Posted by: linuxmoose | July 19, 2011

Thinking about Desktop Environments, Window Managers and how to get a lightweight desktop

Recently I have been pondering the always recurrent problem of desktop environments and window managers. What with the advent of Gnome 3 and Unity the old ways of using panels and the like appear to be fading into the past. I love the freedom that Linux provides, and that anyone capable of programming it can create a new desktop environment according to what they think will work. I actually quite like both Gnome 3 and Unity, and have experienced none of the instability that others have with them. Still, I find them slow to use and far more reliant on a good computer than necessary. And so, while this has been done countless times before I shall try to detail several ways to get back the older style desktop and hopefully use less resources than those more elaborate setups.

LXDE: LXDE is a light environment with the traditional layout. It does not have that much customizability, but it is perfect if you just want a simple, easy to use and complete environment. LXDE uses the Openbox window manager, so any themes for Openbox will work in LXDE. Many pieces of LXDE will also work in other environments, and are available in individual packages. LXPanel is a very useful panel as it contains an automatically updating menu. LXAppearance can manage GTK themes, icon themes, fonts and, with a plugin, Openbox themes. PCManFm is a light file manager although I prefer Thunar. Leafpad is a light text editor, and LXTerminal is a good terminal.

Xfce: Xfce is a more complete replacement for Gnome 2.X, although it is still missing some features. There are some nice xfwm themes, but Metacity themes often look better. Xfce 4.8 can now use Alacarte to edit it’s menus and, with the help of xfapplet, can use many Gnome applets such as Dockbarx and MintMenu. Xfwm contains it’s own compositor, making Xfce great for those who want to use Docky or AWN without Compiz. Xfce is admittedly not as light as it once was, but it is still lighter than Gnome 2 and is a suitable replacement.

Openbox/Fluxbox/PekWM/Blackbox/Sawfish: All of these window managers are usable alone, some more than others. However, with the addition of a few programs they can be used as a much lighter alternative to a full desktop environment. Setting the wallpaper can be done with Feh or Nitrogen depending on whether you want to have a GUI switcher (Nitrogen) or not. Older versions of PCManFm can manage both the desktop icons and the wallpaper, or you could set up Idesk or ROX Filer (also a great light file manager) to handle the icons. A panel without a menu can be gotten using BMpanel2, Tint2 or Pypanel if one wants to use the right click menu (although Sawfish does not provide one) or with Perlpanel, Qtpanel, Xfce4-panel or Lxpanel if you want a menu. Conky is a very themeable information display that draws to the desktop. Gmrun provides a run dialog, or one could use Demu (be certain to assign dmenu_run to a keyboard shortcut), which provides a different approach at a menu. Stalone tray is a standalone systray for those who don’t want a full panel. In order to build a full environment out of all of this just research what programs you want, download them and add them to a startup file for whatever window manager you are using. Then just log in to the chosen wm.

Icewm/JWM: Icewm and JWM both provide panels with a systray, a clock, a pager, a window list and a menu. IceWM is also capable of managing the wallpaper and is compatible with several (outdated) control panels written specifically for it. They are also both themeable and have editable menus, although one needs to use text files to do it.

Other options: KDE 3 and 4 both use the single panel layout, although I have never really liked either of them and thus know next to nothing about them. It should be fairly simple though. Enlightenment (E17) is nearly a full desktop environment, although it’s a little unconventional, it’s also a great and improving project. Gnome 2 can also still be used, although it is now unmaintained and there will be no more updates. One final option is to use Gnome Shell Frippery, which is a set of extensions for Gnome 3 that adds features such as an applications menu, a window list, a pager, and shifting the clock to the right side of the top panel. All of this makes it look essentially like Gnome 2. The overlay that appears when you move the mouse to the top left of screen is still there, however.

That just about wraps up what I have to say about Linux desktops at this time. Hope that I’ve been helpful, enjoy!



  1. For small and light check out awesome:

    • Awesome is, well, awesome. However, it is more for the terminal users who generally know how to set up their own configurations, so I stuck to the more flashy wms.

  2. Excusing you on the basis that you mentioned your ignorance, KDE 3 let users add and remove panels in a few clicks and KDE 4… Can’t really be explained by anything other than a few months of solid tinkering and window shopping. Essentially it is a framework to build custom desktop environments from. In a few moments you can remove the panel, change the desktop from displaying a folder with an image in the background to showing the various things you’d want on a panel in a grid with and interactive globe in the background and shutdown whatever subsystems you don’t want. And that’s just in desktop mode…

    • You certainly make KDE seem like quite the potent desktop environment, I’m glad that there is an easy environment out there. Unfortunately, I simply do not seem to be able to adjust to the qt way of doing things. Oh well, perhaps I’ll get the hang of it some day.

    • “Excusing you on the basis that you mentioned your ignorance…” Lots of snarky comments here. Never fails to surprise me how rudely defensive those who use FOSS tools can be.

      • That did not actually strike me as rude, but yes, some can be quite impolite.

  3. Quote – “Icewm/JWM (…) ***although*** one needs to use text files to do it.”

    Why “advanced” (?) Linux users hate so much the **plain English** text config files nowadays? I really do not understand the attitude. Have you not been taught the language in your “progressive” schools?

    O tempora! O mores!


    • I remember back in the days when I was a Linux newbie I couldn’t figure out what a .tar.gz file was, never mind where to extract it to get my theme working. A plain text configuration file would have completely bewildered me. Basically, if you know how to configure IceWM then you know how to use it.

      • Some Debian-based distributions now have tools to help ease the configuration of IceWM. If you can read the templates, they are not as difficult as it may first seem, but you do have to break down the syntax at first. It comes easy to one who has done that before, especially with other X-based applications, but if you have not done that either, then I can see why it would be so foreign at first. Still, I think it is a skill well worth picking up, and if you do so, picking up the “next one” will be that much easier. A good book – or these days, numerous sites with examples and actual configurations can really help. is one such place; could be better documented, but /usr/local/share/icewm/preferences and related files do include every possible item to customize. The manual at is not very complete, but I would suggest that looking at the examples on a system is a good way to learn – just a lot more than most people are ready to tackle.

  4. I’ve been a big KDE fan for about 10 years. As much as I struggle with it, though, I really can’t bring myself to like KDE 4.x. From my point of view, they took a solid, easy to understand, fully configurable DE and made it into… I’m still not sure what. All I know is after nearly 2 years of trying I still can’t get my desktop back to where I want it.

    As far as I’m concerned, the KDE team has committed the unpardonable sin of remembering that a desktop environment needs to get out of the way FIRST and be configurable SECOND. I would NOT recommend KDE in its current state. It requires far too much effort to figure out for anybody who is new to it.

    At this point, the only thing holding me back from a conversion to either xfce or fluxbox is sheer laziness.

    • Have you tried the Trinity project? They seem to have a faithful representation of KDE 3 up and going.

      • The problem is that my dislike of KDE 4 is all the architectural underpinnings that the dev team is so proud of. As far as I’m concerned the whole concept of ‘plasmoids’ is a mistake. Besides, in my view it’s not even implemented all that well. Using a template of skins and toys to mimic KDE 3 won’t solve that problem. 😦

        I’d switch to XFCE now except that every other Xubuntu update trashes my configuration for some reason.

        Nope, I’ve got a feeling that my next build will probably be a plain Jane, Debian testing system running fluxbox as the DE. At one point a long time ago I had a pretty sweet fluxbox set up running on top of Gentoo. Barebones, but FAST.

        A mix of fluxbox for the DE and some judicious cherrypicking of modern KDE apps and I’ll probably be happy.

      • P.S. I apologise for my rambling and lurching from point to point. Lack of preview combined with lack of sleep for the past few days is making for a bad combination. Hopefully, I’m coming across as at least semi-coherent. 🙂

      • You should try something other than Xubuntu for your Xfce needs. If you want an Ubuntu base you could try PC/OS, or if you don’t mind what your base is Salix and Mint XFCE are both great.

  5. I liked KDE for many years on openSuse. And then KDE 4 came out. I gave 4 a try for several months, but finally had reached the last straw for the frustration and inexplicable un-intuitiveness of the thing. I’m using LXDE now and my blood pressure is back to normal. Trinity looks like a promising “upgrade” for KDE.

  6. I forgot to add — KDE 4 is by no means a lightweight desktop. My systems that run the UI fast on KDE 3 are noticeably sluggish on KDE4. While KDE 3 is pretty good, it still is not “light” compared to something like LXDE or xfce.

    • Yes, I know that KDE is not anywhere near lightweight, but I figured that I ought to mention it anyway.

  7. fvwm is pretty awesome to me. However it is time consuming and often difficult to write scripts but quite a bit can be done with it. The man page reads like a Russian novel.

    • I too have always found FVWM a little too hard to configure to be worth my while. Still, FVWM Crystal looks wonderful for a light desktop, so I assume FVWM can be quite usable if one puts the time into it.

      • I think it would be worth your while. I grew into Linux from UNIX systems with fvwm and fvwm 2, but I had already worked with config files in X on UNIX systems, and in fact, localization of X resources was my job over a decade ago. Still, it took getting examples from a book on Slackware to get me well into fvwm. I find the Fluxbox and IceWM configurations easier to pick up from typical templates included with these window managers.

  8. No mention of Enlightenment? Really?

    • I did make a brief mention of it, but perhaps I should have been more in depth.

      • Indeed you did. My bad. I saw KDE mentioned at the beginning of the last paragraph and assumed the whole paragraph was about that. Ooops.

        For anyone interested, E17 is very low resource yet great looking environment. And, if you’re so inclined, can spend days customizing it. Bodhi Linux has a slew of pre-built E17 themes on this site: if you want to take a look.

  9. I tend to agree with those who felt that the KDE 3 features were about as easy to customize as anything else out there, but I have found KDE 4 to at least be usable. KDE 4.6.5 gets the job done, but it is definitely too big. I have opted to use Xfce 4.8 on a regular basis, and it certainly has more than enough features for my particular interests. I am, however, also a window manager user, including fvwm, IceWM, Openbox, and Fluxbox. I find IceWM easiest to customize; I have no problem with the syntax, and some systems have handy tools to make it a little easier, and the same is true with Fluxbox. I probably use Xfce 70-80% of the time, IceWM perhaps 5-10% of the time, and I either test KDE or other alternatives the remainder of the time. Xfce can always meet my needs; I do not have stringent desktop environment needs at all, and that’s why a simple window manager often gets the job done for me. I occasionally opt for LXDE, but Xfce is more mature and I’m more used to it.

    • The only WM is use is AmiWM coupled with thunar and other gtk+ apps. Simple, nice looking, faster than anything graphical i have ever encountered in terms of WM’s. I have been using it since about 1998, it is still the greatest. Iconification of minimized apps, screen dragging, lockable windows, persistent wm borders (you can disable that if you want) and also it is less than a megabyte in size.

      • I’ve never really looked into Amiwm. I’ll do some research, thanks.

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