The Linux desktop was supposed to be about choice…
It was never actually this limited. But somehow, over 25 years of Linux fighting for market share and eventually prevailing, the open-source Unix-like operating system narrowed itself down to two desktop environments: KDE and Gnome. Gnome has the overwhelming majority market share, while KDE comes as default on a dwindling number of Linux distros.
This is fine and all, but the problem is that both of these desktop environments are intended to be a one-size-fits-all environment for home and office. But a web server doesn’t need to worry about having a pretty desktop to look at every day. And for older computers, or industrial business uses, you want fast efficiency in a no-frills environment.
The desktops we’re about to recommend are not, by any means, ugly or unusable. You can customize them to basic color schemes and some light theming. But they take a minimalist approach, relying less on the graphical eye candy of KDE or Gnome and more on saving those extra CPU cycles for where you need them.
Also, a minimalist, bare-bones install works better with a lightweight desktop environment. Remember the “airplane rule”: The fewer engines you have, the fewer you have to worry about if they fail. Gnome and KDE have install footprints running to the gigabytes, while some of these other desktop environments are maybe a few megabytes with about five text files to configure them.
Not only can each of these environments run on any Linux distro, but they are also commonly ported to BSD, Solaris, and other Unix-like systems since they all run on top of the X Window System.
XFCE is both the most heavy-weight alternative environment we’re recommending here, and also the closest to a desktop environment you’re familiar with.
That being said, XFCE is designed to use the Gnome GTK+ library and toolset, but give a much faster and cleaner version of the Gnome environment. Compare them side by side, and XFCE always comes out more responsive than Gnome. It is more customizable than Gnome; we should mention that Gnome by default is determined to be “idiot-proof” and so it doesn’t let you change much. XFCE gives you much more flexibility and brings back some options that Gnome has dropped, such as easy panel customization.
XFCE is ideal for the office desktop. While it’s not such a hot recommendation for industrial use, it is perfect for older hardware, and basic office productivity. It achieves a nice balance of getting out of your way and letting you get to work, while also having a host of nice features on tap when you need them.
LXDE is the other alternative Gnome-like desktop. Like XFCE, it also uses the Gnome GTK libraries and is compatible with any Gnome application. It is a full desktop environment, but with the whistles and bells trimmed to a minimum.
LXDE focuses on being a high-performance environment that is extra light on memory and hardware usage. It’s probably the smallest memory footprint you can get away with in the desktop environment class. The key takeaway with LXDE is “like XFCE, but even lighter and faster.” That being said, don’t look for too much customization here.
LXDE is a favorite with developers, designers, and others who rely on a GUI system a lot but need something minimal and fast.
We should mention before we go forward that there’s a difference between desktop environments and window managers. Desktop environments are a package deal; Gnome, KDE, and others come with their own editor, their own configuration tools, and so on.
Window managers are just that: a layer that runs on top of the X Window System to make it functional. They usually don’t come with separate applications beyond bare-bones command-line programs and a couple text files for customizing colors, icons, menus, and such. From here on, we focus on the world of window managers.
Fluxbox is the prettiest and most memory-intensive window manager on this list – but regardless, it is worth your time to check out! All window managers are in such a lightweight class that they feel like running nothing at all, so the difference from here on out is one of taste.
That being said, Fluxbox is hugely popular as the third or fourth most included default desktop with Linux distros. First, there was Blackbox, a more minimalist window manager which we won’t mention separately here since it’s no longer actively developed. Fluxbox is based on Blacbox, and then it adds in a few more tweaks and features to give a nice blend of customizable look within its limited scope and some modest icon/application support.
The first thing you’ll probably ask upon loading any window manager is, “where is my menu?” Right-click anywhere on the desktop to get the system menu, precisely like you would find from a “start” button on a desktop toolbar. After that, navigating menus is done in mouse-over.
Fluxbox’s setup is the best introduction to minimalist window managers. It gives you a taskbar with a clock, window tray, a right-click menu, window forms with minimal buttons, optional transparency, fonts, and color gradients for every element. That’s it! Check out the simple styles menu to change the look.
These are all custom “skins” that run from a simple text file – in fact, it’s easy to learn how to design your own skins in Fluxbox. The same goes for start-up configuration and menu customization – it’s all easily accessible text files.
Fluxbox is ideal for the server, industrial usage, and any high-performance environment. It’s even the desktop of choice for some power users at home. Run it for a while, and it feels pretty fun.
Window Maker is an exotic choice. We hardly have room to go into its storied history, but suffice it to say that it’s the open-source equivalent to AfterStep, a proprietary window manager intended to emulate the NeXTStep interface of Steve Wozniak / Apple fame. It also has the associated project GNUStep, which is a pure FOSS implementation of the features of NeXTStep, including an Objective-C framework, Cocoa API, and widget set.
Like Fluxbox, Window Maker is also a middleweight window manager. It has the standard right-click desktop menu, minimal customization and comes with a nifty control-panel options dialog. And it comes with the “Dock,” an implementation of AfterStep’s “Wharf.” The Dock is a different design of desktop toolbar; it sits as a tab on the desktop and can have any number of apps (called “dockapps”) chained to it.
The Dock is addictive fun once you get used to it! There are hundreds of widgets and toys made for it by third-party developers, mostly available from dockapps.net. There’s a whole world of little square programs to monitor everything at a moment’s glance, and even games and other amusements as well. The downside is these are not maintained and usually only available as a tarball you have to compile, which also depends on an obscure library or two to chase down.
Window Maker is an exciting environment, very different from other window managers. It’s only recommended for die-hard Apple and Wozniak fans, developers who depend on Cocoa a lot, legacy systems that demand Objective-C support, and other arcane uses. It is lightweight and certainly capable enough for industrial use, but its interface is unfamiliar enough to most users to make that a downside.
Awesome is your entry into hardcore network hacking territory. It is the current most-popular mouseless window manager – this means it can function entirely through keyboard commands. It is also a tiling window manager, meaning you aren’t supposed to drag windows around on top of each other, but pop open applications in tiled squares.
Awesome’s chief claim to fame is that it’s coded in C and Lua, which automatically makes it kin to embedded applications and small hardware, as well as the Apache web server, Cisco hardware, MySQL databases, and many more network natives.
Awesome is recommended for no-nonsense server use, embedded use, and developer-intensive setups. It wants a keyboard and terminals; it’s not too favorable to home desktop use. It’s also rugged, stable, and ugly, but it’s the tool to get the job done, not win beauty contests.
FVWM is the window manager you might find a tad intimidating. It is very old-school and has spawned a small cottage industry worth of derivatives. It takes Perl – yes, you read that right – as its native scripting language.
As you might expect for a desktop coded by Perl monks, it is infinitely configurable and loaded with optional features, yet can also be left to defaults as a minimalist environment. And unlike other window managers and desktop environments which support virtual desktops, FVWM just has a huge desktop that’s nine times the size of your screen, and you can just mouse around in there.
FVWM is designed to be the chameleon of window managers, able to emulate Motif, CDE, Windows versions, Amiga, and just about anything else you can name.
FVWM is another interesting alternative, geared for old-school CGI Perl hackers. No less than venerated computer scientist Donald Knuth (still kicking as of this writing at age 80) swears by it. It’s good on its own for a developer’s environment and some industrial use, but you might want to look elsewhere for modern multimedia capabilities.
I created my first website on a beat-up machine running FVWM. It was a simple static website hosted on HostGator. I still remember how it felt when the FTP was done and I was able to access the website for the first time outside localhost. It was a magical moment indeed and FVWM was certainly part of it.
We’ve reached rock-bottom: TWM is the most minimal desktop you can possibly get. It is the original default window manager for the X Window System and is still actively developed. Most window managers have TWM code lurking in their core.
TWM gives you a right-click menu, a desktop, window widgets, and nothing else. You can configure it from a single text file, .twmrc, from which you can call start-up programs and add the option to the menu. By default, the TWM menu calls an xterm window from which you can launch programs by typing.
TWM is minimalism pushed to a comical degree. If your sysadmin insists on TWM and nothing else, give him some room, because he’s an old-school Unix guru who probably knows the command to summon ancient Lovecraftian deities. If TWM is customized at all, it’s usually through calling third-party programs to do things like add a toolbar or set desktop wallpaper. Make no mistake; it can run anything that any other window manager can run.
Use TWM on systems that have no user 99% of the time: servers where the most you have to do is pop in and run a command once in a while. It is also perfect for old hardware, or systems dedicated to cryptocurrency mining, 3D render farms, and other industrial uses were squeezing every last byte of performance out of the hardware is mandatory.
There are many honorable mentions we could drop-in, but our purpose here is to recommend smaller and lighter-weight desktops that are also still actively developed.
We will take note of Enlightenment, a window manager that is built for the home user with fancy hardware who wants to customize the look and feel into mind-bending shapes such as the LCars interface of Star Trek fame. There is also Sawfish, a window manager scripted in Lisp, for dedicated Lisp coders.
On the whole, the options on the Linux desktop are endless. If you’re a devoted FOSS hobbyist, you should check them out, because there’s environments out there for every flavor and taste. You may never be able to stand to look at Gnome and KDE again!