July 29, 2004

Four alternative Linux window managers

Author: Rob Reilly

KDE and GNOME combine window managers with suites of applications to create comprehensive work environments. As complete as they are, it's easy to forget that there are other graphical ways to work on a Linux desktop. Sometimes a lighter-weight window manager is in order, such as for laptop usage, children's use, or quick startup applications. Here are four "alternative" window managers that are mature, fast, and functional.Four lanes to choose from

My favorite four "alternative" Linux window managers include:

  • AfterStep -- A NeXTStep clone with a nice mix of features
  • Enlightenment -- A futuristic metallic look-and-feel environment
  • IceWM -- A minimalist list-based window manager. These people really live what they preach -- just look at the Web site.
  • FVWM -- A good balance of speed and features (my favorite)

All four are mature and stable. They are also highly configurable and fast to load, compared to KDE and GNOME. You can see an example of each of these window managers by clicking on its name in the section heading.


According to the AfterStep documentation, the program was a continuation of the BowMan window manager, which itself was based on the FVWM window manager. AfterStep has a number of nice features:

  • Fast startup -- It's up and running in a matter or 15 to 20 seconds, even on my ancient Pentium desktop machine.
  • Multiple desktop displays, known in AfterStep as the Pager. AfterStep gives you a little window pane that you can navigate around for the various virtual desktops.
  • A powerful, high-performance, and high-quality image engine is built-in.
  • Infinitely configurable with lots of themes, colors, and icons.

While I like the extremely crisp look of AfterStep windows and icons, the biggest problem I had was with documentation. The latest version of AfterStep is version 2.0 beta 4b, released on March 5. Most of the documentation I could find on the Web was for version 1.8.x and earlier. The AfterStep Web site did have a "visual" document to help explain the parts of version 2.0. You can click on an image of the desktop to bring up an explanation of the function of that part.

I like to use the
AfterStep window manager occasionally for a change of pace. The speed, high contrast, and crisp colors are the main selling point for me. It has, by far, the cleanest look -- much better than KDE.


Enlightenment started out in 1997 to enhance the bland desktops of the day. It was one of the first Linux window managers to introduce high-quality graphics and icons.

Like other window managers, Enlightenment is a full-featured program, and includes:

  • Fast startup -- 15 to 20 seconds.
  • Multiple desktop displays -- Enlightenment has a pager function, just like AfterStep. What's cool is that when you move to a different desktop, the current desktop just slides over and the new one takes its place. Very smooth and very fast, even on slower hardware. It also supports a truly inspiring 2,048 possible desktops.
  • One-touch right-click window settings -- you can change just about any behavior from focus settings to KDE support from this menu.
  • Configuration program for window behavior, colors, themes, icons, etc.
  • Keyboard support and key bindings. It's easy to navigate around the desktops and application windows using Alt-Tab, Ctrl-Tab, and the arrow keys.
  • Simple text file configuration files -- the files reside in the ~/.enlightenment directory and provide for modification of menus, graphics, and so on.

The latest version is D16.6, with D17 in the works. Source and binaries are available on the Web site.

Enlightenment is easy to use and fast. It has a very modern metallic look. For efficiency, you could spend just a little time setting up the text-based menus and then enjoy quickly bouncing around between your computing jobs.

Again the documentation is a bit of a sticky point with me. The Web site has some FAQs, as does the online help, but they don't seem as comprehensive as other documents about setting up Linux applications.

Enlightenment is a good choice for people who like a modern and efficient desktop environment. It's sure to garner oohs and ahhs if you use Enlightenment during a presentation.

Picking the right window manager
As a laptop Linux user, I'm accustomed to interacting with my machine in several different modes.

All out speed mode:
The most effective desktop for me here is none at all. I simply use the command line, without even starting up the X Window System or a window manager. Of course, you can't use X apps like Mozilla or OpenOffice.org from the command line. Tasks that I do here include system maintenance, backups, installations, and data gathering.

Quick startup and run mode with a decent selection of options:
The idea here is to get the machine up and running quickly, do some work, and then move on. Tasks might include Web cruising and email checking on a foreign (not your home/corporate) wireless access point. Another situation might be when I want to seize a couple of minutes to write a few paragraphs while waiting for a client or between meetings. Here is where the alternative window managers work well.

Totally integrated office, communications, maximum-option mode:
This mode is characterized by many desktop views, lots of helpful icons, and integration of many applications I can bounce between at will. I usually use this mode for long seminar development or article-writing sessions, where I have to do research on the Web, edit some graphics, and pen lots of emails without moving from my seat for a few hours. This is normally the realm of the KDE or GNOME desktop.

Even if you have one of the latest whiz-bang 4GHz Xtremo chipset laptops, you might consider using an alternates for your quick-and-dirty computing sessions. If you have a slightly older, slightly slower machine, getting up and computing quickly might relieve some of your everyday stress.

And, if you're a social bug (like me) and always looking for an attention-grabber, what better way to do it than with some "odd-looking" windows running on the old laptop.


This window manager is the quintessential minimalist desktop environment. It is, without a doubt, the fastest window manager in this group. Load time on my old 200MHz Pentium was around 10 seconds. The GIMP loaded in about 15. IceWM is so light that its home page claims you can still run it comfortably on a 386-based PC!

What you get in IceWM is a taskbar at the bottom, with a digital clock, main menu button, and a couple of tiny graphical process monitors. Click on the IceWM menu button, and up comes a text-based menu. Oh -- and a blank desktop area ready to be filled with application windows. Pure speed, not much flash.

IceWM sports some great features:

  • Multiple desktop displays -- switchable on the task bar.
  • Themes -- links to lots of them are available on the IceWM Web site.
  • Customizable for many different languages.
  • The text-based menus are configured with a companion program called iceme. Startup window placement, taskbar, paths, commands, and so on are controlled by the program icepref. Other IceWM functions are controlled by other "ice*" programs that reside in the /usr/bin/X11 directory.
  • Basic icon support.

The current version is 1.2.14. Documentation was no frills -- surprise -- but comprehensive. You should be able to find just about anything you need with little fuss.

I like IceWM for fast jobs, where I need more than just the normal command-line task switching (F1, F2, F3, etc.). For example, you could set up your browser, mail client, OpenOffice.org, and a few other commonly used applications on your menu and then be up and running in a minute or two after booting up your laptop.

IceWM is pure speed.


Rob Nation started FVWM way back in 1993 as a way to get a reliable windowing system on his 486 with only 4MB of RAM. He also needed to be able to display ultra-wide spectrograms for his acoustic analysis. This homebrew window manager, that ran under X, filled the bill. The project switched hands a few times as developers came and went, but it has been well-maintained.

I've been using FVWM2 regularly for a couple of years. Here is the scoop:

  • It's fast to start, 15 seconds average on an old Pentium.
  • It is simple and plain.
  • It has multiple desktops.
  • It has a graphical menu bar at the top and one-touch right-click main menu.
  • Configuration is via a text file call .fvwm2rc. You can save a desktop setup to the file and then edit it to change the configuration.

Today's current stable version is 2.4.18. FVWM is pretty well documented both via online how-tos and man pages.

The desktop is very mature and straightforward. If you are used to a conventional layout like KDE, the FVWM layout will be a bit of a change for you. Normally, it will start up with a "pager," xeyes, and some push buttons on the top and a window that logs system messages. The default background is a nondescript grey stone pattern. Take a look at the Web site for cool screenshots of various configurations.

FVWM is probably the second-fastest-loading program of the group, right behind IceWM.

Try the options

While these four fast, thin Linux window managers may not be as glitzy as KDE or GNOME, all have had faithful followers for years.

If you're really feeling adventurous, here are still more alternative window managers that you can explore.

Now it's up to you. Pick one that suits your needs and give it a try.

Rob Reilly is a professional technology writer and consultant whose articles appear in various Linux media outlets. He offers professional writing and seminar services on Linux desktop applications, portable computing and public speaking techniques/technology.

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