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"Linux Gazette...making Linux just a little more fun!"

Choosing your Window Manager: a Matter of Taste

By Matthias Arndt

Table of Contents

A short notice about this article

This article should be of concern to all users of Linux. Because a graphical user interface seems to be required by almost any sort of computer users, it is essential to provide a pleasant GUI to the user.

The problem (or the pleasing fact, if you want to claim that) with Linux, is that you're are not limited to a GUI provided by your OS manufacturer. In Linux, (in deed, any sort of Unix), you have the choice, how your desktop will look like.

In this article, I'll try to line out the several ways of providing a pleasant GUI using your favorite window manager.
I'll provide a list with several window managers. I'll try to line out their advantages and their disadvantages. I'll also tell you about the experiences I made while actually using one of the window managers mentioned.

However, I'll not cover the aspect of configuring the various window managers. Check the manuals or articles in the Linux Gazette covering the aspect of configuring a special window manager. (As far as I remember, there were very decent articles about configuring fvwm in the first 8 or 9 issues of the Linux Gazette.

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A short list of available window managers for Linux

The following list shows you a short glimpse on this topic. It shows you a list of the available window managers for Linux.
This list is not complete, however, as the linux world is as always on the move and new products are likely to appear on the scene.

Name of window manager short description
TWM the default window manager provided by the XFree team, for purists only
FVWM this has been the most used window manager in the Linux world
FVWM 2 a modernized version of the good old FVWM, with themes and much colour
I haven't used this window manager yet.
FVWM 95 a rewrite of the FVWM window manager to provide a Windows 95 feel
AfterStep a window manager trying to emulate the NextStep feel - includes a wharf, some sort of panel to swallow applications
Enlightenment I haven't used that one. I have heard that this one should be very colorful. More a toy than a window manager? ;-)
KWM the window manager provided with the KDE desktop environment, very easy to use and to configure without having to edit the config files with a text editor
IceWM a window manager completely written from scratch, supports a Win95'like taskbar with Linux icon and themes - very fast especially to load
KDE needs almost the double amount of time to launch. (My personal tip!)

These are the most popular window managers in the Linux world. There are a few more window managers like the olvwm, the olwm. the wm2 and Windowmaker.
I haven't used them before and I intend to focus on the window managers I know in this article.
If you don't like that, what about writing an article about your favorite window manager? I'd love to read about other interesting window managers.

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My experiences with window managers in the last 2 years

I'm using Linux for almost 2 years now - with breaks between. A friend told me about Linux and I found the idea very great. An OS you could copy and give away for nothing, an OS you could rewrite and you could take a look at the code. Wow, that seemed to be the future of home computing for me. So in December 1997, I bought a good Linux book,
The Linux A-Z by Phil Cornes, and a CD containing the PTS Linux distribution. (I'm from Germany, you perhaps should know.)

The first window manager I was confronted with, was the clumsy TWM. I was happy to run X and to learn more about Linux so I didn't care. The TWM gave me a real UNIX and highend user feeling I never encountered before.

In the spring of 1999, I started being interested in dial-ins to run a better BBS than the old DOS BBS systems, perhaps running a PPP link and using Internet (eq. TCP/IP) technologies for that.
Linux seemed to be best suited for that. So I reinstalled Linux and learned more about Linux. That time, I focused on system configuration and programming first (and I still do that).

With gathering more and more information of the Linux system, I managed to configure the TWM to fit my needs. However, I was looking for a better suited window manager as I learned that the user can select the window manager to be displayed. At first, I tried FVWM 95 because, at that time I still worked using Windows 95.

Linux was giving me more and more. In the October of 1999, I got a copy of Debian and installed it. That was a more modern distribution and it was the first that I managed to provide Internet access to me. Form then on, I have hardly used Windows 95/98 to connect to the Net. Linux is just much more stable and better suited for that.

Debian came along with both, KDE and GNOME. But both seemed to be broken and at that time, I could not get one of them to work.
Under Debian then , I started my adventure of exploring the advantages of different standard window managers under Linux. I installed FVWM and AfterStep and I tried both.

I discovered that FVWM was superior to both FVWM 95 and to TWM. However I liked the look and feel of Afterstep and the Wharf got my attention. I switched to AfterStep and I still have that window manager on the machine I used at that time.

Because of problems with my disk space (I couldn't afford a second harddrive), I didn't install SuSE Linux because it consumed to much disk space.
In the spring of 2000, this changed as I got my new Athlon 600 machine with a GeForce 256 chip set video card. I first had problems to get a working X server for it. But I installed the new SuSE Linux 6.4 (and I still use it now while I'm writing this article). Disk space was not a problem so I have currently installed almost all window managers supplied with SuSE, even KDE and a small working copy of GNOME.

At first I tried KDE because all Linux magazines (here in Germany) focused on that.
I was amazed and puzzled. Such a powerful desktop, far superior to all kinds of products from MS. Then, I discovered the possibility to change the window manager with the KDM login utility. Ok, I was (and I am still able) to use all of the window managers I mentioned above. I played around a little bit with it, and then I found IceWM.

At that point, the world of Linux changed for me. A classical window manager for Linux and it loads so d*** fast. I was puzzled. Quickly, I decided not to use KDE anymore. KDE was far too close to Windows 98, while the icewm provides a more UNIX like feeling.

I can configure icewm in the good old unix way, it is fast and it provides almost all of the aspects I used under KDE. I now run icewm exclusively. However, I still have KDE installed and I use the kfm and a few of the KDE applications, especially the KMail E-Mail client.

I can tell you, I'm now pleased and satisfied with Linux all the way.
The only reason to load Windows 98 is to either to play the games (I'm quite a gaming fan) and to run an Atari ST emulator - StonX is not the best ST emulator I know. All I can tell you: In 1 out of 20 occasions, I boot my machine, I boot Windows, the 19 other occasions, I boot into Linux with icewm.

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Tips concerning window managers

I tend to sort the window managers into 3 classes:

  1. simple window managers like TWM
  2. feature-rich window managers that require user customization via one or more configuration files like FVWM, icewm and AfterStep
  3. feature-rich window managers that are configured using a GUI like the KDE window manager

The first thing you must choose: do you only need a window manager to allow you to move your windows around (and perhaps a menu to launch your favourite applications) or do you want to have a complete desktop environment with all components having the same user interface.

For new Linux users, I'd suggest using KDE or GNOME because they fit into the 3rd category mentioned above. Especially KDE can be configured like Windows and is therefor better suited for Windows fans or new Linux users.

Even, a Linux guru may use KDE, but most people prefer to have the control over all config files.

If you like to have a colorful desktop or you want to install desktop themes and sound sets, FVWM2 or AfterStep could fit your needs. Do you want to have a Windows 95 feeling but you still want to be remembered that you are using Linux? I suggest using either FVWM95 or icewm. Because both of them support a START menu in the lower left corner of the screen. Both have a Windows95 like taskbar. Icewm is even better than FVWM95 because it features several workspaces. Try both out and make your choice afterwards.
Configuration of icewm is somewhat easier because the configuration is split up into several files rather than a single one.

If you like the classical Linux feeling, you should use FVWM1. It is a powerfull window manager and you can easily find help and tips for it in almost any Linux user group or on the net.

If you're tight on memory, especially when running your X with only 16 MB available, you should forget about KDE. As far as I have used it, it seems to be very memory consuming. With only 16 MB of RAM, you should install one of the other standard window managers.
A special tip for those of you with small amounts of RAM:The icewm is very fast and it does not use much memory. Give it a try.

I haven't used GNOME yet but I think most of the things I said about KDE apply to GNOME as well.

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Advantages and Disadvantages of the window managers mentioned

The following table will give you a short overview about the advantages and disadvantages of the window managers mentioned

window managerAdvantagesDisadvantagesConclusion
TWMcomes shipped with every Linux that features X
  • rather clumsy interface
  • problems with large menus (at least on my PTS Linux system)
  • no workspaces
for hardcore Unix users only
  • a de-facto standard under Linux
  • support for it almost everywere
  • great stuff about it in the Linux Gazette, including configuration and tips
  • pleasant look and feel
  • all-in-one configuration file
  • no GUI-based configuration utility available
If you cannot decide, choose this one. Not recommended for complete new Linux users
  • modernized FVWM
  • Themes
  • no GUI-based configuration utility
the modern variant of the FVWM above - for those who prefer a colorfull desktop
  • FVWM based
  • Taskbar
  • START menu
  • no GUI-based configuration utility
  • as far as I can remember only one workspace
the variant of the FVWM above - for those who want to have a Windows 95 like appearance of their X
  • Wharf
  • NextStep look'n'feel
  • Wharf hard to configure
  • as far as I know, no GUI-based configurator
If you ever used a NeXT or a NextStep system, this is the right window manager for you.
  • modern look'n'fell
  • Themes
  • START Menu
  • Drag'n'Drop on taskbar
  • comes along with a complete set of applications
  • easy to use and to configure
  • up to 8 workspaces
  • GUI-based configuration
  • very configurable
  • uses much memory
  • too close to Windows
a complete desktop solution for Unix - recommended for novice users
  • fast loading
  • small memory usage
  • GUI-based configurators available
  • taskbar
  • at least 4 workspaces
  • START menu
  • Themes
  • configured using files
a powerfull window manager - my personal tip
at least the menus are easy to configure, at least for an intelligent person
Even novices should, at least, take a look at it.

Notice: Most distributions come along with a utility that allows to create the menu entries of the various window managers.

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The Dotfile Generator

This is program to create the so-called dotfiles - the configuration files.

As far as I've heard about it (from Linux Gazette), it can also create the configuration files for some window managers.

I've not used it yet and I do not plan to do. Search the Linux Gazette website on it to find more information.

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I hope this article helped you to find your window manager of taste.
However, I cannot give any warranties that all information provided is correct.

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Book tip

The Linux A-Z
written by Phil Cornes
ISBN: 0-13-234709-1

I do not give any warranties that the information above is correct.
This book covers almost any aspects of Linux, including system programming and configuration. However it is written from a 1995 point of view and some information, including the URLs are outdated.

This is a book about the usage of Linux in general, not about window managers.
However, a fairly small chapter deals with the configuration of FVWM.

Notice for my German readers: This book is in English.

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created using Bluefish
[Matthias also submitted a 2-Cent Tip in this issue, a tree script -Ed.]

Copyright © 2000, Matthias Arndt
Published in Issue 57 of Linux Gazette, September 2000

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