This article has been originally published in Italian (here). Feedbacks on content and translation are appreciated. Contributions are welcome. The original article must be considered the reference in case of updates.
Lately I have been spent some time fiddling with the different flavors of Ubuntu and Debian. In addition to official releases sporting the main desktop environments (DE) KDE, Unity, XFCE and the most recent LXDE, I have payed more and more attention to the lighter alternatives provided by some simple window managers (WM).
I have been so curious about WMs not because I needed to “revive” old hardware but because I might painlessly do without the many (useful, however) automated, user-friendly tools to set up the system. Once I have everything in place to surf the Web, listen to music and watch some videos (that is basically what I use the PC for), I am pretty fine.
For the record, my tireless 8-yr old PC (dual core 2.4GHz, 2 GB RAM) is running the latest Kubuntu Quantal (that recently replaced Kubuntu Lucid) without a glitch, including all the eye-candy I may like, booting pretty fast (whenever it happens, since I often suspend it to RAM for many many days) and finally starting most of software well before I can even say “Hey you geek! Have you ever compiled the kernel?”.
Anyway I find it interesting to have a light graphical environment that might complement (replace?) a full-fledged desktop like KDE, which I chose as my main environment. Such a light environment, due to the lower resources request, might almost result “instant on” (like Express Gate from Asus). I have therefore searched for both WMs with good usability despite remaining “minimal” and distributions shipped with them and ready to use (to be possibly customized to fit my few specific needs). And talking about minimalism, the other chance to get chosen WM is to create one’s own system starting from Ubuntu minimal / Debian netinstall (since I already have tinkered with them, but the concept can be applied to any other distribution), adding the WM and preferred software. In the meantime I might also come up with some good ideas for older computers.
“Take this, leave that”: selecting the WM
My main source of information in the search were XWinman, full of news and references for a long list of DEs and WMs, and Distrowatch., that provides detailed information and tracks distro releases. Starting from XWinman lists, I have selected the most promising WMs; I have then turned to Distrowatch to find out which distributions were already adopting them.
After a number of visits to WMs web pages, more and more glances to documentation and endless screenshots galleries, to understand how a “refined” system could look like, I have made up my mind. The chosen “candidates” share some common criteria, in addition to the low resources request (in a configuration made of basic distro install + X + WM):
- “traditional” usability (program menu, mouse interaction, icons, panels, etc., even through additional software)
- overlapping windows (stacking WM), not only tiled (tiling WM)
- active development / (quite) recent release / good stability
- availability of packages in repositories (Debian / Ubuntu in case of minimal install)
- documentation on use and configuration (official, wiki, user-base)
- plus: ready to use with some distribution (to see the WM at work)
Wikipedia holds an interesting comparison page between some WMs based on their main features.
The short list, randomly sorted :-), resulting from the “filters” includes the latest release available at the time of writing and the package name in Debian and Ubuntu repositories:
|Fluxbox||1.3.5||13/Feb/2013||fluxbox||Home – Documentation – Screenshot||link|
|IceWM||1.3.7||30/Jun/2011||icewm||Home – Documentation – Screenshot||–|
|JWM||2.1.0||25/Sep/2011||jwm||Home – Documentation – Screenshot||link|
|Fvwm||2.6.5||20/Apr/2012||fvwm||Home – Documentation – Screenshot||–|
|Openbox||3.5.0||Jul/2012?||openbox||Home – Documentation – Screenshot||link|
|Sawfish||1.9.1||01/Sep/2012||sawfish||Home – Documentation – Screenshot||–|
|WindowMaker||0.95.4||03/Jan/2013||wmaker||Home – Documentation – Screenshot||–|
As for any “personal” list, someone will find it outrageously incomplete or utterly wrong: if these few words have such a strong impact on your life, I feel really sorry about that and encourage you to complain as loudly as you can in the comments.
In addition to the WMs list, here is another one, wrong and incomplete as well, with some -very few- examples of distributions featuring these light environments, allowing for a quick look:
|Distribution||Based on||Featured WM
|Slackware||–||fluxbox, fvwm||Optional, included in install DVD|
|antiX||Debian testing||dwm, fluxbox, icewm, jwm, wmii||“Base” version without icewm|
|DSL||Debian||fluxbox, icewm||Based on kernel 2.4.x|
|Puppy Linux||Ubuntu o Slackware||openbox||–|
|Tinycore||–||flwm||Minimal, unsuitable for out-of-the-box desktop use|
What now? Now I will carefully put each WM under the microscope, in a Petri dish of Ubuntu 12.10 Quantal, just adding xorg and the WM package.
In next post you will find the report of my “close encounters” with a window manager, in order to collect some essential data and get a sense of it:
- how the basic desktop looks like and what it features;
- what we have to mess with to configure it…
- …and how easy it is to do it;
- how much disk space and RAM it takes.
Of course the evaluation has to be made in a “standard environment” made up only by the WM (the package itself and its dependencies): expansion and customization -for those who have time, will and skills- are virtually unlimited.
Customizations are usually achieved modifying a few plain-text configuration files (this is the “where to mess” section), since a “System settings” centralized software is usually lacking. On one side this makes the initial approach more difficult, on the other it makes the modification process more “transparent” to user, highlighting the system’s crucial files. In addition, settings can be easily carried over on different systems, saved and restored when updating to a newer release or duplicated (“because sh*t happens“) or edited to fix unexpected behaviors.
One last thought I have when I tinker with these modifications: never hurry. It is useless to try and modify everything we don’t like right after first boot. The best thing is, instead, going in order, changing few things at a time, even working on one single file at a time, to avoid confusion and “side effects”. Modifications are usually made once for all: after a bit of testing and some hours of text editor we will end up with aspect and features we are comfortable with. No more editing until next reinstall (or “sh*t” event).
I will not consider boot/shutdown times because those are usually limited to a handful of seconds (well under 10 in many cases), so that a meaningful measure is difficult to make.
Honestly I find pointless to worry if your PC is ready in 5 rather than 7 or 8 seconds… I think it is disrespectful to those who have died of boredom and oldness while waiting for Windows Vista to start. 😀
And talking about virtual stuff, for OS installations I will as usual rely on virtual machines (through Virtualbox), that are a more than enough for the limited tests I need to carry out.
I will also try to take a quick look at some distributions “packed” with the WM in exam, to take some nice hints.
See you soon for the first close looks at window managers!