Know the Concept: Desktop Environment and Window Manager

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In modern operating system, user interfaces tends goes to graphical system. We see window, we see button, we see cursor, etc. In UNIX, the graphical component is managed by independent subsystem. Here we hear two concepts: Desktop Environment and Window Manager. However, still some people confuse about which is which and which is best to use. The former question is fairly simple to answer. However the latter question is a bit more complex due to specific user want.

The Layering System

UNIX use layering system for its graphical desktop. Mostly the system comprised of following (from the base to the top):

  • The Foundation – A system that allows graphic element to be drawn on the display. This system builds the primitive framework that allows system to paint something to various screen (display), interacts with keyboard and mouse, etc. This is required for any graphical desktop. On most UNIX system, X Windows is used. There is also an alternative for X Windows, Wayland, which is still in active development.
  • Window Manager – The Window Manager is the piece of the puzzle that controls the placement and appearance of windows. Window Managers include: Enlightenment, Afterstep, FVWM, Fluxbox, IceWM, etc. This layer needs the foundation (X Windows) but not Desktop Environment.
  • Desktop Environment – This is where it begins to get a little fuzzy for some. A Desktop Environment includes a Window Manager but builds upon it. The Desktop Environment typically is a far more fully integrated system than a Window Manager. Requires both X Windows (Foundation) and a Window Manager. Examples: GNOME, KDE

So, a Desktop Environment generally includes a suite of application that are tightly integrated so that all applications are aware of one another. It is basically rides on top of a Window Manager and adds many features, including panels, status bars, drag-and-drop capabilities, and a suite of integrated applications and tools. Most user opinions on operating systems are typically based on Desktop Environment.

As implied by the name, Window Manager manages windows. Window Manager allows the windows to be opened, closed, resized, and moved. t is also capable of presenting menus and options to the user. It controls the look and feel of the user’s GUI.

The Type of Window Managers

Window managers are often divided into three or more classes, which describe how windows are drawn and updated.

Compositing Window Managers

Compositing window managers let all windows be created and drawn separately and then put together and displayed in various 2D and 3D environments. The most advanced compositing window managers allow for a great deal of variety in interface look and feel, and for the presence of advanced 2D and 3D visual effects.Example:

  1. Compiz
  2. KWin
  3. Xfwm
  4. Enlightenment (E17)
  5. Mutter.

Stacking Window Managers

All window managers that have overlapping windows and are not compositing window managers are stacking window managers, although it is possible that not all use the same methods. Stacking window managers allow windows to overlap by drawing background windows first, which is referred to as painter’s algorithm. Changes sometimes require that all windows be re-stacked or repainted, which usually involves redrawing every window. However, to bring a background window to the front usually only requires that one window be redrawn, since background windows may have bits of other windows painted over them, effectively erasing the areas that are covered.


  1. AfterStep
  2. Blackbox
  3. Fluxbox
  4. FLWM
  5. sawfish
  6. Window Maker
  7. WindowLab

Tiling Window Manager

Tiling window managers paint all windows on-screen by placing them side by side or above and below each other, so that no window ever covers another.


  1. wmii
  2. xmonad

Dynamic Window Manager

Dynamic window managers can dynamically switch between tiling or floating window layout. It is a tiling window manager where windows are tiled based on preset layouts between which the user can switch. Layouts typically have a master area and a slave area. The master area usually shows one window, but one can also change the amount of windows in this area. The point of it is to reserve more space for the more important window(s). The slave area shows the other windows.


  1. fvwm
  2. xmonad

So Which One Suit Me?

Again, it is a tough question. Your choice might be affected by many factors: your need, your taste, your mood, etc. Unless you want to explore deep, you might consider default Desktop Environment and default Window Manager provided.

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