The Difference Between Window Managers and Desktop Environments

The Difference Between Window Managers and Desktop Environments

Curious about what the differences between window managers and desktop environments are? Say no more!

In this article, I’ll go over what a window manager is, as well as what a desktop environment is. I’ll talk about the pros and cons of each to better help you decide which one is right for you!

What’s a Window Manager?

A window manager is software for an operating system that manages the placement of open windows. There are many window managers for Linux. Each one manages applications differently.

dwm is a dynamic window manager for X.

When it comes down to it, a window manager is the backbone to a desktop environment. For example: when you install XFCE4, what you’re really getting is the XFCE window management system, bundled with a file manager, a panel, and some programs.


Not everyone wants a bundled software package pre-configured with everything. Window manager fans on Linux like to have complete and total control of every aspect of their “desktop.”

Ratpoison is a simple Window Manager.

When you install a window manager (like Fluxbox, Openbox, Awesome WM, etc.) you don’t get a bunch of bundled programs. You get the manager and that’s all.  It’s a totally different and unique computing experience that you have to build yourself.

Pros and Cons of Using a Window Manager


  • Less memory/CPU usage then most desktop environments
  • Highly configurable for maximum comfort
  • A lot more appearance customization is allowed than on desktop environments
  • Window managers are usually keyboard-centric; keyboard fans won’t need a mouse to get work done


  • Not as user-friendly as a desktop environment is
  • Not as visually appealing as a desktop environment is
  • No bundled programs or configured defaults
  • Heavy learning curve

What’s a desktop environment?

A desktop environment is a collection of programs bundled together to make a workspace. It comes with a window manager, a panel, a set of default programs (text editor, music player, etc.), a file manager, a terminal emulator, and many, many other things.

The LXDE desktop environment.

With every desktop, you get something totally different. Every time you log into a new desktop environment, you’ll get a completely different user experience. This is because each desktop team has their own distinct vision – their own plan for exactly how they think Linux on the desktop should be.

Mate desktop environment.

Linux users that prefer to use their computers inside window managers instead of desktops don’t understand the need for a desktop environment. These type of people think it’s unnecessary. They view it as bloated. This, of course, is just an opinion.

XFCE4 desktop environment.

Many Linux users prefer to do all of their computing inside of a desktop environment because they appreciate all of the handy features, visual effects, bundled programs and the experience that a simple window manager just can’t deliver.

Pros and Cons of Using a Desktop Environment


  • Once installed, you get a complete computing experience with little configuration necessary
  • Lots of eye candy for your desktop
  • Bundled applications mean you don’t have to spend a lot of time installing little things (like text editors, music players, picture viewers, etc.)
  • Usually super user-friendly with a really low learning curve


  • Can sometimes be considered bloated or slow
  • Default programs aren’t always the programs you want to use
  • Customization is sometimes not a welcome thing


When it comes to using a computer, everyone is different. Some people prefer using window managers and others desktop environments. I hope that with the help of this article, you’ll be able to find out which one you prefer as well.

Window manager or desktop environment? Tell us in the comments!

Image Credit: DWMRatpoisonXmonadlxde, xfce4mate

Derrik Diener Derrik Diener

Derrik Diener is a freelance technology blogger.


  1. Isn’t it six of this, half a dozen of the other when it comes to Desktop Environment vs Window Manager? Once you install a stand-alone file manager, multi-media player, text editor, music player, terminal emulator, etc. to go along with the WM, you pretty much wind up using the same amount of space. The only advantage of a WM is that you can skip installing programs you don’t want, such as a music or multi-media player.

  2. I prefer the DE, as I am in the throes of trying to get certifications for various programming and Enterprise-wide software, I really don’t htave the time to go installing a text editor, a media player, an office suite, etc. And I know I’ll probably get ragged on by the open source purists, but sometimes it’s not about the pure experience, but about what works best for you.

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