Window Manager Round Up

Linux is blessed with an abundance of Window Managers. We compared eight of the more popular packages side-by-side to help you choose the one that suits you best.

Window Manager Opener

LINUX comes in lots of different flavors, from Red Hat to SuSE to TurboLinux to the “roll your own distribution.” But that’s nothing compared to the plethora of Window Managers that are available for Linux. (If you don’t know what a Window Manager is, check out our story on the subject from last August. You can find it on the Web at http://www.linux-mag.com/1999-08/multiple_choice_01.html.)

From standalone environments to those integrated into the more sophisticated worlds of GNOME and KDE, there are so many different Window Managers out there that we decided it was time to look at the more popular models side-by-side. So here you go; from the popular and snazzy Enlightenment to the sleek and minimalist environment of Blackbox, welcome to Linux Magazine’s first ever Window Manager roundup.

Classifications and Terminologies Used in Reviews

Window Managers come in all shapes and sizes. To help you choose the one that is right for you, we analyzed the different Window Managers based on the following criteria:


We classified Window Managers as one of three types:

* Basic is a standard Windows-style interface — nothing fancy, with an eye towards the familiar for the user’s comfort. This interface focuses on getting a user started in the traditional manner, without having to learn too many new features or functions.

* Eye Candy implies that a window manager has lots of bells and whistles; something that is definitely pleasing to view. Such window managers are generally very memory and CPU intensive, though they may be configurable to run reasonably well on lower-end systems. They also will not generally function like a standard Windows interface — you may need to experiment for a bit to find your way around the desktop.

* Minimalist is a window manager that provides only the most basic functions such as window placement, icons, and menus. These window managers are designed for systems where a windowing environment is required but every bit of memory and CPU cycle are expected to be available to applications, not sucked dry by the window manager.


The two most widely used Linux desktop environments are KDE and GNOME. Since a desktop environment doesn’t necessarily define which window manager to use, many window managers can be used in conjunction with either one or both environments. (See the Window Managers vs. Desktop Environments sidebar, pg.48). Support for environment “hints” mean that certain basic features of GNOME or KDE are supported (usually features related to window position and menu management), but the more advanced features probably aren’t.


Pagers allow users to navigate between virtual workspaces. A virtual workspace allows you to keep applications running off-screen and bounce back and forth without necessarily having to iconize the application. Pages can be page oriented or workspace oriented.Page oriented means that you have a series of workspaces all lined up one after another, like pages in a notebook. Workspace oriented is more sophisticated. These pagers allow you to have multiple pages in multiple workspaces. These are like having pages in a notebook, and then having multiple notebooks.


This is the thin bar across the top or bottom of the display where you access menus or jump between windows, launch an application, or display “swallowed” applications. Not all window managers provide panels. GNOME and KDE provide panels of their own, so window managers can choose to work in conjunction with that panel or not. Panels are either configurable (meaning they can be positioned anywhere, filled with various features, extended dynamically, and so forth) or not.


Some window managers that do not use panels offer other means of launching applications. The standard method is to provide user definable menus. Some window managers take this a bit further by allowing you to configure some tool or program to launch the applications for you.


Configuration of a window manager usually refers to either menus or themes (see below), or both. Most of the window managers in this roundup are still relatively young and require at least some manual configuration. A few provide a graphical interface for configuration, though such configuration is usually limited.


All of the window managers we examined provide some level of support for themes. A theme is the visual appearance of the desktop — the shape and colors of windows, borders, menus and icons. Themes are either image based (which means images can be placed on the background of just about any aspect of any window, including menus) or gradient based. Gradient themed window managers are much less resource intensive and more suitable to environments with limited memory and CPU power.


Unfortunately, help systems are generally weak for window managers, with a few exceptions. Some provide built-in help systems, while others provide only online (Internet-based) documentation.




GNOME :Yes, using an external gnome module

KDE: Functional, but is not “compliant”

TYPE: Eye Candy

PAGER: Workspace oriented



CONFIGURATION: Graphical (in development)

THEMES: Image based

ONLINE HELP: Web based


From an end user perspective, Window Maker and AfterStep are pretty much the same beast. They look slightly different, but behave similarly. They differ most in terms of configuration utilities, the pager, the availability of a panel, and visual appearance (slightly).

AfterStep does include a panel, called the WinList, though you don’t see it by default until you open some application windows. The panel lets you jump from application to application fairly quickly. AfterStep also is considered GNOME compliant if you follow the steps outlined in the FAQ available from the Web site. It will run under the KDE environment but has limited compliance there. Configuration is currently done manually in the latest release (1.8) but a graphical utility available from an earlier release is being ported to the new release and should be available soon.

Unlike Window Maker’s clip-style pager, AfterStep has a pager similar to FVWM’s with all desktops and pages visible at one time. This makes jumping to any given page very simple — just a single click gets you there. Although it takes up a little more screen space, we find this sort of pager easier to navigate.

AfterStep supports most dockable applications that work with Window Maker. So features like Audio, Network connection management and so forth are all possible from within the window manager itself. Dockable applications are visually connected to what’s called “The Wharf” in AfterStep. The Wharf can also be used to launch external programs.




GNOME :No support available

KDE:Limited support


PAGER: Page oriented




THEMES: Gradient

ONLINE HELP: Web based


Blackbox is designed specifically to be a low-maintenance, small footprint window manager. It is by far the easiest to build and install of all the window managers in this review. It’s also the least obtrusive. The panel is simple, providing access to menus and pages as well as providing a digital clock. Themes are limited to gradients (background images are permitted but not managed by Blackbox itself). All configuration is done manually — there are no graphical tools to configure menus yet. There is no application launcher, though Window Maker dock applications are supported through a feature called the Slit. The Slit is not visible unless a dock application is running, and its default position can be configured interactively.

The one special effect provided by Blackbox is shaded windows. A shaded window is one that is pulled up into the title bar for that window. This is offered by many window managers as an alternative to iconizing the windows.

Blackbox has external programs, similar to Enlightenment Epplets, that provide added functionality. One of these is a pager. Blackbox provides a page-oriented paging system: One desktop, many pages.

Enlightenment 2

Enlightenment 1



TYPE: Eye Candy

PAGER: Workspace oriented




THEMES: Image based (highly configurable)

ONLINE HELP: Built-in/ Web based


Enlightenment offers configurability of nearly every visible aspect of the product. Window borders can be made into any shape using images that will be automatically scaled by the window manager when windows change size.

The price for such pizazz is paid in memory and CPU utilization. Enlightenment is sluggish on older Pentiums and boxes with under 32 MB of memory. Although it runs modestly well on a Celeron-based 400 MHz IBM Thinkpad, don’t even think about trying this window manager on an old 486 processor.

Because it’s popular with the developer crowd, it probably has better cross environment support for KDE and GNOME than any other window manager. It makes great use of available display space by providing shaded windows (hiding windows in their title bars). Performance can be
improved by disabling many animation and special effect features, including using simple outlined window moves instead of the default opaque moves.

E, as it’s called by its users, also uses some of the most intuitive, position-dependent mouse pointer bitmaps of any window manager. And the built-in help system is not only very informative, it’s far more visually attractive than any system we’ve ever seen.

Almost all recent Linux distributions come with the latest version of Enlightenment included. Most Red Hat distributions use Enlightenment as the default window manager under GNOME, though some versions use sawmill. No KDE installations that we saw use anything other than kwm as their default window manager.


Window Managers provide all sorts of conveniences for managing running programs and their windows. One of the more recent additions to this world is the dockable application. A dockable application is often a simple tool like a clock, battery usage display or CPU monitor. One of the most interesting we’ve seen is a simple weather monitor which shows you the temperature at a local airport or meteorological station.

These applications require very little visual display space so tend to look like nothing more than big icons. The difference is that they are usually configurable and run right from the icon — they don’t need any big windows. While most dockable applications are small, some can be quite complex. The only limitation is in the amount of space they have available for their display.

Window Maker and AfterStep take dockable applications a bit further in that any application can be docked to a docking station icon. This allows the application — from an xterm to Netscape to ApplixWords — to be launched at the click of the icon. In this case the icons aren’t really dockable applications since they open traditional, large windows. Don’t be confused by the terminology. Real dockable applications tend to be nothing more than icons on steroids.




GNOME: Limited

KDE: Limited


PAGER:Workspace oriented




THEMES:Image based, but limited



One of the grand-daddies of window managers, FVWM (which is now called FVWM2) predates Linux itself. Built around one of the first window managers ever, TWM, FVWM provides a workspace oriented pager and an application launcher (FVWMButtons, which is also known as the GoodStuff bar in earlier releases) that, when configured looks much like a panel. However, this is really just a fancy way of providing menus or directly launching applications and lacks the window tracking provided by most other panels.

FVWM is configured by hand using a sophisticated configuration file format that can span multiple files. It is fairly lightweight compared to other window managers but it’s too large to be considered minimalist. Its features are fairly simple in comparison to Enlightenment or AfterStep so it can’t really be considered Eye Candy. Limited image-based themes are available, but only XPM image files are supported. Gradient themes are also possible. The only way to classify it would be as basic, though don’t expect a Windows style interface.

FVWM is very stable, having been around for quite some time, but its future is questionable. Although it used to be the default window manager for various Linux distributions, it has been replaced in the last two years by Enlightenment,Window Maker, and various other newer win-dow managers. New versions are probably under development but their releases are few and far between.




GNOME: Full compliance

KDE: Partial compliance


PAGER:Page based



CONFIGURATION:Graphical tools available, but with very limited functionality

THEMES: Gradient

ONLINE HELP: Web based

http://icewm.sourceforge.net/ or http://icewm.cjb.net/

While most window managers can be configured and themed to look like a traditional Windows interface, IceWM is the only one that actually comes with such a configuration and theme as a default.

While designed with a small memory footprint in mind, its features make it less of a minimalist window manager than Blackbox. Because it is so much more familiar looking, and because its themes are gradient based, we’d have to classify it as a “basic” window manager. Keep in mind that looking like a Windows interface is not the same as acting like one — IceWM depends on GNOME and KDE for many of the features that you would normally expect from a traditional desktop.

Various themes are provided right in the distribution but there is no obvious way to switch themes. It’s a manual process, apparently. Applications can be added to the panel allowing you to launch them from their icons. The panel also provides a clock, load meter and mailbox icon.

While there are some graphical tools for configuring IceWM, these are fairly primitive and are not part of the default package. Menus are the main tool for accessing programs and these, in general, must be edited by hand. An added feature is a blank line that can be configured above the panel that effectively acts like a shell command line.



(Recently changed from Sawmill)


GNOME :Partial compliance


TYPE: Minimalist





THEMES: Image based

ONLINE HELP: Very little


Although considered a minimalist window manager, Sawfish has the potential to be an Eye Candy contender. It doesn’t provide dock applications or manage desktop backgrounds. It leaves those things to external programs. Instead, Sawfish is designed to be highly extensible — if you like the LISP language, that is. What it does do is support image based themes, in a manner that goes beyond even what Enlightenment currently offers, though few themes really take advantage of this yet.

Although Sawfish has a lot of potential as an Eye Candy style window manager, it lacks any decent documentation to encourage the average user to make use of it. There is no information about pagers, a panel, or an application launcher on any of the sites we visited. The best guess we can make is that Sawfish relies on GNOME to provide these things. It is strictly a developer’s environment.

Window Maker

Window Maker


GNOME: Hints are supported

KDE: Hints are supported

TYPE:Eye Candy

PAGER:Page Oriented




THEMES: Image based



Window Maker is another of the more graphically pleasing window managers, offering image-based themes that rival those of Enlightenment. Like AfterStep,Window Maker provides graphical configuration capabilities. Virtual desktops are accessed using a clip-style, page-based paging system. Applications can be docked to the clip or to an applications dock, allowing users quick access to commonly used applications.

Window Maker is widely used in conjunction with both the KDE and GNOME environments but does not fully comply to their standards. What this means is that Window Maker functions well, but you might not have access to all the features KDE and GNOME provide.

Because Window Maker provides image-based themes, it can be quite the resource hog. But like other Eye Candy style window managers, the amount of resources used can be kept small using gradient themes instead of image-based ones.

Window Maker provides a set of special effects such as spinning animated windows when you iconize an application. These can chew up memory and CPU time, so disable them if you don’t need them. Window Maker, AfterStep and Enlightenment all have various forms of animations that can be disabled. These animations definitely put these window managers in the “Eye Candy” category.


Newbies often find the distinction between a “Window Manager” and a “Desktop Environment” confusing, so let’s look at some of the differences and similarities.

Window Managers provide the features required to move windows around the screen and they provide offscreen workspaces, menus, icons, and all the features required to allow windows and applications to act independently of one another. Window managers are very visual things — you can see most of the features that a window manager provides.

Desktop environments like GNOME and KDE provide features that allow those same windows and applications to interact within the auspices of a window manager’s domain. That means things like drag and drop, cut and paste, and application embedding. Additionally, these environments go further by integrating common applications that users expect from their windowed world: file managers, session management (which is the functionality that keeps your desktop consistent between logins), database integration, and so forth. Much of what a desktop environment provides is never directly visual. You never see session management at work, for example, but you will see its results.

Desktop environments need a window manager to be fully functional. It’s a fairly symbiotic relationship, though window managers can work quite happily without the extra features of GNOME or KDE. KDE provides its own built in window manager, kwm, but the user can change to any other KDE compliant window manager at his whim. GNOME doesn’t specify what window manager to use but most Linux distributions that include GNOME now ship with Enlightenment as the default window manager. Again, the user can switch at will to any other GNOME compliant window manager. If use of GNOME or KDE is not required, then the user can use any window manager listed in this article.

The line between Window Manager and Desktop Environment is not a hard and fast one. Some window managers provide session management, for example. And not all window managers described in this article will fully work in either the GNOME or KDE environments. Some provide only partial support for those environments, while others provide no support at all.

Michael J. Hammel authored Artists’ Guide to the GIMP. He can be reached at mjhammel@graphics-muse.org.

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