The Second-String Desktop

GNOME and KDE may be the heavy-hitters of the desktop world, and although all that power is nice, sometimes it's too bulky. That's where other desktop managers come in.
Choice, the Ultimate Freedom

The great thing about choosing a Linux GUI is that it costs you nothing to change. Whether you like Fedora's default GNOME install or prefer openSUSE's green-lizard KDE install, every Linux install can be tweaked or changed. I must warn you though, once you try the NeXTSTEP clones Window Maker or AfterStep, you might never want to see a start menu again. If you experiment with the mouseless beauty of the Ratpoison window manager, you might never want to click again. Or, perhaps you're at the other end of the spectrum, and you want to fool yourself or others into thinking you are running OS X. Check out the free Macbuntu GNOME theme. With Linux, customization is king, and the options are seemingly endless. I created a chart to help you sort out some of the Linux GUI options available (see Table 1). It's by no means an exhaustive list, but it should get you started. Remember, just because a desktop environment is sitting on the bench doesn't mean it didn't make the team. Check out the bench-warmers, you might just find a winner.

Table 1. A Sampling of Linux Desktops/Window Managers

Desktop/Window ManagerDescriptionDesign GoalsBased OnAdvantagesDisadvantages
KDEFull desktop environmentFull system integration, including applicationsUses KWin window manager and Qt librariesGreat application integration, highly customizableDistinct look; non-KDE apps often seem awkward
GNOMEFull desktop environmentFull system integration, including applicationsUses Metacity window manager, based on GTK+ librariesWide variety of native applications, wide adoption in corporate environmentsNon-GTK apps often look odd and use more RAM
LXDELightweight desktop environmentSpeed and beautiful interfaceUses Openbox window manager and GTK+ librariesWorks well on older/slower hardware, maintains compatibilityLacks some of the features found in GNOME or KDE
XFCELightweight desktop environmentFull-featured desktop environment, but light on resourcesUsually uses XFWM4, but works well with other window managersSomewhat lower system requirements than GNOME or KDEPossibly a bit too resource-hungry for low-end systems
Enlightenment E17Window manager with the features of a desktop managerSpeed and eye candy with integrated functionalityA window manager plus a set of libraries for developing appsFast without sacrificing styleStill in beta but quite stable
ROX DesktopDesktop manager based on the ROX-FilerApproaches the OS in a file-centric wayROX-Filer file manager and the OroboBox window managerUnique file-based design makes installing apps drag and dropROX Desktop is either a love or hate affair
IceWMHybrid window manager and desktop managerSpeed and simplicitySimple menu and taskbar designFast and easy to make system-wide configuration changesNo way to make desktop icons, requires additional software for some features
Blackbox/FluxboxVery minimalistic window managersSpeed and small memory/CPU footprintFluxbox is based on Blackbox (it's a fork)Blazingly fastVery limited in features, but by design not immaturity
OpenboxVery minimalistic window managerSpeed and small memory/CPU footprintOriginally based on Blackbox, original code since version 3.0Simple and fastLimited in features by design
AfterStep/Window MakerClones of the NeXTSTEP interfaceFunctions and looks like NeXTSTEPDesigned after the unique design of the NeXTSTEP interfaceUniqueOften difficult to configure, and the interface is an acquired taste
RatpoisonA window manager that doesn't require a mouseKills the need for a mouseDesigned after GNU ScreenNo need for a mouseVery limited in features, which the developers consider a feature
DWMAn extremely minimalist window managerManages windows and nothing moreThe ideas of other minimalist window managersSmall and fastNo configuration files, must edit source code to configure

Shawn Powers is an Associate Editor for Linux Journal. You might find him chatting on the IRC channel, or Twitter