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Difference Between Desktop Environment VS Window Manager in Linux

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If you are a Linux user, you must have heard of the term Desktop Environment. It is one of the deciding factors when choosing a Linux distribution. There is something else that is comparatively less known among beginners, it is a Window manager. In this article, we will understand both of them, and see how do they compare with each other.

What is a Desktop Environment?

Desktop Environment is a suite of applications and programs that make a Linux distribution graphically usable. It packs in different components like the taskbar, start menu, widgets, file manager, screen locker, theme manager, terminal emulator, and a lot more. 

Different desktop environments have different sets of these components and all those components and programs have a similar look and feel which collectively build the unique look of a desktop environment. For example, KDE comes with (the Konsole Terminal emulator and Dolphin File manager) whereas xfce comes with (xfce Terminal emulator and Thunar file manager). Different desktop environments are built for different purposes, like xfce is meant to be a lightweight Desktop environment and thus comes with lightweight programs and utilities, KDE is developed to be highly customizable, whereas CInnamon is meant to look modern and have a good user experience, thus having modern-looking programs. 

KDE Desktop Environment

Cinnamon Desktop Environment

The desktop environment also comes with its own Window Manager. So window manager is a part of a Desktop Environment. Now, let’s understand what a window manager is. 

What is a window manager?

A window manager is software that is responsible for the creation and placement of windows applications. It controls how different windows stack along with each other on a single screen. It gives every application window a title bar and border by which a user can resize and reposition the window. As we have seen, it comes bundled with a desktop environment. But if it is a part of the desktop environment, how can it possibly be a replacement for the desktop environment? The thing is, you can install a window manager without a desktop environment, but then, you will have to install other essential components yourself, like a file manager, terminal emulator, menu bar, etc. Essentially you would be building up your own unique environment if you were to use a standalone window manager. If you decide to go down that road, you have a lot of options to choose from. They are categorized into two parts.

  1. Tiling Window manager: They tile the windows around each other on a screen, like tiles on a floor or pieces of a puzzle. Each new window that is created, gets its own rectangular share of the screen and does not overlap with other windows. Some famous tiling window managers are i3, bspwm, dwm, and awesome.
  2. Stacking Window manager: They allow windows to overlap. They are most commonly used and are used by all major desktop environments. They are also called floating window managers. Some famous stacking managers are Fluxbox, Openbox, and KWin.

i3 WIndow manager

dwm window manager

Why would you use a window manager?

Using a standalone window manager has some use-cases and advantages over using a Desktop environment such as

  • Saving Resources: Using a window manager uses fewer resources than a Desktop environment. Even lightweight desktop environments like xfce use more resources than a standalone window manager. 
  • Customization: Unlike the desktop environment, window manager does not come with essential software like a menu bar, file manager, etc. So you can install whatever option you like for basic utilities, such as a file manager. You can do the same with a desktop environment, but the difference here is that you can choose not to have a component altogether. For example, you can decide not to have a calendar app at all. This saves up space and during the process of installing all the required components, you automatically do not install all the stuff that you do not require. This makes it minimal as well.
  • Faster workflow: Setting up a window manager along with installing and configuring all the required utilities and components require time. But once done, the setup can prove to be more efficient than a traditional desktop environment. Also, a lot of window managers offers the user a lot of keyboard shortcut. Learning them can save a lot of time.

So, using a window manager is all cool and fast and, efficient. But should you use a window manager and invest the time to set it up and get used to using it? Well, it’s not for everyone.

Advantages of using a Desktop Environment

Desktop environments are there for a reason, depending upon your use case and priorities, you can choose one for yourself.

  • They are user friendly,
  • Require less time to set up,
  • Are easy to customize as they give the option to tweak the settings within the desktop environment itself,
  • Come in different options and with different distributions, ready to install.

Which one should you choose and why

If you are looking to get started quickly, do not want to deal with the hassle of setting up a window manager, like the complete ecosystem of a desktop environment, or are just a beginner, sticking with a desktop environment might be the right option for you. On the other hand, if you are using a desktop environment for some time, and you feel that your desktop is bloated and you crave something minimal and fast, or you have a low-end PC and you want to save some resources for your system to have some overhead, go and gladly use a window manager, the journey is rewarding and beautiful. 


In this article, we learned about both, desktop environment and window manager, their advantages, and use cases. Linux can be used without both, just with a command-line interface, but we have the option to install a desktop environment or a window manager standalone or none at all, the choice will depend on the use case and the user’s preference. If you are looking to familiarize yourself with Linux, setting up a window manager can be a good learning journey.

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Last Updated : 02 Jun, 2022
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