Window Manager vs. Desktop Environment

Which Linux user interface better meets your needs?

Linux is about choice. Take the graphical user interface (GUI) you use. With Windows and macOS, you're locked into the desktops Microsoft and Apple, respectively, have chosen for you. But with Linux desktop environments, the sky's the limit. We tested the two main ways to customize Linux — a windows manager and a desktop environment — to help you choose.

Window manager and desktop environment icons

Overall Findings

Window Manager
  • Controls the appearance and placement of windows.

  • Customization through themes.

  • Has a learning curve.

  • Requires some technical know-how.

  • Need to know the window manager nomenclature.

Desktop Environment

There are many ways to customize a Linux environment. Depending on the Linux distribution you use and how tech-savvy you are, you may want a window manager, a desktop environment, or both.

App Integration: A Desktop Environment Takes You Further

Window Manager
  • Controls where elements appear on the display.

  • Customize with themes and menus.

  • Requires the X Window System.

Desktop Environment
  • Makes GUI elements aware of each other and the position on the display.

  • Improved user experience.

  • Requires the X Window System and a window manager.

All GUIs require an X Window System layer, which draws graphic elements on the display. Without the X server, neither a window manager nor a desktop environment could create images on a Linux display. X also creates a framework for moving windows and performing tasks using a mouse and keyboard.

Where X draws graphical elements onto the display, a window manager controls the placement and appearance of screen elements. Popular window managers include Enlightenment, Gala, Mutter, kwin, i3, Joe's Window Manager (JWM), Window Maker, and IceWM. Window managers require X but not a desktop environment.

A desktop environment requires both X and a window manager. It also adds a deeper and seamless integration with applications, panels, system menus, status applets, drag-and-drop functionality, and more. The most popular desktop environments are the GNU Network Object Model Environment (GNOME), K Desktop Environment (KDE) Plasma, Pantheon, MATE, Cinnamon, and Ubuntu Budgie.

Customization: More Flexibility With a Window Manager

Window Manager
  • Requires configuration to get what you want.

  • Tends to be flexible and highly customizable.

  • Customizes most aspects of a Linux experience.

Desktop Environment
  • Often takes less time to configure.

  • May not be particularly customizable.

  • Many mimic Windows or macOS desktops.

If you like to customize your tech, you'll like the flexibility of window managers, such as Enlightenment. Desktop environments tend to be rigid, but most window managers are highly configurable. Using themes, transparencies, and menu editors, you can customize a window manager to look and behave the way you want.

Learning Curve: Window Managers Take Time to Learn

Window Manager
  • Not user-friendly out of the box.

  • Requires a high level of technical knowledge.

  • Need to edit configuration files.

Desktop Environment
  • Excellent default configurations.

  • Looks great out of the box.

  • Great if you don't want to customize everything.

For most people, the logical choice for Linux is a desktop environment. Both macOS and Windows offer fully integrated desktop environments. The default configurations work well for the average user. In contrast, window managers require that you take time to configure the environment — sometimes by manually editing a configuration file — to meet your needs. Most new Linux users migrate to Linux from either macOS or Windows. So, you may want an environment that offers the simplicity and level of integration found in Windows and macOS.

New Linux users are usually more comfortable with a Linux distribution that uses a full-featured desktop environment than a window manager on its own. Typically, window managers aren't user-friendly environments. Some, however, mimic the integration found in desktop environments closely — although there is a caveat.

For example, the Enlightenment window manager does a great job of offering many of the elements found in a desktop environment. Still, it's not for the faint of heart. You'll have to learn the window manager nomenclature for desktop elements. In some cases, you may have to configure the desktop by editing text files.

Final Verdict: Which You Choose Depends on How Much Time You Want to Spend

Whether you go with a window manager or a desktop environment depends on how much time you want to spend configuring your Linux environment and how integrated you want the desktop to be with applications. If you like the idea of constantly customizing the desktop and don’t need much integration, go with a window manager. If you want a desktop that simply works for you, with little changes, go with a desktop environment such as GNOME or KDE Plasma.