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I just installed Arch Linux (Latest stable ISO from website) and I need to know whether or not I can just go straight to GNOME/KDE/LXDE, etc. without installing X11 first.

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2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

X11 and desktop environments play different roles.

X11 combines the following main features, from the lower level upwards:

  • video and input drivers;
  • a canvas to draw on (taking orders like “draw a light green rectangle at these coordinates”), and input events (generated from keyboards, mice and the like);
  • a notion of window, with each window getting some portion of the screen real estate, a stacking order of windows from background to foreground, and one window at a time getting input events (which is known as having the focus).

X11 has no viable alternate. It's part of every Unix system's GUI layer.

On top of X11, you need a window manager. The window manager handles things like decorations on windows (borders, title bars, etc.), window manipulations (moving and resizing windows, icons, etc.), focus strategies (e.g. focusing a window when you click on it), etc. X11 contains a built-in window manager, but it's extremely crude.

Some, but not all, window managers are part of a desktop environment. A desktop environment provides additional features like ways to launch programs (e.g. menus), applets (clock, workspace switcher, configuration interface, …), and so on. Desktop environment often come with a suite of applications that have the same look and feel but can be used independently as well.

Gnome, KDE and LXDE are all desktop environments. They come with a window manager (Gnome gives you a choice, KDE and LXDE have their own).

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Thanks for clearing that up for me! (As you can tell I'm kinda new to Linux C:) –  user1610406 Feb 5 '13 at 0:49
    
Great answer! I just wanted to make it clear: it is possible to use only X11 and windows manager (e.g., dwm) in order to have functional GUI? No need of desktop environments. I am asking this as some people use only dwm and others use desktop environment + windows manager and it is not clear for me. –  Pgibas Jul 7 at 23:24
    
@Pgibas A desktop environment contains a window manager and more (a session manager, various widgets, etc.). You can use a window manager without a desktop environment. You can even use X11 without a window manager, but the UI is extremely crude (no way to move windows, no window border, no menus, no way to switch between windows other than focus follows mouse, …). –  Gilles Jul 7 at 23:38

You need X11 if you want to use those environments on your local machine (most of the time you want this).

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