Desktops vs Window Managers in Ubuntu

Sway, a window manager, in Ubuntu

Two terminal windows side by side in Sway, a window manager

In October 2010, Canonical released Ubuntu 10.10 and introduced Unity, a desktop that turned everything upside down and forced many to do what is known as “distro hopping”, basically changing the operating system from time to time to find what will be their preferred distribution. Years later they went back to GNOME, the desktop he uses today.

Unity and GNOME are two desktops, and the desktops use window managers, and since there are operating systems that go beyond the former and work directly with the latter, there are users who get lost, get confused and don't know what role each one plays and in what are they different Here we will try to explain, briefly and concisely, what is a window manager, what is a desktop and how are they different.

What is a Window Manager?

A window manager is software in charge of displaying the different programs that we execute on a graphical interface, but only that. It is not responsible for managing the networks to which we are connected, nor for viewing our files or being able to increase the sound volume. Desktops use window managers, but window managers don't use desktops. By itself, using a window manager would be practically impossible to use, unless you are a Linux veteran and know how to do everything from the terminal.

For this reason, operating systems that only use a window manager (no desktop) also use packages to be able to manage things like volume, network connections, and sometimes they have a kind of launcher, from which we can open programs or , sometimes an app drawer. But all these are additions; window managers, as we have mentioned, are solely and exclusively responsible for manage the windows…. hence its name.

Xfce and LXDE
Related article:
How to install LXDE and Xfce desktops on Ubuntu

And a Desk?

We could refer to a very technical definition, but what it would cause is more confusion. Simplifying things a lot, a desktop is a set of applications, applets, programs and all kinds of software that are put together to simplify the use of an operating system on a PC. Thus, on a desktop we not only find a window manager that manages the graphic interface, but we also find a network manager, and audio with its corresponding volume indicator. We also have quick access to our files through a file manager, etc…. The difference is that while a window manager is one part, the desktop is a set of programs intended to provide functionality.

Why do we think it is essential to know this? Because there are many who talk about window managers as if they were desktops and then find that nothing can be done. Also, knowing it allows us to be able to play with the system so that we can install Ubuntu and change the graphical interface of GNOME by an i3wm or Sway (window managers) greatly accelerating the system and maintaining desktop programs such as Nautilus or network-manager.

There is variety among desks and some are well known as KDE, GNOME, Xfce, LXQt o Cinnamon. Looking back in time, Unity has been a desktop and window manager horse. In a first instance it was a window manager that was used on top of GNOME, but version after version they modified it to such an extent that today it is already considered a desktop.

Among the best known window managers are i3wm, Sway, Fluxbox, Openbox, Metacity or Icewm among others.

If someone who is reading us has been able to investigate and install several versions of Ubuntu, they will have realized that there are distributions called Xubuntu, Kubuntu or Lubuntu. Good, all of them are ubuntu, but with different desks. So, Xubuntu is Ubuntu with the desktop Xfce, Kubuntu is with the desktop KDE and Lubuntu is with the desktop LXQt.

I hope I have explained well. On another occasion I will talk about window managers, a very interesting and very unknown topic. Greetings.


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  1.   Abimael martell said

    I really like openbox, very configurable 😛

    1.    Philip Mayorga said

      I still like openbox a lot, it is very very configurable

  2.   Jose Aguilar said

    I stay sharp

  3.   Louis David said

    In short, simple and concrete.

  4.   Paul said

    You are very right Joaquín I want to congratulate you but, there is an error and that is now Linux mint, it is not a version of Ubuntu but its direct competition and even rival, many users have migrated from Ubuntu to mint due to the slowness of unity.

    Now, many of us abandon Ubuntu, due to its lucrative purposes, and its community, egocentric, despotic and arrogant, of course not all users are like that, there are very respectful and charitable ubuntu users.

    I used ubuntu 7.10, but compared to mint 7 the philandean distro was a beauty, mint is easier to use, fast and flexible free and non-profit, more than its accessories store. especially perfect for beginning users, I would say that truly Linux mint is the system for humans.

    1.    Manolo said

      Man, «community, egocentric, despot and arrogant ...». Anyway, it doesn't seem fair to me.

      As for Canonical's for-profit purposes, who said free software can't generate income? Well, they just had to lose money or win only the amount that seemed "adequate" to you. Ubuntu is not free and free? Well that, I do not see the origin of your dislike.

    2.    Antonio said

      I am an Ubuntu user and what you say about the Ubuntu community seems very unfair to me. Luckily, I have only met detached people; not in vain, look at the number of blogs on the Internet dedicated to Ubuntu. Whether we want to recognize it or not, Ubuntu has brought GNU / Linux closer to many people. As for Unity, let me tell you that it is evolving very quickly and that its functionalities (those of today) seem great to me. It is normal, like everything that begins, its beginnings were not without drawbacks but the performance it currently has has nothing to do with those first steps.

      Also, the words you dedicate to Canonical seem very unfair to me. A company with so few workers has a lot of merit for what it is doing and I never had to pay a single euro for anything ...

      As for Linux Mint, tell you that I have it on one of my computers and that I like it, as well as other flavors. Anyway, I hope I didn't seem self-centered, despotic, or arrogant.

      Mr. Joaquín García's article seems fantastic to me because it goes to the point and explains it very clearly. Very useful for beginners. Thanks a lot

    3.    Phytoschido said

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, since I got my email address @ ubuntu.com I became self-centered, despotic and arrogant. Stop mixing things that have nothing to do with it, put the FUD aside, stop criticizing and do something good.

  5.   Fernando Monroy said

    Very good topic and well explained.

  6.   marce said

    I installed the gnome 3 desktop for the sole reason that I did not like the large tabs on the left of Unity, and did not know how to remove them. Gnome 3 doesn't have buttons to minimize maximize like the other versions of gnome, so I had to enable them.

  7.   Alberto said

    Hello friend, I am new to Ubuntu and I have a problem, when I want to change the desktop theme it tells me that the desktop manager is not activated, can you help me with this please? my mail is 1977albertosangiao@gmail.com

  8.   batt said

    very interesting article. I have been with Ubuntu for 2 years and I have found it to be an excellent operating system, I also have mint in an Aspire One and it also works very well. In the ubuntu that I have in a vaio I always get a bit uncomfortable with the use of ram memory that was filling up little by little and from time to time I had to restart or close the unity session so these days I tried with gnome and I have noticed that when using it with the metacity manager the performance is much better and the ram does not fill up. ubuntu is not perfect but I think it is a huge contribution to the community of users who are looking for something different from windows, of course, even ubuntu, mint or any other linux distribution are far from the mass user since you have to have the soul of a systems engineer To use them and when you learn a little they are very fun and powerful but the distributions must continue working on making them so simple that even a child can use them and it is not necessary to search in blocks for solutions, the massification of the system is in the simplicity of use, in In my case, I am happy to have a laptop with the capabilities of a server that serves me for things as simple as writing a letter or reading the mail but also with it I can do more interesting things