The Second-String Desktop

by Shawn Powers

It's dangerous for me to use sports metaphors, because my expertise ends at knowing there are three strikes in an out. When it comes to sitting the bench, however, I'm a veteran professional! Most major distributions choose one of the big hitters for their desktop management systems. GNOME and KDE continue the epic battle that keeps the competition intense and our desktops diverse. In honor of this month's Desktop issue, I thought it would be nice to pay some homage to those desktop managers and windows managers that don't get quite as much attention.

Window Managers and Desktop Managers

Before we delve too deep into comparing the various Linux GUIs out there, it's important to understand the difference between window managers and desktop managers. The nuances between the two can be subtle and at times almost nonexistent. A window manager is simply the program running on top of the X server itself that manages windows. Some are very sparse in their features, and some are so robust they approach the usability of a full-blown desktop manager.

So, what is a desktop manager, you ask? Well, it's more of a total user-interaction interface. It often includes applications, widgets and system integration. In fact, desktop managers (or desktop environments, as they're sometimes called) include a window manager as part of their arsenal. So, although GNOME is a desktop manager, part of the GNOME environment includes Metacity, which is a window manager GNOME uses for, well, managing its windows. It's possible to run a Linux system with only a window manager, as I talk about later, but usually a Linux distribution comes with some sort of desktop manager installed by default.

The Battle for Ubuntu's Bottom End

Ubuntu and Kubuntu certainly are the first-string players for Canonical's Linux lineup. Granted, with Ubuntu 11.04, its flagship product will switch from using a standard GNOME interface to the Unity shell normally used only in its Netbook product, but at least historically, Ubuntu has used GNOME, and Kubuntu has used KDE. Canonical also has its official Xubuntu version for older or less-powerful hardware. Xubuntu runs the XFCE desktop manager. Although it does require fewer resources than GNOME or KDE, many still think XFCE is rather bloated for slower hardware. There is another option, Lubuntu, but it's not officially supported by Canonical. Instead of XFCE, Lubuntu uses the LXDE desktop environment. The Lubuntu team claims to be much less resource-intensive, so I installed them both to see how they “feel” in everyday use.

Xubuntu and XFCE

Xubuntu's install is pretty much like every other flavor of Ubuntu. In fact, it's pretty much like every other flavor of Linux. Gone are the days of difficult installs, and even if you choose to use a text-based installer, the process is dead simple—so simple, in fact, it's silly to include a screenshot. It looks like an installer. Trust me.

Current versions of Xubuntu are a little shocking in just how much they resemble their GNOME-y counterparts. In fact, the Xubuntu desktop in version 10.10 looks like a slightly bluer version of Ubuntu 10.10. Certainly this is Canonical's tweaking—a very nice job of making its lighter-on-the-resources desktop look exactly like its big brother. Unfortunately, appearance isn't the only place Xubuntu is identical to Ubuntu. Figure 1 shows a freshly booted install of Ubuntu, with no programs running other than the terminal displayed. You can see the freshly booted new install uses approximately 328MB of the 512MB installed on my machine. When I turned to the Xubuntu install, which runs XFCE instead of GNOME, I expected to see a much lower memory usage upon booting up. I was shocked to see Xubuntu using 325MB, almost identical to the Ubuntu install (Figure 2).

Figure 1. A freshly booted, default install of Ubuntu 10.10 uses 328MB of RAM while idle.

Figure 2. A freshly booted, default install of Xubuntu 10.10 uses 325MB of RAM—almost identical to Ubuntu.

The big difference with Xubuntu isn't really how much RAM the desktop manager uses, but rather the default applications installed. When I start Xubuntu's Exaile music application versus Ubuntu's Rhythmbox, it does indeed use less RAM, and it starts up faster. However, getting rid of Rhythmbox on Ubuntu and installing Exaile in its place gives the same advantage while using GNOME under Ubuntu. In fact, although Xubuntu and XFCE do feel faster in use, in every case I've tested, it seems to be due only to the default applications. If you're a GNOME fan, Xubuntu might be a big change for little reward. Keep GNOME, install some faster applications, and you might get the best of both worlds.

Lubuntu and LXDE

It turns out I'm not the only person to notice that Xubuntu doesn't really tailor itself to low-end hardware as much as it claims to. The folks in charge of the Lubuntu Project decided improving performance for slower machines should include more than installing zippy applications by default. Just like with Xubuntu, Lubuntu installs in an extremely unexciting and completely functional way. Once installed, however, Lubuntu does differ from Xubuntu and Ubuntu in appearance.

Although a similar blue to Xubuntu, Lubuntu's screen layout is visually different. Figure 3 shows Lubuntu's simple single taskbar layout, which is quite similar to the design Microsoft has been trying to perfect since the days of Windows 95. That's not a bad thing. As a group we may not care for Microsoft, but its start-menu-type system is widely known and very usable. The first thing I did upon booting Lubuntu was open a terminal and check the memory usage. You can see in Figure 4 that Lubuntu is using only 163MB of RAM when fully booted. That's almost exactly half the RAM Xubuntu and Ubuntu use when freshly booted. When you add to that the selection of fast and small applications Lubuntu uses by default, including the Chromium Web browser, it really does scream even on low-end or old computers. If you've been frustrated with your computer's poor performance with either GNOME under Ubuntu or XFCE under Xubuntu, you may want to give Lubuntu a try. It uses the same repositories, and it has remarkable compatibility with more well-known, if not bulkier, applications.

Figure 3. The Spartan, but Easy-to-Navigate Lubuntu Default Desktop

Figure 4. A freshly booted, default install of Lubuntu 10.10 uses only 163MB of RAM while idle.

What about Others?

There are more to the alternatives than just speed. I used the Ubuntu example above to demonstrate how alternatives to the “Big 2” can give you advantages in speed, but there are other reasons to veer from the norm as well. The ROX Desktop, for example, is a complete desktop environment designed around a file manager—the ROX-Filer, to be specific. Although the ROX Desktop is certainly light on system resource needs, its design and integration with the filesystem is what really makes it unique. Figure 5 shows a screenshot of Puppy Linux, which uses ROX-Filer as the file manager.

Figure 5. Puppy Linux Using ROX-Filer (screenshot by Joachim Köhle)

The ROX Desktop suite includes its own window manager, OroboROX, but like most other desktop environments, it doesn't rely on one specific window manager to work. When you find a window manager you like, it's often possible to use it seamlessly with whatever desktop management system you want. In fact, many people, and even entire distributions, run only a window manager. This is possible because many window managers are so feature-rich, they do most of the things a desktop manager would do. One good example of that is Enlightenment.

The Enlightened Don't Need a Desktop Manager

Enlightenment is a window manager that has been around a long time. Some window managers are minimalistic; however, Enlightenment is extremely feature-rich. It provides a file manager, a dock, a GUI configuration tool, application launchers—pretty much everything required in a full-blown desktop environment. Does that mean it's a desktop manager and not just a window manager? Perhaps. It doesn't really matter how you define it though. Enlightenment is one of those things everyone should try at least once. There are even live CDs, specifically designed for trying Enlightenment. Figure 6 shows applications running under the Elive CD default desktop.

Figure 6. Enlightenment E17 Desktop (from the Live CD)

IceWM is another window manager that is rather profound in the features it offers. Although it doesn't have a mechanism for creating desktop icons, it does have a very robust menu system and application suite for managing most aspects of the Linux desktop. IceWM is very customizable, and although it uses the familiar Windows-like start menu, it doesn't try to clone Microsoft. In fact, I use a combination of IceWM and Nautilus on my network of 150 older thin clients because it's fast and reliable. Because the menu system is controlled with a single system-wide config file, it makes wide-scale customization a breeze.

A multitude of Linux distributions have only a window manager to manipulate the desktop. Blackbox, Fluxbox and Openbox are all related window managers. Fluxbox is a fork of Blackbox, and although Openbox is all original code now, it started as a fork of Blackbox as well. These three window managers are lightning fast. They may not offer the same level of features and complexity that Enlightenment or IceWM do, but for many minimalistic distributions, they are just perfect. CrunchBang Linux is a prime example of a full-featured, yet minimalistic distribution. It uses Openbox as its window manager, and as you can see in Figure 7, the windowing environment is designed to get out of the user's way.

Figure 7. CrunchBang Linux is a minimalistic distribution that uses Openbox as the window manager.

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 the Associate Editor for Linux Journal. He's also the Gadget Guy for, and he has an interesting collection of vintage Garfield coffee mugs. Don't let his silly hairdo fool you, he's a pretty ordinary guy and can be reached via e-mail at Or, swing by the #linuxjournal IRC channel on

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