The Artists' Guide to the Linux Desktop—Part IV

Variety is the spice of life.
  • URL: A better site is at, where you can find user documentation.

  • Requirements: XPM or Imlib, although these appear to be optional; sgml2html to build documentation.

  • Compliance: GNOME (at least partial), KDE (unknown)

  • Extras: a couple of preference editors are available as external utilities.

Figure 3. Icewm's Default Theme

The basic installation comes up looking a little like a Windows interface. At least, it's very usable right from the start, even if the theme makes me slightly ill. There doesn't appear to be a quick way of changing themes right from the menus or from the panel, as you can with Blackbox, but it does come with a number of different themes you can install manually.

One interesting feature is the extra blank bar that appears when you set the TaskBarDoubleHeight option in the configuration file. This provides an area in which you can type a command to launch programs without having to open an xterm. This is nifty for all those times I do echo 123/54 | bc, which I do quite a bit. If the command (such as my example) is not a program, it is run as a shell command.

Icewm, like Blackbox, is designed to have a small memory footprint. Unlike Blackbox, it also tries to provide the icons and fluff that many users expect from window managers these days. Configuring menus can be done using some graphical tools, although both tools are fairly crude. Chances are you'll probably end up configuring menus by hand.

Sawmill (or Sawfish)
  • URL:

  • Requirements: Imlib, librep Lisp interpreter (0.9+) from Sawmill author and the rep-gtk binding (0.7+)

  • Compliance: GNOME (at least partial), KDE (unknown)

  • Extras: RPMs are available, but I install from source.

Sawmill was, at one time, the default window manager for GNOME on Red Hat distributions—or at least I think it was. I'm not sure what they use these days. If you go to the main web site for Sawmill, you'll find it's presented more as a developer's platform than something an ordinary end user will be interested in. Use of Lisp is probably technically appropriate, but is likely to scare off the non-technical crowd.

Unfortunately, Sawmill would not build on my stock Red Hat 5.2 system because it was missing GNU MP, yet another of the massively obscure requirements so many packages seem to have these days. Switching over to my Red Hat 6.1 box, I had the same problem, so Sawmill never got built. Since there were multiple packages to download, I didn't try the RPMs either. Sorry—plug-n-play is essential here. One package, build and install. I'm not tolerant of much more than that these days.

  • URL:

  • Requirements: none, essentially, with the latest Linux distributions (they'll have what you need).

  • Compliance: GNOME (unknown), KDE (unknown)

  • Extras: most of the external modules come with the distribution now.

Figure 4. My FVWM Theme

After all this, we're finally down to what I actually use myself—FVWM2. It's one of the grandfathers, two or three times removed in some cases, of most of the rest of the window managers I've talked about. Why do I use it? Because I have an extensive menu system designed around a minimalist display that I haven't been able to duplicate with any of the other window managers. I also adore the FVWM Pager. With it, I can move windows around between desktops without actually having to move to those desktops. I can also see at a glance what I have open. I tend to use three desktops with multiple pages, and use the same pages for the same things—xterms with logins to specific machines, Netscape running across the network on different boxes but displayed locally, my XNotesPlus package and so forth. With FVWM's pager, I can easily see what I have open. Then I just click once to jump between multiple projects—say, an article for Linux Journal, some analysis for Linsight and administrative work from my Graphics Muse site. It's a very handy tool. It also lets me work without dealing with a bunch of nasty icons.

I haven't been able to find anything quite like this in any of the other window managers in such a minimalist form. Enlightenment's pagers are close, but Enlightenment has a heavy memory requirement. With FVWM, I can run close to the same configuration on any system I have, and I have a bunch. AfterStep has a similar pager, but those big ugly icons annoy me.

Above all else, the window manager, to an old UNIX hack like myself, should help me do my work. It shouldn't sing and dance in front of me and then do the work. After everything I've said about personalizing the workspace, my way of doing so is to remove the visibility of the workspace, save for a clever X Files-style background I generated with the GIMP. I use a toolbar across the top of the display with a ton of menus for launching various applications. It is a bit of an annoyance that FVWM requires me to restart the window manager every time I make a change to one of the menus, but it's only a minor annoyance.