Of Window Managers and Desktop Environments

Re-evaluating My Desktop

I’ve been using Linux as a desktop for the past three or four years. For much of that time I used Ubuntu and GNOME 2. This past fall, a number of things aligned that caused me to spend a lot of time rethinking my desktop.

The first was Ubuntu’s decision to move to Unity. That opened up a window for me, as I wasn’t entirely pleased with my ability to navigate Unity, and I really wasn’t happy with its initial lack of multi-monitor support. The second was that for the first time in my 20+ year programming career, I started having some symptoms of carpal tunnel. The third was that after three years of Linux in a familiar-to-Windows-refugees desktop (GNOME 2) I was ready to take the next step and look for more productive desktops. Because of all this, I decided to step back and learn more about all the options available to me, from distros to desktops.

The first thing that I discovered was that there is a big distinction between Window Managers and Desktop Environments. For someone coming from Microsoft Windows, GNOME, or Unity, this may be an unfamiliar distinction. A Window Manager is the part of the desktop that is concerned with the presentation, placement, management, and manipulation of windows. That’s it. Until I started researching new Linux desktops, I never knew that GNOME 2’s window manager was Metacity, GNOME 3 uses a window manager called Mutter, and Unity uses Compiz for it’s window manager.

It’s More Than Just Windows

But a Linux desktop (or any desktop) is more than just windows. There are lots of parts that combine to make a desktop experience convenient, productive, and enjoyable. Stuff you generally don’t think about until it’s not there. Things like: a login screen, a graphical file manager, a status bar or dock, having a USB thumbdrive auto-mount on insertion, having a program ask for root password or sudo if it needs escalated privileges, printer management, program launchers (so you don’t have to always launch from a terminal), wireless network management, notifications, keyrings (so you don’t constantly have to enter root or your password every time escalated privileges are required), an ability for unprivileged processes to talk to privileged processes so you don’t even have to sudo or run as root (i.e. PolicyKit), screenshot capturing, etc. There are a lot of niceties that improve interaction and productivity or are just conveniences on the desktop that have nothing to do with window management. These are things you rarely think about, until they aren’t there.

On Linux, there are five major “all-in-one” desktops available on the Linux deskop. They are GNOME, KDE, Unity (which uses a lot of GNOME parts for the Desktop Environment), LXDE, and XFCE. All five provide a complete desktop environment and window management ala Microsoft Windows. Each chooses their own solution for many of the desktop “bits”. For example, for graphical file management (and for some, USB automount management), GNOME and Unity use Nautilus, KDE uses Dolphin, XFCE uses Thunar, and LXDE uses PCManFM. When you install a Linux distro with one of these “all-in-ones” you end up with a complete, working desktop that you don’t have to think too much about. Most major distros have package groups or spins that allow you to run any of them in a nice, well packaged, well configured setup. GNOME, KDE, and Unity are fully-featured and fully loaded, while LXDE and XFCE are a little less so (by design).

I evaluated all five of the “all-in-ones”. These are my opinions, and quick thoughts based on several weeks of using each one as my primary desktop. For me, it seems GNOME 3 and Unity are trying to move to a “post PC” desktop, where touch interaction is the primary interface to the computer. If I were playing casual games or surfing the web all day clicking on reddit links, it would be a great interface. With GNOME 3, it was a hassle even to get a weather icon in the status bar, like I could effortlessly in GNOME 2. More importantly, for me, who has a lot of open windows and spends a lot of time typing text, it’s not the direction I am heading. My laptop and desktop and my profession is definitely not “post PC” nor will it be for the foreseeable future. I did really like GNOME 3’s Window-key search, and Unity seemed to have a number of useful keyboard shortcuts out of the box.

LXDE and XFCE were fast and responsive, but are focused on providing a usable environment on even the most constrained devices (like netbooks). Coming from GNOME 2, they were very familiar, and aren’t trying to break new interface ground. KDE was the most intriguing and the KDE team seems able to provide a usable interface for netbooks and tablets but still innovate on the desktop. No other all-in-one is working as much on trying to improve desktop productivity, and KDE’s semantic desktop and workspace concepts are areas to watch.

Keyboard Control

After trying out the “big 5” I still wasn’t satisfied. All the all-in-ones could be configured to make me reasonably productive. But throughout this process I became more aware of how I use the desktop. Generally, I have a lot of workspaces, either with some number of applications on them tiled nicely, or I have one big window. For example, one of my workspaces is just a web browser. Another workspace is three terminal windows… one the command line, one an editor session, and one at a database prompt. I found it was easier to group related windows that I tended to work on together, well, together. I also wanted to create keyboard shortcuts for all the window management I wanted to do, as I believed some of my wrist pain was caused by moving from the keyboard to the mouse frequently, as I focused different windows or moved them as needed. After some investigation I discovered tiling window managers. Most of them gave me the ability to completely control my windows, window layout, workspace views, and focus with the keyboard. Tiling window managers also made easy what I always did with windows: either tiled or full-screen. I never had partially overlapping screens, except for the occasional floater (like calculator).

Terrified of the Blank Screen

I tried three tiling window managers: awesome, xmonad, and qtile. After trying them all, I saw the potential, but they all initially scared me away. Qtile isn’t a very popular window manager, but it’s how I learned about tiling window managers in the first place. One Qtile user/developer presented an awesome lightning talk on it. Watch it here on YouTube. Even if you have no interest in Qtile or tiling window managers, it’s a great, funny 5 minute talk.

I wanted to love Qtile, as it is written in Python, but I had trouble getting it running. None of the major distros had pre-built packages for it. Awesome and xmonad were available as pre-built packages on all the major distros (save awesome on Fedora for some odd reason, but it is available in a third-party repo). Awesome was very easy to get running, and came pre-configured with a task bar. When xmonad started I was terrified I had done something wrong… all there was was a blank screen (that’s normal).

After the initial shock, I started using each one for a time. Due simply to the available documentation and user base, I gravitated to awesome and xmonad. This is when I discovered the difference between a window manager and a desktop environment. I started to try to do “desktopy” things: how do I configure wireless on my laptop? How do I get a status bar in xmonad? How to I launch programs outside of a terminal window? How do I set up my printers? All the things that had come “standard” with my GNOME desktop now needed to be researched, installed, and configured. I learned so much about how a modern Linux desktop is put together, and that was invaluable: PolicyKit, DBUS, session management… all fascinating. I was able to get a productive desktop in both awesome and xmonad. I leaned heavily on the great documentation that users of ArchLinux have built. If you ever want to learn how a Linux system is put together out of its parts, they do a wonderful job. Their wiki is comprehensive, well laid out, and informative even if you don’t choose Arch as your distro of choice (I didn’t).

But at the end of the day, even after all that, I wasn’t happy. I loved the keyboard controllable interface and tiling. But there were still little cracks here and there… functionality that I had gotten used to in GNOME that I couldn’t get configured exactly right. And while I enjoyed the learning experience, for me it wasn’t about the ultimate configurability so much as having a keyboard-controllable tiling window manager with a full-featured desktop environment.

Best of Both Worlds

Then I discovered it was possible to get the productivity and keyboard control of a tiling window manager, with the desktop glue of a desktop environment. What I ended up doing was installing the “xmonad-gnome” package in Fedora. Just “yum install xmonad-gnome”. It uses the “fallback” interface within GNOME 3 (essentially a GNOME 2 status bar) which means I can even get my weather status icon! I am sure other distros have similar packages that make getting up and running fairly painless. If not, both xmonad and awesome have easy-to-follow documentation on getting a tiling window manager working seemlessly in GNOME. Xmonad’s documentation is here, while ArchLinux provides great awesome window manager documentation here.

I’ve found great productivity benefits using a tiling window manager, and having the GNOME desktop environment in the background makes my Linux desktop easy to use. I’ve spent some time configuring Xmonad to my liking (a topic for another post), but I don’t have to worry about manually setting up the entire desktop environment. Overall, I use the mouse less, and my productivity has increased. If you are interested in trying a tiling window manager, but were afraid of the lack of a built-in desktop environment, try xmonad-gnome in Fedora, or similar.

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2 Responses to “Of Window Managers and Desktop Environments”

  1. Ben says:

    Great Post!

    I am actually about a week into using Awesome and I’m loving it. It’s like the window manager automatically does what I have to take time resizing and moving to do in a floating WM. And it does it faster & better.

    I went on kind of the same journey as you. Trying every one of the big five before switching to Window Manager standalones.

  2. Pe7er says:

    Recently I switched from Ubuntu/Debian (with Gnome) to Arch linux, so I had to choose a Window Manager / Desktop Environment myself.

    Thank you for your great explanation!

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