By Michael McGloin
Coming from Windows/OSX, the idea of being able to change the default system user interface can be a strange one. Both systems go to great lengths to make their user experience acceptable for all users, but because of this it lacks in some things that power users might want.
Linux, on the other hand, allows users to not only choose what type of environment they want, but allows them to customize and even create their own environments altogether, if they have the know-how. These evironments are made up of window managers and desktop environments.
Window managers (WM) are (generally) X-based clients that control the appearance and behavior of frames (windows) where various graphical applications are drawn. The manager determines the border, titlebar, size, and ability to resize windows. Many window mangers are bundled with simple utilities like menus to start applications or configure the WM itself.
For this presentation, we will talk about window managers as standalone, even though all desktop environments include a window manager, just for ease of distinction. Many window managers are not bundled with a desktop environment and give the user complete freedom over the choice of other applications to be used. This allows the user to create a more customized environment, tailored to their own specific needs. When using a standalone window manager, ‘extras’ like desktop icons, toolbars, wallpapers, or widgets must be added with additional dedicated applications.
The benefits of using a window manager and separate applications to add what you need are obviously that you get a more streamlined and customized experience, where you can add what you want and ignore what you don’t, while also providing more customizability to your setup. The downside is everything is left up to you. Nothing comes set up or is even guaranteed to work out of the box on your machine. Configuration is also generally through the use of config files that can be scattered throughout the system and have all sorts of different syntax.
A desktop environment (DE) bundles together a variety of components to provide a common graphical user interface that includes all the usual trappings of a regular user experience. These generally include a window manager, desktop background, icons, toolbar, and perhaps even desktop widgets.
From here, the user is free to customize their GUI environment in many ways. Desktop environments generally provide nicer and more easy to use configurations for their apps, as they will generally be more integrated into graphical elements instead of configuration files and the like.
The benefits to desktop environments are that they have a much more unified interface and generally work right after install, or take very few steps to get to a working state. Many times, parts of desktop environments can be swapped out, such as window managers or toolbars. The downsides are that a full desktop environment is normally a heavier load on the system, as well as not being as streamlined for each individual user’s needs.
Window managers generally fall into one of three types based on how they manage windows by default. Those three types are Stacking, Tiling, and Dynamic:
Also referred to as floating windows, this is the type of environment many people will be used to from Windows or OSX. Stacking environments make heavy use of the mouse to move and resize windows, and generally have very little in the way of keyboard bindings for those who want them.
The benefit of stacking window managers is the shallow learning curve, and user-friendlyness of their controls and operations. Though for users who want more advanced operations and views, they tend to fall short.
Tiling window managers generally work like Tmux for your whole system. They are designed so that no window overlaps another, and any new window subdivides the available space to keep it that way.
This is a far offshoot from stacking window managers, as the mouse becomes near useless for general navigation of a system, as much work is offloaded to keyboard shortcuts instead. This means that tiling window managers have a far steeper learning curve than stacking managers, but (should) require less hand movement and can be faster to navagate as a result.
Dynamic window managers are simply window managers with the functionality of both previous types of managers. This allows for, say, windows to be tiled in the background, and floated in front.
To be honest, I’ve never really given a dynamic WM a try, I had awesome installed once upon a time but wasn’t smart enough to figure it out all those years ago. From what I can tell from screenshots and the like, it is very easy to make them look good with a background and colorscheme, as seen by WMs like awesome and their prevalence on linux theming subreddits, but seem to make actual data on screen hard to read compared to tiling managers.
Window managers and desktop environments historically have run on the X server, a basic framework for a GUI environment. X doesn’t define any visual styling, but simply gives the tools required to create visuals. The current version of X, X11, has been in use since September 1987. It was developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has been taken over by the X.Org Foundation, who maintains the X.Org Server as FOSS under the MIT License.
X was specifically designed with the ability to be used over network connections using X forwarding. This means that a full desktop can be accessed by someone not physically in front of the computer running the X server. The downside of this approach is that no data can be sent from the X client to the X server, as the client is assumed to only keyboard, mouse, and display as input/ouput.
Sadly, X is beginning to become a monolithic project to maintain and change, and with its growing age, some are looking for a replacement.
Arguably the biggest competitor to X, Wayland is being developed by the authors of X, but under a different name as to not create expectations of values carried over from X.
Wayland seeks to throw out many of the functionality requirements of X, as well as to streamline and improve the experience for a modern compositor. Wayland can be made compatible with X, through the use of XWayland which is just an X server running as a Wayland client.
The main functionality that Wayland lacks is the ability to be used in the same way as X over network connections. There have been attempts to get this working in Wayland, but has yet to be implemented in any meaningful way.
For some visuals as well as some reccomendations, I’ve included some examples of window managers and desktop managers below I see people using below.
- 2 border window manager
- Minimalist look in a floating window manager
- Can be controlled entirely with the keyboard
- Extremely lightweight
- Lacks task or status bar out of the box
- Minimalist, customizable
- Configured using xml files
- GUI theming available through
- Based on binary space partitioning
- Responds to X events, and messages it receives on the dedicated socket
- Configured with shell commands through a
- Does not handle keyboard inputs itself, instead relies on a secondary program
- Similar to Bspwm, but i3 takes in keyboard input itself
- Can be integrated into the GNOME desktop environment
- Includes an application menu through
dmenuout of the box
- Configurable, though not much decoration is added to windows by itself
- Highly configurable
- Targeted at power users
- Extensible using lua programing language
- Uses async libraries, making it less subject to latency
- Everything can be performed with the keyboard
- Tags instead of workspaces, each window can have multiple tags at a time
- Written by dmenu author
- Small, fast, and simple
- No frills design, single c file
- Configuration is done by editing and recompiling said c program
- Elitest mentality, because customization is difficult only power users will use it, keeping ‘novices asking stupid questions’ out.
- Written and configured and haskell
- Must be recompiled for configuration changes
- Extensive keyboard shortcuts
- Standard KDE window manager since KDE 4.0
- Drop in replacement for i3, but running on Wayland.
- Works with existing i3 config and keyboard shortcuts.
- Replaces i3lock with swaylock, and swayidle
Designed by The GNOME Project and composed entirely of FOSS, GNOME is a software suite designed as part of the GNU Project and has recently been brought up to Wayland.
GNOME is split into two main session types, GNOME and GNOME Classic, as well as a version running on the X client; GNOME on Xorg. GNOME is the most current version at 3, while GNOME Classic intends to keep the interface of GNOME 2, this basically means that it is a more customized GNOME Shell than a truly distinct mode.
The current generation of KDE’s graphical environment, KDE uses the X server but Wayland support is currently under development. Basic Wayland support was provided in the 5.5 release.
KDE seems to be up and coming in the public opinion for its good out of the box looks and nice packaging, where GNOME comes with a lot of extra bloat and can be hard to customize in its current iteration.
How do I choose?
Honestly, just go try some out. Depending on what distro you are on, WM installs can be fast and simple, and KDE Plasma is a very fast install if you are on a Debian or Arch derivative.
For compiling this list, I made heavy use of the AUR, so everything listed here is certainly arch-compatible, and likely has Debian support as well.
Another good place to look for inspiration is the unixporn subreddit, which is a place where users will post screenshots of their setup, as well as (hopefully) steps to configure your system like they have. While I wouldn’t recommend simply copying someone else’s setup, seeing what other people are doing can give you great ideas for things you didnt even know you wanted/needed.