I realized I can use a window manager without a desktop environment and don't lose any functionality I care about. Applications still work fine, I can still arrange application windows as I please.

This pretty much eliminates the need for lightweight desktop environments such as LXDE and XFCE for use cases like mine.

I wonder if that is the end of the list. Is there anything one can possibly cut out? As the minimum, I want something that can run GUI apps like Firefox. I imagine something with a terminal from which I can start other applications.

  • DWM is probably the most lightweight of all Linux's Windows Manager. Oct 4, 2011 at 18:40
  • Though some (most?) answers list some tools that can be used to provide a lightweight GUI environment (which is opinion-based), the question itself and the accepted answer are about the principle (which is not). The clear winner here is a bare X-Server as mentioned in echox's answer.
    – phunehehe
    Mar 20, 2016 at 9:22
  • JWM was easiest to get working for me
    – frakod
    Feb 12, 2022 at 11:29

11 Answers 11


Did you have a look at some other "lighterweight" ;-) window managers?

I'm completly happy with i3 for example: http://i3wm.org/

It's just a tiling windowmanger with dmenu for launching applications. No desktop, no other special features and the binary is just some KBs.

There are a lot others in this range:

The absolut minimum would be running your X-Server without any windowmanager and just with something like dmenu (http://tools.suckless.org/dmenu/) to launch applications. I'm not sure if this is really what you want, because you won't be able to resize the application windows, move them, etc.

  • Thanks everyone for helping out, all the answers are great. I'm marking this one as accepted for the "absolute minimum".
    – phunehehe
    Sep 3, 2010 at 9:05
  • also LXDE lxde.org
    – Spudd86
    Sep 9, 2010 at 17:35

The Wikipedia page on Comparison of X Window Managers sorts the various Window Managers into four categories: Heavyweight, Middleweight, Lightweight, and minimal. You'd probably be interested in those in the minimal category.

Right now, those include Matchbox, sithWM, evilwm, dwm, WMFS, wmii, and scrotwm. (i3 gets put into Lightweight; Xfwm (used by default in Xfce) and Openbox (used by default in LXDE) are both considered Middleweight by this classification.)

I don't know what grounds were used to sort these out, and haven't tried enough of these to know how accurate it is.

Regarding the point you made about Compiz standalone, however, I would not consider that more lightweight than using LXDE with Openbox or XFCE with XFWM. Compiz is a resource beast; using it alone is not going to be much different than using it under GNOME, so long as you don't load anything in GNOME you don't need.

(Remember that XFCE and LXDE are desktop environments; you could run their default window managers without using the rest of these desktop environments, just like you can run Compiz without a Desktop environment too. Well, at least I know you can run Openbox without LXDE. I've never tried running XFWM without XFCE.)


My engineers love ratpoison as a minimalist window manager.

When I want lightweight, I go through the pain of rebuilding Open Look (olwm and olvwm), although I have not wanted that much pain for a while.


Before I moved to KDE I was a hardcore Fluxbox user. It has command interface fbrun that can be used to launch programs along with a rightclick customizable menu. It also has window tabs, I believe it's one of the first WM's to have this. IIRC Fluxbox is the WM that Damn Small Linux uses.


You don't need X11 to have a window manager. You can use TWIN, the Text-mode window manager, along with GPM for mouse. You might have to switch your primary web browser to Links and your chat program to Finch, though.

  • hmm I don't think that's a GUI en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graphical_user_interface
    – phunehehe
    Nov 3, 2010 at 0:38
  • 1
    Why not? You can click and drag windows around with the mouse. You can interact with programs using the mouse if they support them (e.g. mc and links, IIRC), you can view images and watch videos if you set it up right. But yes, I'm being partially facetious with this suggestion. Nov 3, 2010 at 7:41

The OpenBSD implementation of cwm, is an awesome balance between lightweight and feature rich. By default, only an xterm comes up when you login. There are no decorations around the windows, and nothing on the desktop. Everything is done via keyboard (and, yes, I mean everything). If you want to ssh somewhere Alt+. will pull up an ssh dialog. If you want to execute a program Shift+Alt+/ will bring up an exec dialog.

Full list of features/commands is available as a man page.

Unfortunately, this is only available on OpenBSD as far as I can tell. Though the source can be compiled and run on linux, which is what I do when I'm not allowed to use OpenBSD.

  • i don't think "no decorations around the windows" is what the op meant by "lightweight." also, if it compiles on linux it is available on linux…
    – user601
    Sep 2, 2010 at 15:53

icewm is very lightweight. Works well on my headless server with 1GB RAM with Xvfb and x11vnc. If you want a lightweight "desktop environment" to go with it, I like ROX-Filer.


My preference in such case is definitely xmonad. It is stand alone window manager and can be used without GNnome Or KDE desktop environment(though there is Gnome with xmonad).

xmonad is available under synaptic as a package. I installed it using sudo apt-get install xmonad in my ubuntu and then logged in to xmonad session, and since then I've been using xmonad exclusively. It is bit annoying to use in the beginnig, but it meets exactly your needs.


I used jwm for quite a while on my old 199MHz Laptop with only 32MB RAM.

Worked quite well and was looking quite good. Configuration is also nicely done with an XML file.


Personally, I will prefer to use the "Xvesa" rather than any Desktop Environments.

Xvesa is strong enough to run the firefox and sort-of-application.

[ Xvesa is used by tinycore, the smallest and minimalistic Linux OS ]


I sometimes read how to start an application directly with X11, for example: tell X11, that the Desktop Environment/Window Manager/the application to run on startup is firefox/is gimp/is something else.

Maybe in connection with Kiosk mode. You can't switch from app to app - just use a single. app.

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