Linux 101: What's the difference between a desktop environment and a window manager?

If you were ever curious as to the difference between a Linux desktop environment and a window manager, Jack Wallen is here to clear that up.

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Image: Jack Wallen

After using Linux for a while, you'll come across an article or mention of a window manager. What does that mean? Is it a desktop environment? No. Is it a part of a desktop environment? Sometimes. I want to try and clear this up a bit, so you don't wind up confusing one with the other. 

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The first thing to know is that they can both serve as your desktop interface. The biggest difference, however, is that one makes your Linux life considerably easier. Which one? The desktop environment. The thing about a desktop environment is that it focuses on a wholly integrated experience. That means every application will enjoy features like drag and drop between each other. 

For example, in GNOME (a desktop environment), you can drag an .odt file from the file manager into LibreOffice to open the file in question. 

A window manager (such as Fluxbox) doesn't always have that feature (although with a bit of tweaking you can make it work). 

And that brings me to my second point: The desktop environment is all about simplicity. Out of the box, everything should just work. DEs like GNOME, KDE, Cinnamon, Pantheon and Mate offer a very minimal learning curve. On the other hand, some window managers, such as Enlightenment and i3 can take considerable effort to get them exactly how you want. 

That, however, is one of the big advantages of window managers. For the most part, window managers are highly customizable. This customization can take some effort, but, in the end, you'll have a desktop that looks and behaves exactly how you like it. 

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On the contrary, most desktop environments opt for simplicity over customization. To make this a bit more confusing, every desktop environment has a window manager. It's part of the puzzle. For example, GNOME has Mutter, and KDE has KWin. You can run Mutter and KWin without GNOME and KDE, but I wouldn't advise it. In the end, a desktop environment is for those who want simplicity and integration, whereas a window manager is for those who don't care so much for full integration and prefer high customization.

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By Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic, The New Stack, and Linux New Media. He's covered a variety of topics for over twenty years and is an avid promoter of open source. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen....