A lot people read and enjoyed our previous article, "From the archives: the best distros of 2000", so we had a hunt around in the dark, damp cellar where old copies of Linux Format magazine live, and dug up another gem, this time from issue 2: a group test of the best window managers, complete with screenshots. Read on!
Almost nine years have passed since this article was written, and we think it's amazing to see how KDE has blossomed from a fairly simple desktop environment into one of the most important free software projects around with thousands of applications written for it. Some of the others, most notably TWM and IceWM, haven't changed that much, yet still attract users because of their speed and simplicity.
And then, of course, there's Enlightenment. You either love its "stunning desktop designs" or you think it just looks dated, but we think everyone has to admit that it was the first window manager for Linux that looked good, and the project continued to lead the way in a number of areas for years to come.
If anything reflects on a Linux user's personality, it's their choice of window manager. From sparse, minimalist desktops to intensely flashy working environments with as many bells-and-whistles as you can imagine, everyone has their favourite choice on their Linux machine.
Window managers are playing an increasingly important role in Linux's assault on the desktop. While the operating system is highly regarded for its speed, stability and flexibility, in recent years more attention has been paid to the graphical interface and front-end that users are confronted with. Window managers are therefore some of the most important software packages in any Linux distribution.
Firstly, though, some background. Unlike other operating systems such as Windows, Linux (and other UNIX variants) split the graphical user interface into several layers. The X Window System (commonly referred to as 'X' or 'X11') is the most crucial part of all this, and was originally developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
The X Window System uses 'X servers' to communicate with graphics cards, and in this sense they're similar to graphics drivers under Windows. By talking to an X server, applications can draw images and print text on the screen, without needing to be aware of the specific model of graphics hardware. Then, on top of this, the window manager runs, adding titlebars, icons and menus - all the typical things you would expect on a modern graphical desktop.
At first sight, this can appear to be over-complicated. However, by
separating the graphical user interface from the operating system itself,
users can run a text-mode Linux on servers and older hardware. Essentially,
the X Window System acts like any other application. Also, programs can be
run on one machine with their output being displayed on another.
The KDE menu editor in action. Items can be dragged and dropped into other menus.
KDE's theme manager at work. Various themes are supplied for imitating the look of other OSes.
Typical X servers with modern Linux distributions are provided by the XFree86
project, and the number of supported graphics cards is increasing all the
time. Coupled with a modern window manager, Linux users can have fast,
attractive and very powerful graphical desktops.
So, what makes a good window manager? A huge amount of personal preference
undoubtedly comes into it, as one user's idea of the perfect working
environment might be an ugly nightmare to another. You might crave for a
clean and empty desktop with few distractions, or on the other hand, you
could feel totally lost without your gimmicks scattered all over the place.
Most window managers provide the essentials that the average user needs,
including titlebars (with buttons for sizing and closing windows etc.), menus
for launching applications, and various ways for switching between programs
that are running on the desktop. Often a number of 'keybindings' are included
too, which allows operation of the window manager from the keyboard. More
experienced users will value the notable speed boost from working in such a
way. The 'focus policy' defines how windows are focused - either by clicking
on the or when the pointer enters the window area.
Another important feature of modern window managers is the concept of virtual
workspaces. Instead of just having one desktop with all your windows spread
about on it, you can switch to a new, clean desktop and start launching
programs from there. Workspaces can be switched between with the click of a
mouse, or as before, with keypresses. With this system, you can have one
workspace for your mail client and newsreader, another for games, and so on.
Recently, many window manager developers have been hacking their programs
to cooperate with GNOME. Unlike KDE, the GNOME desktop environment doesn't
feature a native window manager as standard and relies on a 'compliant' one
to function properly. A plethora of small window managers have sprung up
that attempt to fit GNOME perfectly, but the more established ones can fit
nicely into the desktop suite as well. Currently many are classed as
'partially compliant', which means that some features of GNOME can't be used
or don't work quite as intended.
IceWM is a great window manager to use with GNOME - it's small, fast and fully compliant.
If you like the ability to change your desktop's appearance while keeping the
same method of operation, the idea of 'themes' becomes significant. Instead
of fiddling with configuration files until you find the perfect colour
scheme, themes package-up all the hard work and let you simply plug-in a
brand-new design. Usually a theme will include new colour styles for
titlebars, icons and menus, and sometimes new backgrounds and images. You can
often find themes that make your window manager emulate other desktops and
operating systems - a popular one being MacOS.
Here we review eight of the most popular window managers, taking into account
the matters detailed above and looking at issues like ease-of-use and speed.
We'll also examine how difficult they are to install and configure, and rate
any supplied configuration tools.
KDE 1.1.2 - http://www.kde.org
KDE's default appearance. A KFM file manager window is open, and the KPanel is across the bottom of the screen.
Strictly speaking, KDE is a full desktop environment, with a file manager,
utilities and games. However, it still includes a window manager, KWM, along
with the KPanel and various other related tools.
The K Desktop Environment project was started in late 1996 by German LyX
developer Matthias Ettrich. The aim was to create a powerful, attractive
and user-friendly windowing environment for users of Linux and other flavours
of UNIX. The developers had recognised that while UNIX had gained acceptance
among academics and other technical users in the computing community,
newcomers were being avoiding it because of its complex nature.
The KDE project's man goal is to bring the power of UNIX to the "average
computer user", and is built around the Qt toolkit. Qt, used for building
the graphical front-end of applications, has come under fire in the past
few years because it isn't licensed under the GPL. Troll Tech, the Norwegian
company that owns Qt, have made the source code available under their own QPL
GNOME, KDE's chief rival in the desktop environment contest, uses the Gtk+
toolkit which is licensed under the GPL. Consequently, many heated debates
have arisen over which should be the 'standard' GUI for Linux. Red Hat have
adopted GNOME as their default desktop, and the arguments look set to
Installing KDE is made simple thanks to well-planned packaging. Standard KDE
distributions contain the kdebase, kdelibs and kdeutils packages, while
extras like games and administration tools can be added with kdegames and
kdeadmin respectively. Other packages exist for multimedia and networking.
Even when installing single programs or building new applications from
source, they're usually added to the main KDE program menu, which makes life
considerably easier for new users.
The menu editor in action. Items can be dragged and dropped into other menus.
When first started, KDE has a similar appearance to Windows 9x, with a button
for displaying the program menu in the bottom-left corner, and a taskbar that
shows the currently-running applications. Icons on the desktop are present
for starting programs and mounting disks, while the panel along the bottom of
the screen can contain extra program-launchers and small applets that run in
While all this takes up a fair amount of screen space, the panel can be
'rolled-up' leaving a small tab for retrieving it. Also, it can auto-hide and
the taskbar can be removed completely, providing more room for icons and
windows. KDE's panel holds the buttons for switching between the virtual
desktops, which can number up to eight, and each can be renamed.
The window manager, KWM, adds a 'sticky' button to the tops of windows,
making them visible in all virtual desktops. KWM fits in well with the panel,
and maximised windows automatically resize themselves when the panel is
rolled-up. Keys for basic operations such as closing windows and launching
the program menu are ready-to-go, and can be redefined through the
comprehensive Control Center.
General configuration of KDE is a breeze with the Control Center. Everything
from the desktop background through to system sounds can be tweaked and tuned
through its straightforward interface. There's also a detailed section on
system information, including memory usage and X server setup, which is more
elegant than searching through /proc and could prove to be invaluable when
installing new hardware.
With the KDE 1.x series, themes mainly alter the appearance of KWM. The Qt
toolkit widgets can switch between a Motif or Windows-style look, while a
number of colour schemes are available to bring a change from the plain,
default grey design. Adding themes is a relatively simple process, and they
can be applied through the excellent KDE Theme Manager.
KDE's theme manager at work. Various themes are supplied for imitating the look of other OSes.
Modifying the main program menu is achieved through KMenuEdit, which provides
drag-and-drop and uncomplicated dialogs for adding new menu entries. In order
to maintain ease-of-use for all users on the system, only root can change the
entire menu structure. Normal users have their own personal menu, and links
to the GNOME menu (if present) are included too which is a nice touch.
We found KDE to be a powerful and user-friendly working environment, with
generally good documentation well thought-out configuration tools. In our
tests, the system demonstrated competent reliability, and although the KFM
file manager crashed a few times on us, it could be restarted without
hassle. Obviously, running a whole desktop environment eats up system
resources far more that a single window manager, but for the extra functions
it provides, you may find it worth it.
Ease of use: 10/10
Overall: 8/10 - A complete, well-featured desktop environment with excellent
AfterStep 1.8.1 - http://www.afterstep.org
The default AfterStep layout, with the Wharf along the right-hand side and pager in the top-right corner.
Many window managers get their inspiration and ideas from other styles of
desktops that have gone before. One particular favourite of many developers
is the NeXTSTEP desktop developed by NeXT Inc. (and taken over by Apple).
NeXT was a complete computing platform and more than just a GUI, and an open
source project called GNUstep is working on a creating a full NeXT-like
system for UNIX.
AfterStep aims to recreate the cosmetic side of NeXT, while providing any
extra features users may need. The code actually started with BowMan, a
window manager based on FVWM (which in turn was based on TWM!), and after it
started to become a fully-fledged window manager in its own right, the
project changed its name to AfterStep.
Excellent transparency effects with one of the supplied themes. The terminal window is an ATerm.
Installation by RPM format is straightforward and shouldn't pose any
problems. Usual package sizes are just over 1.1 MB, depending on the included
extras, which makes it a feasible download for most users. AfterStep will run
with just the plain XPM graphics file library, but extras like libpng are
recommended to make the most of it.
When first started, AfterStep creates a ~/GNUstep/library/AfterStep directory
in your home directory for storing its configuration files. Different setups
are supplied for varying colour depths, which enables you to get the most
from your display.
If you're not familiar with the NeXT interface, AfterStep's default setup can
be daunting. The layout is rather unusual at first and takes time to get to
grips with. The most visible component is the 'Wharf', which acts as a place
to store icons. Running applications can be 'swallowed' into it, and extra
program shortcuts can be added too. By right-clicking on the Wharf, you can
roll it out of the way (leaving just one icon to bring it back again). Up
along the top of the screen lies the WinList, which allows you to shade
(roll-up into the titlebar) and close windows from one place.
AfterStep also features a pager for working within multiple virtual desktops.
The pager shows open windows on each of the desktops, and by dragging the
titlebars of windows to the screen's edge, you can move them onto another
desktop. With the right mouse button you can also move to any point between
desktops, so you're looking at half of one and half of another.
The main menu is brought up by clicking on the desktop background with the
left mouse button. Submenus for different categories of application start
from here, and the menus can be pinned to the desktop and moved about. The
titlebar includes buttons for maximizing and shading windows.
Actually, this is just with the default 'Feel'. Like themes, AfterStep has
a number of Feel settings which define the actions that keypresses and mouse
actions perform. If you're a totally devoted NeXT fan, you can opt for the
PureNeXT feel. Others might prefer their desktop to behave more like MacOS
or Window Maker.
Along with the abundance of Feel settings, there are plenty of graphic themes
as well, ranging from the plain style of the original NeXT design to
transparent themes which display the backdrop through the menus. Colour
gradients can be applied to the titlebars and menus, creating some superb
A very important feature which improves the functionality of the window
manager is the idea of 'modules'. Instead of cramming everything under the
sun into one big executable file, you can use smaller program modules as
and when you need to. So, if you don't want the Wharf and want to save some
memory, you can get rid of it without having to quit using AfterStep
In terms of altering AfterStep, the configuration files are plain text and
fairly easy to get around. The menu structure corresponds to the directory
structure in /start (in your personal AfterStep configuration directory),
which makes it simple to navigate around. For altering the configuration of
the pager and Wharf, you might need to consult the well-written documentation
for more information, although many of the options are self-explanatory.
A configuration tool, ASCP, is available for graphically tweaking AfterStep to suit your needs.
AfterStep comes with an excellent and up-to-date FAQ, which should sort out
most problems you're likely to face. It's split into sections for
installation and usage, with extra bits on modules and themes. A small part
is set aside for GNOME integration, and while AfterStep is not 100% compliant
as yet, it works fairly well in the desktop environment.
In all, the NeXT-style of this window manager may not suit everyone and some
may find it too fiddly. On the other hand, you may fall in love with the
design and layout and never want to use anything else again. Whatever the
case, without a doubt AfterStep is fast and reliable, with a huge range of
configuration options and the ability to create some spectacular themes. Give
it a try.
Ease of use: 6/10
Overall: 8/10 - Fast, with loads to tweak and modify. Not so easy to get started with, but worth it in the long run.
Enlightenment 0.16.4 - http://www.enlightenment.org
Enlightenment in all its glory with the Aliens theme. The Eterm on the right can be themed as well.
Philosophies vary greatly when it comes to the design of window managers.
Some programmers set out to create a consistent desktop which keeps the
same layout and functionality regardless of the theme in use, while others
go for a no-limits approach where absolutely anything can be changed beyond
This is the goal of Enlightenment - to be as configurable as possible. The
coders have crafted the window manager so that no programming is required,
and all cosmetic features can be changed using graphics packages and editing
configuration files. They also aim for the behaviour of Enlightenment to
be equally tweakable, so that you can alter the way windows respond to mouse
buttons, how virtual desktops are used and much more.
The e-Conf tool, showing the various settings for window moving and resizing.
Eventually, Enlightenment will be a complete desktop shell, providing a
small file manager and support for miniature applet programs. Much of this
is still on the drawing-board, and the majority of effort is being put into
the main window manager itself. The developers say they will include any
patch as long as it's clean and reliable, and doesn't restrict users in any
Typical packages are quite large, and the one we grabbed was about 3 MB.
Extra themes and configuration tools can be downloaded in other packages.
You may need extra libraries and software installed before you can run it,
such as ImageMagick and the esound daemon (for using sound effects in the
Right from the word go, Enlightenment is keen to show-off in every way
possible. A quick progress bar zips past, before the window splits into two,
revealing the desktop underneath. Depending on the package you're using, the
default desktop might not be as impressive as that opening sequence. If it
has been set up for GNOME, you might have a very plain Windows 9x-style theme
running. Enlightenment is fully compliant with GNOME, and on powerful
hardware it works well with it.
Basic usage is simple - left-clicking on the desktop brings up an application
menu (with handy links to the GNOME and KDE menus too), while right-clicking
displays a list of configuration options. Windows can be iconified or shaded,
moved about between the virtual desktops, and made 'sticky' so that they
appear on all desktops. Aside from these basic operations, how Enlightenment
behaves will depend greatly on the theme you're using.
Enlightenment is perhaps the most themeable window manager in existence. You
can get the usual theme packages to mimic another operating system, but
unlike most window managers, Enlightenment can also clone their behaviour as
well. For example, normal MacOS and BeOS themes would play with the titlebars
and create a general resemblance of the system they're trying to imitate,
while Enlightenment can add new menus, icons and widget-styles to make far
more convincing desktops.
The ApplePlatinum theme does a good job of impersonating the MacOS desktop.
Still, there are also a number of themes where artists have been let-loose to
concoct the desktop of their dreams. From alien landscapes to video games,
the sheer configurability of Enlightenment paves the way for some of the
most magnificent desktops you'll ever see. Other notable features include the
smart graphical pager which shows mini versions of your desktops, translucent
moving of windows, and 'Dragbar' which lets you slide desktops down the
screen (in the same fashion as Amiga Workbench) and move programs between
Despite this huge amount of flexibility, configuring Enlightenment is fairly
simple with the built-in configuration panels. You can change almost
everything from tooltip settings to KDE support directly from the desktop,
which is a great help for less experienced users. Even themes can be changed
with a few mouse clicks. A separate configuration program, e-Conf, can do
most of the work too, and sports a pleasant keyboard-shortcut editor.
One point that deserves a mention is the online help system. Brought up from
the menu, Enlightenment's documentation is concise, well-written and
informative, with sections on working with the pager and managing themes.
Enlightenment is undeniably aimed at power-users, but these help files are
a very welcome addition.
It has to be said that Enlightenment needs some powerful hardware to support
its graphically-intense themes and vast range of features. If you're running
a low colour depth on a slow processor, you'll probably find it too sluggish
and resource-hungry. For users with more powerful machines, though, it's
an incredible window manager that can do just about anything you need. If you
like a change of theme every day, you can't go wrong here. We experienced a
couple of crashes, but problems weren't too common and, in general, we found
Enlightenment to be well-designed and friendly to use.
Ease of use: 9/10
Overall: 9/10 - Pure hedonism, with a gigantic amount of features. A superb range of themes too.
Window Maker 0.62.1 - http://www.windowmaker.org
The Newday theme, with gradients over the icons. You can see the configuration windows for docked programs.
Like AfterStep, Window Maker is designed to recreate the NeXTSTEP desktop
on the X Window System. The main programmer, Alfredo K. Kojima, was a
developer on AfterStep before starting work on the Window Maker project.
Kojima wanted to write a new NeXT-like window manager from scratch, rather
than work with the old AfterStep code base.
While Window Maker is a standalone window manager, it's also part of the
larger GNUstep project which aims to create a cross-platform application
development framework, based on the OPENSTEP specification that NeXT used.
This is still very much in development, but Window Maker is approaching a
version 1.0 release and is one of the post popular window managers available.
The main RPM package is about 2 MB, and it's important to note that the
libPropList library is needed to run Window Maker. It's a very small download
and you should be able to get it from the same place you grabbed the window
manager package. Graphical libraries for PNG and JPEG images are useful too.
Window Maker, like AfterStep, stores its configuration files in the ~/GNUstep
directory tree. This is where you can add your own menus, backdrops, themes
and even sounds. You can also modify the 'autostart' and 'exitscript' scripts
and add commands you want to run when the window manager is started and
The standard desktop on first use is clear and uncluttered. On the right-hand
side of the screen is the Dock, which holds icons for starting programs along
with small 'DockApps'. These can range from usual programs like clocks and
memory indicators, to even games of chess and the star of Doom groaning as
system resources become scarce! With the initial setup, the titlebars don't
resemble NeXT quite as faithfully as with AfterStep. However, Window Maker
has a neater appearance and the old-style title buttons can be used if you
Menus can be pinned to the desktop as shown. Over on the right is the Dock, with AppIcons along the top-left.
Windows can be shaded with a double-click, and form small 'mini-window' icons
when minimized. A very useful little feature is the Clip, which can switch
between workspaces and hold extra AppIcons - small icons which resemble the
running instance of a program. Right-clicking on the desktop brings up the
main menu, from which you can launch programs, switch workspaces and log out.
Window Maker can create and remove workspaces on the fly, and you can freely
move windows between them. Different workspaces can have individual keys and
names assigned to them, and when you switch between them their names appear
on the screen before fading away. There's a lot of careful attention to
detail, and clearly considerable effort has been put in to create a clean
yet still flexible working environment.
This point is highlighted further with the fantastic configuration tool.
The 'Preferences' utility fits-in perfectly with the rest of the window
manager, and can change almost anything you could want to. All the usual
options for focus policy and window positioning are present, along with a
keyboard shortcut editor that interactively 'captures' your keypresses, and
a screen for fine-tuning your mouse settings.
But the best part of the configuration tool has to be the menu editor.
Traditionally a window manager's menus would simply be edited by hand as
configuration tools usually gave too much trouble. With Window Maker's,
though, adding entries to the main menu just takes a few mouse clicks and
keypresses. Changes are activated instantly, making the tool a joy to use.
The fabulous Preferences program lets you alter almost anything possible.
On the issue of themes, Window Maker performs very well. Almost everything
drawn by the window manager can have gradients and images applied to it.
These include horizontal, vertical and diagonal gradients, and pictures can
be placed behind icons or titlebars. Of course, this starts to eat at the
memory, but it lets theme engineers generate some dazzling results. You
can even add sounds to match the events on-screen.
Support for some GNOME hints are included, although it's not fully compliant.
Window Maker can even be used as a replacement to KWM in the KDE desktop
suite. The documentation discusses the usage of Window Maker in other
desktops like CDE, and the FAQ is comprehensive and well-written.
In our tests, we found very little to fault Window Maker. Despite it being
a development version, we had no troubles with stability and it wasn't too
heavy on memory usage. The carefully-crafted design and remarkable
configuration tool, along with the powerful themeing options and general
running speed, all add up to a fantastic choice on the desktop.
Ease of use: 9/10
Overall: 9/10 - Attractive, easy to use and a pleasure to work with. A first-class all-rounder.
FVWM 2.2.4 - http://www.fvwm.org
A typical FVWM desktop, with the button-bar, pager and clock in the bottom-right.
One of the oldest window managers in our roundup, the original F Virtual
Window Manager was derived from TWM and intended to have a smaller memory
footprint while retaining a rich feature set. FVWM also had support for
virtual desktops and was mostly compatible with the Motif 'MWM' window
manager. Nobody can remember what the 'F' stood for, but suggestions range
from 'Fantastic' to 'Feeble'!
Initially, FVWM2 doesn't look very impressive when compared to some of the
modern heavyweights like Enlightenment and Window Maker. However, it's very
fast to start up and doesn't eat-up too much memory. Like AfterStep, FVWM
uses modules to keep the program small. You can add individual modules like
a pager and iconbox later.
In use, FVWM2 shows its TWM origin, although there are a number of
enhancements. The main application menu appears when left-clicking on the
desktop, while right-clicking shows a list of running programs (and which
desktop they're on). FVWM2's design resembles that of MWM, and buttons
can be added to the titlebar. You can drag windows to the edge of the
screen and drop them on other desktops, while the pager shows a small
representation of the open windows on all of the desktops.
One of the more useful modules is FvwmGoodStuff, which acts as a kind-of dock
on the desktop, where you can add new program launchers, clocks and other
useful bits 'n bobs. Setting it up isn't so easy though - the configuration
file is complex in places and new users might find it tricky. Fortunately,
most of the FVMW2 modules are well-documented and have separate manual pages.
A couple of options can be modified from the main menu, including focus
policy and the ability to switch desktops when the mouse hits the screen
A small amount of themeing can be performed on FVWM2, although nowhere near
as extensive as with some of the larger window managers. Images can be placed
on titlebars and buttons, and you can get new iconsets for more attractive
More FVWM action, with gEdit being used to change the main fvwm2rc config file.
FVWM2 really can't offer much feature-wise when compared to some of the more
prominent window managers in this roundup, but it has the huge benefits of
speed and reliability. We didn't suffer a single glitch or crash throughout
our use of FVWM2, and it certainly feels fast and responsive.
Ease of use: 6/10
Overall: 7/10 - Not as feature-packed as others, but still very speedy with rock-solid stability.
The basic TWM desktop. It doesn't get much more fancy than this.
TWM is the classic MIT window manager, and stands for either Tab Window
Manager or Tom's Window Manager (after the main author, Tom LaStrange).
TWM has been important in the development of X window managers, originally
being the code base for FVWM (which led on to BowMan and AfterStep). Also,
other variants of TWM have appeared, including CTWM and VTWM.
When running TWM for the first time, it's not hard to think that it isn't
a window manager. TWM adds no backdrops, taskbars or anything along those
lines. Simplicity is the key with TWM - things like desktop backgrounds can
be left to other programs. By default, you are presented with a small main
menu, reachable by clicking on the desktop, and a couple of titlebar buttons
for resizing and iconifying.
And that's about it. There's an icon manager to work with minimized programs,
and you can edit the reasonably simple configuration file to add new titlebar
buttons, colours and menu entries. For many, this type of desktop would be
unbearably desolate, but for others it's completely undistracting and could
be an ideal working environment.
Because of TWM's lack of features, other developers have taken the code and
added new functionality to the window manager. VTWM is a version that
incorporates virtual desktops (probably the most popular feature that TWM
was missing) along with 3D window borders in the style of FVWM, and more.
Essentially, though, it's the same to use and configure.
An important thing to note about TWM is that it's included in most
distributions of XFree86. If your favourite window manager is having
difficulties and you need a quick alternative, TWM will usually be available.
VTWM is an extension to TWM which includes virtual desktops and a pager.
In the end, whether you like TWM or not will depend on your needs and whether
such a featureless environment will help or hinder you. It's definitely
lightning-fast to use and we had no problems with reliability, which are
often the benefits of petite window managers like this. Still, it's probably
on your machine somewhere, so you can give it a spin straight away!
Ease of use: 5/10
Overall: 5/10 - Small, fast and severely lacking in features. This might be your ideal desktop...
Blackbox 0.51.3.1 - http://blackbox.alug.org
One of Blackbox's included themes. The bar along the bottom cycles through windows and workspaces.
Blackbox was written from scratch to have a small and easily-maintainable
code base, and this latest stable version was built from just over 14
thousand lines of code (including comments and headers). Blackbox heads for
sheer speed and a no-nonsense interface for the user. Consequently, there's
no support for any image formats - everything is drawn on the fly which
saves time and memory.
We compiled and installed Blackbox from source, and the process went
smoothly without any hiccups. Initially, the window manager looks like a
cross-breed of Window Maker and IceWM. A small panel lies along the bottom
of the screen, which displays the current workspace name, the time, and the
title of the currently-focused window.
The main menu is displayed using a right-click on the desktop. This menu
can be dragged around the screen, as with Window Maker and AfterStep, and
windows can be shaded with a double click on the titlebar. The toolbar has
switches for cycling through the workspaces and focused windows. It's quite
unique and strange at first, but it takes up less room than a conventional
taskbar and looks more attractive.
Even though no images can be used, Blackbox compensates by using gradients
wherever possible. As demonstrated by some of the supplied themes, this is
excellent for developing metallic-style effects and is put to good use.
Themes are stored in single, small text files so altering them by hand isn't
Configuring the rest of Blackbox is fairly easy too as all options are, by
default, stored in a single .blackboxrc in the user's home directory. Most of
the options are self-explanatory and the menu format is pretty clear to
work your way around.
Editing the configuration file, with the main program menu to the right.
Blackbox definitely achieves its aim of being ultra-fast, and it was quite
reliable in our tests too. The whole style of the window manager is rather
individual and it might put you off, but we found the efficiency and speed
of use to be a major plus-point. The supplied themes are pleasant too, and
everything keeps to a minimum, making it ideal for laptops or machines
running X at a low resolution.
Ease of use: 7/10
Overall: 7/10 - A minimalist appearance that may not suit everyone, but still worth investigating.
IceWM 1.0.3 - http://icewm.sourceforge.net
IceWM in action, with the default Warp3 theme. The text editor shows the simple format of the menu file.
The Ice window manager was named by its principal author, Marko Macek,
because he started writing it "on a very hot day". IceWM has been in
development for a few years, and the main idea behind it was to create
a small and fast window manager that had a good 'feel' as well as
IceWM is written entirely in C++ and the RPM package weighs in at less than
300 kilobytes, making it a quick download. The default builds only include
XPM graphics support, but if you rebuild from the source code you can add
other image formats as well. IceWM isn't over-reliant on extra libraries,
so installation is usually goes without any troubles.
When first launched, IceWM clearly shows influence from Windows 9x. The
screen layout is similar, with a bar along the bottom containing a program
launcher and taskbar. The default theme is based on OS/2, and produces a
clean and uncluttered desktop.
Basic operation of IceWM is second-nature to anyone familiar with Windows.
The taskbar squeezes-in icons of running programs, while the main menu
is supplemented by small launcher icons to the side. A window list can be
brought up if the taskbar gets overcrowded, while a clock and CPU monitor
lie to the right. A mail indicator and power-management monitor can also
be added. The taskbar holds buttons for switching workspaces, which can bind
to specific keypresses.
The configuration files for IceWM are all in plain text format and very
simple to understand, in particular the menu file. Still, there are a few
graphical configuration programs available such as IcePref and IceConf, which
permit the changing of focus policy and fonts etc.
The IcePref configuration tool can alter most IceWM settings and sports nice colour-picker dialogs for the titlebars.
IceWM comes ready-supplied with themes for imitating Windows, along with
the Motif and Gtk+ toolkits. The Gtk+ one is especially useful as IceWM
is fully GNOME-compliant and makes a speedy alternative to Enlightenment
on older hardware.
For its size, IceWM packs in an impressive range of features. While it's
bound to be limiting in comparison with some of the heavyweights like
Enlightenment, the swiftness and small memory footprint make up for it.
Being GNOME-compliant is a great bonus, and the variety of themes available
ensure variety on your desktop.
Ease of use: 7/10
Overall: 9/10 - Fast and reliable, and works well in lower resolutions. Excellent with GNOME.
Looking at the eight window managers on test here, it's becoming increasingly
apparent that design philosophies vary greatly between developers. Some are
aiming to create lightweight yet functional programs which don't munch
through valuable system resources, while others are trying to include every
possible feature and create rich, complex environments which are capable of
Of course, none of those attitudes are wrong. What you want depends on your
needs and personal preference - you might find anything more than a titlebar
a distraction. On the other hand, many users want all their toys instantly
reachable, and enjoy managing a busy desktop.
The real issues, then, are those of speed and stability. On a production
machine the latter is going to be of prime importance - a plain but stable
window manager will be less stressful in the long run than a pretty but
problematic working environment. From the window managers we've looked at,
the older programs like FVWM and AfterStep lead the pack in terms of
reliability, simply because their code has been examined and tuned for over
longer periods of time. Window Maker and IceWM proved to be very solid as
well, but we still spotted the odd glitch here and there.
Another important issue is that of configurability versus standards. Many
window managers, like Blackbox and the KWM+KPanel combination in KDE, permit
a small amount of themeing but keep the same style of operation. This means
that a new user can approach the machine and start working without having to
learn the behaviour of the theme itself. This makes life considerably easier
in the workplace or when other family members want to use the machine and
don't have their own accounts.
On the subject of themes, we were particularly impressed with the extent
to which AfterStep and Enlightenment in particular could be changed. The
transparent menus of AfterStep and complete flexibility of Enlightenment have
lead to some awesome effects and stunning desktop designs.
If you work with a highly cluttered desktop and run a lot of applications
simultaneously, you'll want to take note of the virtual desktop handling.
The basic click-to-switch methods of Blackbox and IceWM work well enough,
but having a graphical pager to drag windows around may be a massive help.
Enlightenment's pager is one of the best examples we saw, with its mini
snapshots of the current desktop state.
We've seen a variety of configuration methods and tools in this test, and
excellent progress is being made all-round. Window Maker has its brilliant
Preferences tool, while Enlightenment has configuration panels built-in and
work extremely well. This is important for new users; those familiar with
their window manager may prefer hacking the configuration files by hand.
Even so, having well-structured files helps a great deal, and in this respect
we were impressed with the clarity of IceWM's files and the directory-based
organisation of AfterStep's menus.
Finally, we should give a mention to some of the less-popular window managers
that weren't on test here. Aewm, Lwm and Wm2 are hugely minimalist desktops
(more so than TWM!) which provide hardly any features whatsoever. Before you
start one of these, read the docs and make sure you know how to exit it...
There are a number of window managers that go all-out in emulating the
desktops of other operating systems. AmiWM provides a simple clone of the
Amiga Workbench, while Mlvwm (Mac-like virtual window manager) attempts to
recreate the Apple Macintosh on your Linux box. An unusually impressive
imposter is Qvwm, which acts very much like the Windows 9x desktop, with a
taskbar, Start menu and multitude of themes. It even has virtual
desktops - something the real Microsoft Windows doesn't have!
AmiWM recreates the Amiga Workbench on your Linux box.
Is it Windows, or is it Linux? Qvwm does a smart job of imitating the Windows 9x desktop.
Sapphire aims to be small and fast, and looks similar to Blackbox. Sawfish
(previously known as Sawmill) is extensible through the Lisp language, and
works well with GNOME, while FVWM95 is a variant of FVWM2 that looks a bit
like Windows 9x. GtkWM and wmG head for GNOME compliance, and OLWM is Sun's
window manager for OPENLOOK.
Sapphire is a small and fast window manager, with an appearance similar to Blackbox.
The Internet is full to the brim of window manager-related information. For
a very comprehensive guide to the main WMs around today, see
Breakdown of features
We tested the window managers on a 32 MB 233 MHz PC running Linux-Mandrake
6.1, with a 14" monitor and 4 MB S3 Virge graphics card. Note: the package
sizes and memory usage statistics below should only be used as a rough guide.
Memory usage varies from system to system, and is affected by themes etc.
KDE - KWM+KPanel
Package size: Included in kdebase package
Approx. memory usage: 4700k
Pager: Yes (kpager)
Config tool: KDE Control Centre
GNOME compliant: N/A
Package size: 1.1 MB
Approx. memory usage: 2200k
Config tool: ASCP
GNOME compliant: Partial
Package size: 3.0 MB
Approx. memory usage: 3000k
Config tool: built-in/e-Conf
Themeability: Very High
GNOME compliant: Yes
Package size: 1.9 MB
Approx. memory usage: 2200k
Config tool: WPrefs.app
GNOME compliant: Partial
Package size: 677k
Approx. memory usage: 1300k
Config tool: FvwmConf
GNOME compliant: No
Package size: Included with XFree86
Approx. memory usage: 1600k
Config tool: No
GNOME compliant: No
Package size: 163k
Approx. memory usage: 2100k
Config tool: None
GNOME compliant: No
Package size: 295k
Approx memory usage: 1000k
Config tool: IcePref/IceConf
GNOME compliant: Yes
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