Linux Desktops Intro, X11, Window Maneger, How to Switch to Gnome, Xfce, LXDE, …

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This page is a tutorial on Linux desktops, Window Managers, X11, and tells you how to install/switch.

What's the difference between {Desktop, Window Manager, X11}?

The term Shell, or GUI Shell, is sometimes used to refer to a core part of Desktop Environment. Not to be confused with the command line “shell” (aka terminal, console, bash), which is a older, more widely understood, term.

What's GTK? What's qt?

Almost all Linux GUI apps are written using either the “GTK+” framework or “Qt framework”. For most Linux GUI app, you have to check which lib it's from. For example, the apps in Ubuntu are mostly GTK+ based apps. If a GUI app says it's written in GTK+, that means you must have Gnome installed or you have to install the GTK+ lib.

Most apps from Gnome desktop are using GTK. Most apps from KDE desktop are using Qt. When a app is using GTK, it often require other libs from Gnome, but not always. Same for Qt with KDE.

What are the popular {Window Managers, Desktops} for Linux?

How to install/switch to a different Linux desktop?

Just install it, then re-login. In the login panel, there's a menu to let you choose from installed desktops or Window Managers.

To install:

similar for others. Do apt-cache search name to find the package name.

{Unity, KDE 4, Gnome 3} = Fancy

Ubuntu Unity 5.12 2012-april 2
Ubuntu's Unity 5.12 interface, . img src

Unity and GNOME 3's UI are bleeding-edge, “smart”. If you are a programer, you may find this “smart” behavior annoying.

Light-weight Desktop: Xfce, LXDE

If you prefer a classic, basic, practical UI, then use Xfce or LXDE. They are also good for slower machines.


xfce desktop screenshot 2012-10-15
Xfce desktop. 〔➤ Xah Linux Box Config
# install xfce desktop
sudo apt-get install xubuntu-desktop

“Xubuntu” means Ubuntu with Xfce desktop.

See also: Linux: Xfce Keyboard Shortcuts ⌨


LXDE is another light-weight desktop.

linux lxde screenshot 2013-06-02
Linux LXDE screenshot
# install lxde desktop
sudo apt-get install lxde

“Lubuntu” means Ubuntu with LXDE desktop.

LXDE beats Xfce in minimal memory consumption.

See also: Linux: LXDE Keyboard Shortcuts ⌨

Window Manager Only: Absolute Minimum GUI

Xfce & LXDE are light-weight, but they are still Desktops, with bundled GUI apps chosen for you. The following are bare minimum Window Managers.

WARNING: using just window manager is not for Linux beginners. You might end up screwing up your system and browser doesn't render stuff.


Openbox is the Window Manager used by LXDE. You can also install just Openbox without LXDE desktop.

# install openbox Window Manager
sudo apt-get install openbox

No desktop, no taskbar, no menu, no nothing. (you are supposed to pick and add them yourself) Once installed and in Openbox, the screen is complete blank except a text terminal. Right click on the blank screen to get a context menu. Use 【Alt+Tab ↹】 to see opened apps.

When you try new Desktop or Window Manager, you probably want to delete your cache.

# remove cache and window manager related settings
rm -rf ~/.cache
rmdir -rf ~/.compiz/
# restart
sudo shutdown -r 0

Other minimal ones, probably similar:

thanks to Casey Webster for tips.

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