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What exactly is the difference between between a Window Manager and a Desktop Environment? E.g.: sawfish vs. gnome.

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up vote 8 down vote accepted

A window manager's task is to do window placement/layout (tiling, overlapping, resizing, ...), add decorations (min/max/close buttons, window menu, pretty title bar, ...), deal with input focus policies (focus follow mouse for instance), and that's about it.

When people refer to desktop environments, they usually mean a window manager plus a set of base applications (taskbar (with widgets), application launch menu, system configuration panel, text editor and basic utilities, etc...).

So a window manager is one part of a desktop environment.

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So theoretically if I want a pc for everyday use I just need a WM+my programs? –  LanceBaynes May 20 '11 at 5:50
    
And e.g.: if I only want to use the mentioned sawfish, then do I need X? I just want to make a more secure desktop. –  LanceBaynes May 20 '11 at 5:52
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@LanceBaynes: yes, you need a display server (Xorg for instance). The window manager is in fact just another application that runs on top of the display server - it has a privileged role, but it's just a normal app. The minimal setup is X plus your app, but that's unusable. X, with a simple WM (there's tons of those to choose from) is a very workable solution if you don't want a complete desktop environment like Gnome or KDE. –  Mat May 20 '11 at 5:55
    
Thanks, +1, but how do OpenBox say you can run it with Gnome or KDE or by itself? What is the default WM in Gnome and KDE? –  mydoghasworms Jan 15 '13 at 5:27
    
@Mat "Unusable"? github.com/patrickhaller/no-wm –  Chris Down Sep 12 '13 at 13:51
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A Desktop Environment provides other things like drag-and-drop, hotkeys, a clipboard and other accoutrements we normally associate with a "modern" GUI operating system.

The Window Manager is (usually) a major part of the Desktop Environment. It is responsible for the placement and appearance of windows and often for special "eye candy" effects and compositing.

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I used to run standalone fvwm (a window manager, with no DE), and it definitely had a clipboard, dragging-and-dropping of icons (or do you mean some more advanced functionality?) and customizable keyboard shortcuts (is that what hotkeys are?). –  weronika May 11 '12 at 7:58
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These are broad classifications rather than strict rules. The domains coincide to such an extent that various features can be implemented in either one, the other, or both. –  Andrew Lambert May 12 '12 at 0:59
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