After I install a new version of Linux, I usually take a good look at the screen. Does it have a task bar? Can you find your window after it was minimized? Lately, some developers have been struck by some sort of amnesia, brought on by the stress created by the mobile sector offerings. The direction they are going is not clear. Their desktops are not easier for the current Linux user or for the people coming from Windows or Mac. What makes it worse is the way user complains are dismissed, chalking it up to the fact that people don’t like change.
Fortunately, in Linux we have plenty of other choices, and we do like change! We have no need to keep using desktops we don’t like. I will describe some of choices in this article, and I’ll attempt to measure the RAM memory requirements. I use free command in an xterm before and after the graphic environment is started on a separate X server (Xephyr). free command prints on the screen data made available by Linux kernel. It is believed the kernel knows at any moment how much memory is using and how many buffers it has available.
The tool I use to set it all up is virtenv. It sets up a Xephyr xserver running OpenBox in a Linux kernel container (LXC). I only have to shut down OpenBox, apt-get install the new window manager, and run it as it comes up by default, without any kind of customization. The container works in a separate filesystem, and it will not overwrite the real filesystem on my computer.
Joe’s Window Manager
JWM is a light-weight window manager for the X11 Window System. A small memory footprint makes it a good choice for older computers and less powerful systems. Barry Kauler’s excellent Puppy Linux is based on JWM.
You install it as sudo apt-get install jwm on Ubuntu, or as yum install jwm on Fedora. I takes about 3MB of memory to run.
BlackBox is comparable to JWM, and loads in about 3MB of memory.
Openbox is rarely used stand-alone, it is however the window manager of choice in a number of other desktop environments such as Gnome, KDE and LXDE. It runs in about 7MB of memory. CrunchBang is and example of distribution based on Openbox.
Install them on Ubuntu as sudo apt-get install blackbox openbox fluxbox, or yum install blackbox openbox fluxbox on Fedora.
Dynamic Window Managers
A dynamic/tiling window manager adjusts the size and position of the windows so there is no overlapping and no space lost between them. This is in sharp contrast with the normal window managers which float and overlap windows. The distinction is not as strict today as it used to be, most modern tiling window managers can easily float windows. Some examples are dwm (1MB RAM), i3 (3MB) and awesome (9MB).
Install them as sudo apt-get install awesome i3 dwm on Ubuntu, and as yum install awesome i3 dwm on Fedora.
This is a beautiful desktop environment, the graphics just surpass everything else in this article. It is highly configurable and very fast. It runs in 35MB of memory in my tests.
Install it as sudo apt-get install e17 on Ubuntu, or as yum install e17 on Fedora.
The Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment was specially designed for computers with low hardware specifications, such as netbooks, mobile devices (e.g. MIDs) or older computers. In my opinion this is the DE that had the most to gain from Gnome 3 debacle. You can get today full major distros based on LXDE, such as Lubuntu and Fedora LXDE Spin. Usable and slim, LXDE runs on my computer in 36MB of memory.
Install it on Ubuntu as sudo apt-get install lxde, or yum install lxde on Fedora.
Xfce is a desktop environment based on GTK+ 2 toolkit. It aims to be fast and lightweight, while still being visually appealing and easy to use. Xubuntu and Fedora Xfce Spin are two of the distros featuring Xfce.
It runs in about 70MB of memory, which is a lot more than LXDE. Install it as sudo apt-get install xfce4 on Ubuntu, and yum groupinstall xfce on Fedora.
People use computers in different ways for different tasks. Window Managers and light Desktop Environments are sometime the only choice for less powerful systems or for places where every bit of memory counts (gamers, programmers etc.). In part 2 of this article I look at some other window and desktop managers, including KDE, Unity and Gnome 3.