Selecting a Window Manager

The first piece of a do-it-yourself desktop environment is the window manager. Some newcomers to Linux confuse window managers and desktop environments. In fact, window managers are much more limited programs that handle a much more specific task: the maintenance of window borders, window controls, and the display as a whole. Window managers affect the appearance of window title bars and the widgets that enable you to minimize, maximize, and resize windows. Window managers also provide simple program-launch tools. These tools may be accessed by clicking, middle-clicking, or right-clicking the desktop or a control strip (similar to a KDE or GNOME Panel) along the bottom, top, or side of the screen. Most window managers provide the means to change the background of a screen to a color or picture, although a few lack this capability. Most window managers also provide virtual desktops, although a few lack this feature. Window managers do not include file managers, applications for setting keyboard repeat rates, or the like.

You can find literally dozens of window managers for Linux, but fewer than a dozen are truly popular. One good site that provides links to and information about many Linux window managers is Check there for the latest developments and for pointers to many more window managers than I can describe here. In particular, the Others link points to a page that lists over seventy window managers. Some of the more popular options are listed here:

AfterStep This window manager is modeled after the NeXTSTEP environment developed by NeXT for its computer and OS. It features a wharf— a line of icons representing running or available programs, similar to NeXTSTEP's dock. AfterStep, like many window managers, is derived from fvwm. An assortment of programs have been written expressly for AfterStep, providing features such as audio CD players that integrate well with the window manager. The official AfterStep home page is

Blackbox This window manager, headquartered at, is designed to consume little RAM, and so it is a good choice for those who need to run a slim desktop for RAM-consumption reasons. Blackbox is a from-the-ground up window manager that shares no code with others.

Enlightenment Some window managers feature lots of "eye candy"—the ability to customize the look of title bars, borders, icons, and so on, often in very unusual ways. Enlightenment is perhaps the ultimate in this expression. Early versions were derived from fvwm and developed a reputation for bloat and speed problems. More recent versions are entirely new rewrites and are much speedier, although they rely on fairly advanced graphics libraries. Early versions of GNOME used Enlightenment as the default window manager. You can learn more at

fvwm and fvwm95 In the mid-1990s, these window managers were the standard on Linux systems. They've since become less popular, although some derivative projects, such as AfterStep, retain popularity in some circles. These window managers were popular in part because of their extreme configurability, but this feature also led them to be somewhat larger than some competing programs. The original fvwm was modeled loosely on mwm and borrowed some code from twm, whereas fvwm95 is designed to look somewhat like Windows 95's windows and includes a task bar similar to KDE's Panel. You can learn more at, and fvwm95 is available from ftp://mitac11

IceWM This window manager, headquartered at, was designed as an independent and lightweight window manager that supports themes to alter the appearance of its windows. Many themes are available to make IceWM windows look like those from OS/2, Windows, Mac OS, fvwm, mwm, or entirely unique environments. IceWM also provides a task bar similar to KDE's Panel, and it can be used as a window manager for GNOME. GUI configuration tools can simplify IceWM configuration for the inexperienced.

mwm The Motif widget set ships with a window manager called mwm, which has long been the standard on many commercial Unix systems. You can obtain the official mwm for Linux with Motif distributions, such as the freely available OpenMotif

( The Motif clone called LessTif ( also includes an mwm clone. This window manager isn't particularly packed with features by today's standards, but it may be a reasonable choice, particularly if you run other Motif-based programs.

Sawfish This window manager was originally known as Sawmill, and its official website URL still reflects this fact: Like Blackbox and IceWM, Sawfish was designed as an independent and slim window manager. Nonetheless, it includes support for themes, so its appearance can be customized. Until recently, it was the default window manager for GNOME. Recent versions of GNOME use Metacity by default, though, and Sawfish has lost a lot of development momentum lately.

twm This window manager is very old and is no longer actively maintained. I mention it mainly because it's the window manager of last resort for many X startup scripts, and it is the default window manager for Virtual Network Computing (VNC) sessions.

Window Maker Like AfterStep, Window Maker aims to reproduce the look and feel of NeXTSTEP; however, Wndow Maker does so with a new code base, rather than building atop fvwm. Window Maker is also associated with the GNUstep project (, which aims to implement the OpenStep API (as used by NeXTSTEP) on Linux and other Unix-like OSs. Window Maker can also serve as GNOME'S window manager. You can learn more at

wm2 and wmx These window managers, and especially wm2, are bare-bones compared to some others; they don't provide extensive theme options, task bars, or the like. They implement unusual side-mounted title bars. If you want virtual desktops, wm2 won't do, although wmx handles this feature. Read more at

Note KDE and GNOME both include their own window managers. KDE uses KWM, and GNOME uses Metacity. Prior to version 2.0, it was easy to use another GNOME-compliant window manager with GNOME; however, the configuration tools for doing that were removed with GNOME 2.0, making the switch much more difficult. KDE has never officially supported other window managers, although if you dig into the configuration files, you can get some others to work with KDE.

Which window manager is right for you? That's a question only you can answer, and only after trying several. You can install as many window managers as you like on your system, and then change your login procedure, as described in the earlier section, "Selecting an Appropriate Desktop Environment," to launch each one for testing. Some window managers also provide an option to exit and launch another window manager instead, which can make it easy to test different window managers in quick succession.

As a general rule, for lightweight systems, Blackbox, IceWM, Sawfish, Window Maker, wm2, and wmx are the best choices. The first four of these provide a substantial feature set; wm2 and wmx (but particularly wm2) are extremely Spartan. Other window managers may appeal to you, though, particularly if you're putting together your own environment more to fill very specific needs than to minimize memory consumption.

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