Window Manager vs. Desktop Environment

Which Linux user interface better meets your needs?

Screenshot of the Pantheon Desktop Environment.

Linux is all about choice. Take the graphical user interface (GUI) you use. Unlike Windows and macOS, where you're locked into using the desktops Microsoft and Apple have chosen for you, the sky’s the limit with Linux desktop environments.

Before you select a GUI, though, you first must decide whether you want a window manager or a desktop environment. The choice is much more than terminology: It makes a serious difference in how you work on your Linux machine.

Terminology

To help you choose, you must first understand the terminology. At least two, possibly three, layers go into creating a Linux GUI:

  • X Window System. All GUIs require this layer. The X Window System 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 the screen. X also creates the framework for moving windows and interactions with a mouse and keyboard.
  • Window Manager. Where X draws graphical elements onto the display, a window manager controls the placement and appearance of windows. Unlike X, you can customize a window manager with themes, menus, and more. Popular window managers include Enlightenment, Gala, Mutter, kwin, Fluxbox, i3, Joe's Window Manager (JWM), Window Maker, and IceWM. Window managers require X but not a desktop environment.
  • Desktop Environment. A desktop environment requires both X and a window manager but adds a much deeper and seamless integration with applications (so that they're aware of one another), panels, system menus, status applets, drag-and-drop capability, and more. The goal of a good desktop environment is to focus on the overall user experience. The most popular desktop environments are the GNU Network Object Model Environment (GNOME), K Desktop Environment (KDE) Plasma, Pantheon, MATE, Cinnamon, the Deepin Desktop Environment, and Ubuntu Budgie.

Making the Choice

Window Manager

  • Requires configuration to get what you want.

  • May not be user friendly out of the box.

  • May require a higher level of tech savvy.

  • Tend to be flexible and highly customizable.

Desktop Environment

  • Excellent default configurations.

  • May not be particularly customizable.

  • Many mimic Windows or macOS desktops.

Now that you understand what goes into a Linux GUI, is a window manager or a desktop environment better suited to your needs?

For most, the logical selection is a desktop environment. Why? Both macOS and Windows offer fully integrated desktop environments, typically with default configurations that work well for the average user. In contrast, window managers require that you to take the 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 likely want an environment that offers the simplicity and level of integration you're used to.

Sounds simple, right? Generally speaking, it is. It’s a rare occasion that a new Linux user would find him- or herself at home with a Linux distribution that uses a window manager and not a full-featured desktop environment, typically because window managers aren’t the user-friendliest environments. Some window managers, however, go a considerable effort to mimic the integration found in desktop environments—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 (all the while being aesthetically pleasing), but it’s not for the faint of heart. You'll have to learn the window manager's terminology for various desktop elements and, in some cases, configure the desktop by editing text files.

If you like tweaking your tech, one aspect of window managers like Enlightenment that you'll like is their flexibility. Unlike desktop environments, which tend to be more rigid, 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.

Final Verdict: Which You Choose Depends on Time

Whether in the end you go with a window manager or a desktop environment depends on how much time you want to spend configuring the desktop 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.