most important parts of any GNU/Linux distribution. If you are only hanging out on the DE and use the software manager GUI, then you won’t get in touch with these types of stuff. On the other hand, if you do something more advanced and are more enthusiastic about computers, then you will notice this pretty quickly from the start on. Especially, when you are used to some specific behaviour on distribution 1 and then change to distribution 2, which doesn’t have this behaviour, but a different one (e.g. switching from GNU/Linux to BSD; tar is different, as well as awk, as GNU/Linux distributions use a GNU version of these and other software.


I have been thinking of this. I really don’t think either choices would be applicable, because in the end it is very much a matter of how the individual feels about the OS regardless of the DE. I know for me when I came across it was a matter of feel and the one I felt most at home with was Mint with the Cinnamon DE which I still use

So to answer your question as the go to geek in our family, I would honestly say present the choices and let them see what feels right for them. Sorry if it is not an answer to your question as you have posed it, which is a great question, just the only answer I have .


After using KDE Neon and then promptly switching to Manjaro KDE after testing, IMO the distro under the hood is more important. The DE boils down more to personal preference and ease of use for the specific user.

That being said, I wouldn’t necessarily run the same distro and DE on ALL devices in the household. I run Mint 19.1 Cinnamon on my wife’s laptop and mother-in-law’s PC, and Manjaro KDE on my personal laptop.

But to answer the specific question being asked by the OP; I would say the biggest difference the end user will notice is in running the same distro across different DE’s, since that is the interface between the user and the OS.

I’ve tried a few different distros running the same DE and they feel very similar in every day usage. Though there can be some variance if the distro also implements its own DE theme.

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Another view I wouldn’t mind seeing is a technical comparison with ease of use.
By technical, I mean the resources to run the distro. Like for a laptop with less then 2 gig memory or laptop with a slow CPU, or how well does the distro install / configure to the hardware. What about laptops with 4 or 8 gig of ram installed? Does size of distro matter anymore? And then again CPU. What distro hog the CPU? And if you have a i3, i5, or i7 past the second generation, does the CPU resources that the distro take make that much of a difference? And what about desktops that usually has more memory installed and a faster CPU.
—Not that I plan on changing my distro. Linux Mint 19.1 Cinnamon. But I believe it might be interesting to see the differences.
I personally went with Mint b/c it was on the of top rated Linux’s and was suppose to be easy to use. I’ve been very pleased with the results.

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The visuals come first and that would be noticeable first. Then the user would later learn that the things are different with package manager etc.

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In my experience of using Linux over the last five years, the differences seem to come when switching Linux ‘families’, i.e. Debian/Ubuntu/Mint, Fedora, Arch, etc.
If you settle on one family, then the differences are determined by the DE. That said, Gnome is Gnome, Mate is Mate. etc.
That is the joy of Linux, you pays your money (or not) and takes your choice. Then you tweak it to your hearts content. Linux is what you make it. I think of all distros as like playing with Meccano, you start with a kit of parts and build something fabulous.
I’m currently running MX-18.1/Gnome, Xubuntu 18.04.2/xfce, LMDE 3/xfce, elementary 5.0/Pantheon, and Solus/Gnome.


Well, not being an expert, but trying to really answer your question, I would like to make an analogy:
Your best friend is going to buy a car. Now…

  • he has several brands,
  • each brand has many models to choose from
  • in every model (maybe) he has a few different engines (electric, diesel, petrol)
  • then there’s the color of the car, the extras, the tweaks, … (you know)
    Million dollar question: What car would you advise him to buy? (great responsibility!)

With this, all I want is to show you that the answer is not that easy (if there is one)!
And you probably already understood that by looking at all the previous posts.

In Linux fortunately you can (and should) try and try and try as many distros and DEs as you can, 'till you feel tired. Then, you look back and think “which one felt more comfortable to me?”, and that’s the one!
(sorry if it still isn’t the answer you’re looking for)