Penguin Pete's X Window Manager and Desktop Environment Guide

A Guide to the X window managers and desktop environments which are likely to be encountered on a free or open-source software desktop.

Intro - The X Window Manager and Desktop Environment Guide


Newcomers to Linux, BSD and other FOSS systems have a new phenomenon to digest. As opposed to proprietary operating systems, FOSS operating systems give you your choice of desktop environments and window managers.

But which one to choose? That's the question I've written these pages to help the user decide. This is a brief overview of the various interfaces you may run on top of the X graphical desktop. First off, I'll explain some points:

There are window managers and there are desktop environments. What the heck is the difference? A window manager just manages the desktop and window system. Frequently, a window manager just lets you style the background and window decorations around programs, gives you a root menu when you click on the desktop, and may provide a couple of other elements such as a pager or a taskbar. A desktop environment does all of this, but in addition provides a suite of programs integrated into the environment and designed to work together as a whole interface, usually including file managers and editors and such. The line between the two may be blurred and difficult to distinguish. Additionally, a desktop environment may use a window manager on top of it. In a nutshell: KDE, Gnome, Xfce, and Enlightenment are desktop environments. Blackbox, Fluxbox, TWM, IceWM, and Ratpoison are window managers. Finally, Window Maker and FVWM occupy such a grey area in between as to fuel rigorous debate among desktop scholars for generations to come.

I cannot cover them all. There's something like 50 of them out there, and I only add one to this site after I've used it myself and worked with it for a while. For a more complete resource, see the excellent website Xwinman.org, which lists every FOSS desktop known to man. Instead of being an exhaustive taxonomy, my site's focus is a round-up of the desktops which you are most likely to encounter in about 95% of the distributions out there, with some screenshots and a review to introduce you.

So this will also be a review. I try to present the performance of each system bearing the widest possible group of users in mind. However, I will say that I'm admittedly biased. I'm a cheap-skate and a power-user: I reclaim discarded hardware and fix it up, I pick through the bargain-bin at the computer store for boards and components, and then I run these machines with several virtual desktops, on any of which may be several high-performance applications multi-tasking away. So if you're a light-weight user, you may dismiss my curmudgeon's disdain of bloat - but of course, even if you only use one application at a time, you'll still see a performance gain or loss just like I do, depending on which kind of interface you're running!