Desktop Environment Vs. Window Manager


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Every new Linux user is likely to run across the question of what the difference is between a desktop environment and a window manager at some point in their learning process. I’ve been asked this question several times, and the answer isn’t always simple. It depends on the questioner’s previous knowledge and how well he has grasped the basics of a Linux operating system.

In this article, I will attempt to answer this question from the standpoint of a new Linux user. For new users, please have a seat and join us as we begin the article. For more experienced users who have anything to contribute to the subject, please start a discussion below this post or join our Discord community. I will surely add valuable information in the article shared by the community members.

Difference between Desktop Environment and Window Manager

Most of you may have seen these two terms when downloading a Linux distribution. Desktop environment is a very common term in the Linux universe whereas Window Manager is known among advanced Linux users.

What is a Desktop Environment?

Any desktop environment is a collection of software that allows us to interact with our operating system in a variety of ways. A desktop environment includes the graphical interface that is used to access the application menu, open applications, the look and feel of the system, and the applications that come with it including a window manager.

There are a large number of desktop environments for Linux. Each desktop environment has its own approach to solving issues in performing day-to-day tasks. Some of the most popular Linux Desktop Environments are –

  • KDE Plasma
  • Xfce
  • Lxde
  • Cinnamon

When a desktop environment is removed from an operating system, we are left with a command-line interface to interact with the system. It means that a desktop is not a necessary tool for running an operating system, but rather a great set of tools for graphically using the system and making it more usable for its intended audience.

However, while desktop environments have a number of advantages, there may also be some disadvantages to using them. For example, the desktop environment you are currently using may come pre-installed with hundreds of applications that you will never use. The majority of those applications consume system resources and may cause your computer to slow down. The best part about open source software is that anyone can implement their own ideas and solve problems, and this problem has been significantly resolved as well.

Linux community has developed several desktop environments that work awesome even on low-end computers. For example, Xfce is among the best desktop environment when it comes to building a lightweight and faster operating system.

What is a Window Manager?

A Window Manager, as the name implies, is simply a window manager. It is in charge of the operating system‘s windows positioning, sizing, and management. There are two types of window managers, tiling and stacking. A tiling window manager tiles the windows around each other to avoid wasting space, whereas a stacking window manager stacks the windows on top of each other or moves them anywhere on the screen.

Some of the popular window managers are –

You might be wondering what makes a window manager different from a desktop environment. Each desktop environment, of course, has a window manager; it can’t be otherwise. A window manager is just one piece of software, but a desktop environment may contain hundreds of other programmes.

Every desktop environment has its own window manager, for instance, GNOME uses metacity as the default window manager, Cinnamon uses muffin, and KDE uses KWin.

Which is better, a desktop environment or a window manager?

It is determined by the needs of the user. A desktop environment provides users with an environment that does not require configuration or customization. Even after that, if the user requires customization, most desktop environments are highly customizable. Window Manager, on the other hand, is for users who want to customize everything from the ground up or build their own Linux flavor.

A desktop environment comes pre-installed with a large number of applications that require more system memory, whereas a window manager can be installed on systems with as little as 100MB of RAM or even less.