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A computer desktop environment (DE) is a graphical representation of the software running on top of an operating system, and part of the desktop graphical user interface (GUI).

Usually, it creates the look and feel of the desktop, including the style of the icons, files, folders, and cursor, or mouse pointer. The desktop environment dictates the file manager that can be used, the default text editor, image viewer, desktop wallpaper, and the interface used to log in and out of the system.

Most of us don't have a lot to say about the desktop environment we use because it is part of the operating system itself. Changes to the DE are introduced with updates to the OS and, while most systems allow numerous options when it comes to personalization features, the DE itself is part of the operating system.

However, on some systems, such as Linux, the DE is more likely to be a modular component that can be changed and reconfigured more easily and more fully.

On systems running the X Window System, which includes the different variations of Linux, the BSDs, and formal UNIX distributions, the DE is more dynamic and user-customizable. With most of these systems, the DE consists of several separate components, including a window manager, a file manager, a set of graphical themes, and various toolkits and libraries for managing the desktop. These individual modules can be exchanged and independently configured to meet the needs of the user, although most desktop environments provide a default configuration that requires minimal user setup.

Some parts of the program code that is part of the DE have effects that are not visible to the user, such as low-level code that give the user access to a range of virtual devices.

Thus, Windows and Mac users rarely concern themselves with computer desktop environments but, while Linux users are free to accept the default configuration, the DE might be a matter of interest to them.

The most common desktop environments are GNOME and KDE, largely because these are more often to be installed by default on Linux systems. However, while GNOME and KDE focus o high-performance computers running Linux, users of less powerful or older machines often prefer a DE that has been created specifically for low-performance systems. Examples include LXDE and Xfce, both of which use GTK), which is the same underlying toolkit used by GNOME.

When the developers of GNOME decided to abandon the traditional desktop experience with GNOME 3 in 2011, several forks were created, one of the most popular of which was Cinnamon, which retains the taskbar-like panel and other basic features of a conventional desktop that was lacking in GNOME 3. Cinnamon is the default DE in Linux Mint.

As Linux commands a low percentage of the computer market, the most common desktop environment is whichever one is in use by Microsoft Windows. Currently, Windows 10 uses a DE known as Fluent, but past Windows DEs have been Luna, Aero, and Metro. Another common DE is the one used in Apple's macOS, and known as Aqua.

Several other desktop environments exist, particularly for Unix/Linux-like operating systems using the X Window System, most of which can be selected by users and are not bound exclusively to the operating system in use. Other desktop environments are made for lesser-known computer systems.

The first desktop environment was created by Xerox for the Xerox Alto in the 1970s, which was considered to be a personal office computer. Due largely to its high price, it failed in the marketplace. In its more affordable Lisa computer, Apple introduced the second DE, but it also failed in the marketplace.

Apple was the first to refer to the GUI interface as a desktop, as a metaphor for the actual top of a desk, on which an array of physical utilities might be expected to sit. This metaphor was continued by Microsoft in its Windows operating system, and the most popular desktop environments are descendants of these earlier DEs.

The focus of this category is on computer desktop environments.



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