Window Manager vs. Desktop Environment

Which Linux user interface better meets your needs?

Linux is all about choice. Take the graphical user interface (GUI) you use. With Windows and macOS, you're locked into using the desktops Microsoft and Apple, respectively, have chosen for you. But with Linux desktop environments, the sky’s the limit. We've 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 of windows and where they're placed.

  • Lots of customization through themes.

  • Has a learning curve.

  • Requires some technical know-how.

  • Often need to know the window manager's nomenclature.

Desktop Environment

There are so many ways to customize your Linux environment. Depending on the Linux distribution you're using 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 the window manager with themes and menus.

  • Requires the X Window System.

Desktop Environment
  • Makes GUI elements aware of each other and where they are on the display.

  • Improved user experience.

  • Requires both the X and a window manager.

All GUIs require an X Window System layer, which is responsible for drawing graphic elements onto the display. Without the X server, neither a window manager nor a desktop environment could create images on your 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 their placement and appearance. 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 much 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.

  • Tend to be flexible and highly customizable.

  • You can tweak nearly every aspect of your Linux experience.

Desktop Environment
  • Often takes less time to configure.

  • May not be particularly customizable.

  • Many mimic Windows or macOS desktops.

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

Learning Curve: Window Managers Take Time to Learn

Window Manager
  • May not be user friendly out of the box.

  • May require a higher level of tech savvy.

  • Often need to know how to edit configuration files.

Desktop Environment
  • Excellent default configurations.

  • Look great out of the box.

  • Great if you don't want to have to tweak everything.

For most people, the logical choice for Linux is a desktop environment. Both macOS and Windows offer fully integrated desktop environments. Their default configurations work well for the average user. In contrast, window managers require that you to take time to tweak the environment—sometimes by manually editing a configuration file—to meet your needs. If you're like most new Linux users, you're migrating to Linux from either macOS or Windows. So, you'll probably want an environment that offers the simplicity and level of integration you're used to.

Sounds simple, right? Generally speaking, it is. As a new Linux user, you would be 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 the user-friendliest environments. Some, however, mimic the integration found in desktop environments closely—although there is a caveat.

Take, for example, the Enlightenment window manager. Enlightenment does a great job of offering many of the elements found in a desktop environment, but it’s not for the faint of heart. You'll have to learn the window manager's nomenclature for various 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 seamlessly integrated you want your desktop to be with your applications. If you like the idea of constantly tweaking the desktop and don’t need that much integration, go with a window manager. If you want a desktop that simply works for you, with little tweaking, go with a desktop environment such as GNOME or KDE Plasma.