When I install Debian without X, I get a relatively small system with a console login, the ability to install whatever else I want, and not much overhead at all. It installs its own system tools, configurations and all that; everything works out of the box but does not get in my face. I cannot do all that much, but every other feature is just an aptitude install away. It does have some tools I do not need, but nothing too fancy.

I am looking for a way to get exactly that, but with working X. That means: I would like to...

  • Get presented with a graphical login screen upon booting.
  • After login, get the usual UI elements: a way to start applications, see which are running, be able to move their windows around and all that good stuff.
  • (You see that I am being practical here. I don't care that much about which login screen, which start menu, which window manager, which task bar I get.)

I also would like to...

  • Not have GIMP, LibreOffice, ALSA, a calendar, calculator or any other of a myriad of programs installed (which the Debian Desktop Environment option automatically does during install; and yes, I do understand why that is so, it is a Desktop Environment after all).
  • Not have to spend a lot of time manually finding, installing and configuring all X / UI related packages. For example: I will find a topic like the 2 year old "minimal X.org xserver installation on Debian Wheezy" (except I am on jessie, and can never be too sure if that wheezie advice is still correct). Next, I need to remember to get something like openbox. At this point I can open an xterm with decorations and am practically in business. Except it seems to miss something because - unlike the Desktop Environment - it starts up with 800x600 instead of some other resolution, my non-ASCII keys do not function well (they did in the D.E.), the guest integration in the Virtualbox it is running in does not work right (it did in the D.E.) and so on; and of course I have to find out again how to get it to start on boot, how to get the login prompt etc.. At this point, I'm off into a practical nightmare of googling and it feels like 1995 all over again.

I am not trying to shave off every last byte for an embedded system here, just get a sensible starting point. If it still contains half a dozen features I do not need, that's fine with me, as long as it's not the overhead of well over 1000 packages during default installation. This is obviously not for a main installation on a PC; but for something like a special-purpose VM installation, maybe in seamless mode.

Is there either some (preferably Debian based) distribution which comes near to my goal, or a "minimal-but-working-at-the-UI-level" virtual Debian package that gives me a simple, working system?

  • AFAIK there are no virtual Debian package that do exactly what you want to do. You will have to make some choices: Gnome/KDE (both not what I'd call "minimal"), or an oldschool window manager (and you'll have to configure that one at least to some degree)? Any graphical program besides xterm? Etc. And nobody keeps you from making a list of packages you need, and scripting the install.
    – dirkt
    Commented Oct 10, 2016 at 6:30
  • Thanks for fueling my suspicion that there is no such package. Picking individual packages is exactly what I want to avoid. As an aside, I find it interesting that there is not a very obvious option to get what I described - I don't find my desire particularly outlandish; especially these days where it's so easy to just install "a" Linux into a VM.
    – AnoE
    Commented Oct 10, 2016 at 12:20
  • Then make a virtual package and submit it to Debian; if it's in such high demand, I'm sure others will find it useful. :-)
    – dirkt
    Commented Oct 10, 2016 at 12:28
  • No, I will not. This is not a complaint posting, or a feature request, but a question.
    – AnoE
    Commented Oct 10, 2016 at 12:57

1 Answer 1


You have to choose a display manager (see aptitude install x-display-manager) and a window manager (see aptitude install x-window-manager). Some of the above pulls in X; for the rest, aptitude install xorg. If you choose minimal components (which don't pull in Gnome or KDE), you get a fairly minimal graphical system.

  • Thank you, this seems to pull in everything necessary, everything seems to work just as well as when selecting a desktop environment during installation.
    – AnoE
    Commented Oct 15, 2016 at 10:48
  • Can I avoid a display-manager and boot direct into window manager openbox?
    – Timo
    Commented Nov 8, 2020 at 18:41
  • @Timo For example you can use nodm as display manager or configure gdm or kdm to autologin. Commented Nov 8, 2020 at 23:48

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