Need A Fresh Desktop Environment for Linux? Try Openbox Or xmonad

Danny Stieben 18-09-2013

Gnome MATE vs. GNOME Shell vs. Unity vs. Cinnamon Desktop Environments Explained What is the best GNOME-based Linux desktop? We compare Unity vs. GNOME, Cinnamon, MATE, Pantheon, and Budgie to help you choose. Read More  and KDE Enjoy A Clean, Improved Desktop With KDE 4.7 [Linux] One of Linux's most popular desktop environments, KDE, released their latest series (version 4.7) at the end of July. This version improves on work done in previous releases by adding new features while improving performance... Read More (or even Xfce XFCE: Your Lightweight, Speedy, Fully-Fledged Linux Desktop As far as Linux goes, customization is king. Not only that, but the customization options are so great it might make your head spin. I have previously mentioned the differences between the major desktop environments... Read More and LXDE Using An Old Computer? Give It New Life With LXDE As Linux is arguably the most customizeable operating system between it, Windows, and Mac OS X; there's plenty of room to change just about whatever you please. Proper customizing can potentially lead to massive performance... Read More ) aren’t the only desktop environments out there for Linux. Openbox and xmonad are just two lightweight window managers you could use instead.


Both are very lightweight (yes, lighter than Xfce or even LXDE), which is perfect for squeezing every ounce of performance out of your system while possibly increasing your productivity.


Openbox, unlike xmonad, offers a traditional “programs-go-in-windows” concept – but it certainly strips that concept down to the basics. You can install Openbox on any Linux distribution by searching through your respective package manager for “openbox”. Once the installation has completed, you can restart your computer and choose Openbox as your desktop environment during login.

When you first run Openbox, you may be wondering why nothing is loading. You may be surprised to learn that Openbox has already loaded completely: it’s normal to see absolutely nothing besides a solid-color background.




Unlike other desktop environments, Openbox doesn’t “distract” you with a desktop with panels, shortcuts, and other “bells and whistles”. Instead, all of that space is meant solely for your running applications. How do you open applications, you ask? Simply right-click onto the bare background and a little menu will pop up which you can navigate to launch applications, as seen above.

Expecting anything else? Well, don’t. As far as desktop environment features go, this is where the list already ends. Thankfully, there is an Openbox settings manager which you can use to tweak a handful of items and behaviors, such as margin sizes, mouse hovering behavior, virtual desktops, and more.

Generally speaking, Openbox is certainly light weight yet configurable, but it’s not the easiest desktop environment to use. It really is for people who value a strong sense of minimalism and can work with it, or those who have low powered systems or are paranoid about wasting their high powered systems’ resources on the desktop environment.


Xmonad offers a completely different approach to the desktop environment. Instead of providing a windowed concept for running and managing applications, xmonad “tiles” them. In other words: xmonad gives the running application(s) as much screen space as possible. This means one application will take up the whole screen, two applications will each take half of the screen, and four applications can take four corners of the screen. There are no window borders, and xmonad will meet up the applications edge to edge. xmonad also offers support for virtual desktops. The desktop environment should be easily found in your respective package manager by searching “xmonad”. You can then switch to it by selecting it while logging in.


Xmonad also doesn’t like mouse input very much (although it does support it to comply with applications which live on non-keyboard input, such as GIMP) so you use various keyboard shortcuts in order to control everything. This ranges from actions such as closing applications to giving different amounts of screen space to the different running applications.

Of course, all of this includes just the basics of xmonad. With configuration files, you can do a lot more with xmonad to give yourself a very customized experience. This does take quite a bit of time to perfect, and it does involve diving into complex text files, but it could be worth it in the end. The YouTube video above clearly demonstrates the potential that xmonad can offer.

So xmonad is fantastic in many unique ways, but it too isn’t a great choice for inexperienced users. The fact that it’s such a big departure from the traditional desktop paradigm, plus the fact that configuring xmonad requires some advanced knowledge and enough comfort to mess with text files, is enough to leave xmonad as a recommended desktop environment for the pros. Even I’m not quite comfortable enough to use xmonad myself, but the video I embedded above amazes me every time I watch it.



Although these two desktop environments are fairly different, which comes out as the better choice? As both are very slimmed down and should be usable on even the lowest-specced systems, the winner will have to be the most customizeable — xmonad. Although you can configure both of them to a decent amount, you have more flexibility with xmonad if you are fine with its tiling characteristics.

Which alternative desktop environment do you use? What’s unique about it? Let us know in the comments!

Photo Credit: Sidereal, ~genessis

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  1. Robin
    December 12, 2016 at 6:39 pm

    Openbox isn't a Desktop Environment, it's a Windows Manager. Some of your readers will get an unpleasant surprise when they install Openbox and find that it's useless on it's own. (No taskbar, terminal emulator, file manager, widgets, or any other application that comes standard with other Desktop Environments.)

    • Computer Scientist
      September 12, 2018 at 9:34 pm

      Correct, Openbox let's the user choosea tool or application that suits their needs for each of your elements. There are numerous taskbars to choose from (I like tint2 and pypanel), you can install any terminal emulator you like (urxvt, lxterm, terminology, whatever), file managers (Thunar, PCManFM, or any file manager out there), widgets can be installed based on your preferences and you only have the ones you use with no bloat (you can have Dockers, conky, desktop icons, app launchers, system trays, whatever notification apps you want). Basically, you get to choose from ALL of the available tools rather than being stuck with the choices a desktop environment makes for you.

      So a correction to the article. "Expecting anything else?" Well, take your pick. You have to choose it, install it and configure it - but you can't have this extreme level of customization unless you do those things.

      The article also mentions virtual desktops in xmonad, Openbox has 4 virtual desktops by default, but that can be changed to however many you want, I currently use 10.

      Additionally, my Openbox environment includes 2 taskbars which I toggle between via a keyboard shortcut, a system tray where running apps can place their icon for easy access & notifications, popup notifications for certain events like a new email is received, transparency for certain windows like my terminal emulator, extensive control via keyboard shortcuts that allow me to resize or tile windows, move those windows to another virtual desktop, launch programs and execute various system tasks. I don't like desktop icons or dockers, so I don't have them eating up disk space and system resources or cluttering my configuration. With a few keystrokes, I can launch several applications and then organize them such that one takes up the left half of my screen, and the 3 others tile nicely on the right (they don't even have to all be the same size) and I do that all in just a second or two.

      Saying that Openbox is less customizable than xmonad displays a significant lack of familiarity using Openbox as your working environment.

  2. Robin
    December 12, 2016 at 6:30 pm

    Openbox isn't a Desktop Environment, it's a Window Manager. It's designed for being used with/inside another Environment. Some of your reader's are going to be in for an unpleasant surprise when they install Openbox.

  3. xero
    October 21, 2013 at 6:16 pm

    i use cruchbang (#!), so i too am an open box user.
    #! combines open box, tint2, and conky to create a very streamlined desktop experience. minimalism is something i strive for in an os. the less "crap" on the screen more more "use" you can get from the screen. give #! a try in live mode to get a true, optimized, open box experience.

  4. frodo
    October 2, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    Made a custom iso of ubuntu12.04 and openbox. I used 12.04 because it is rock solid. Openbox for speed. Now I can install this base sys anywhere or even use it live but it now has 123 packages I want and is minus 20 packages I didn't want. And it is only 1.8 gb iso which surprised me. Big thanks to all the folks who make it possible.

  5. Justin P
    September 19, 2013 at 8:50 pm

    Great article as always Danny, but I just wanted to say that I love those penguins at the top of the article and want them to be my friends.

  6. TobiH8
    September 19, 2013 at 1:40 pm

    @Kelly I use only Linux on my computers and have sold all Windows licenses because I hate finding solutions for things that don't work.
    With my Arch Linux I can do everything I want and it is rock solid. It won't stop working after an update and I don't have hours for updating my base system (and I don't have to update my programs). You have to spend much time on ARCH (not every!) Linux to get everything working, that's true, but if something works it'll work forever.
    Oh and I'm faster setting up Linux than Windows 8 because on Linux I have my script that installs everything ("sudo yaourt -S ...") and on Windows I have to download every program manually and I have to install all of them (yes you can write an installer, but this takes a lot of time).
    If you don't want to configure anything try Manjaro BUT don't try Ubuntu because the newer versions have a lot of bugs (at least on any computer I've tested). If you like apt-get more install debian and install the needed things (you can also try Linux Mint Debian Edition but this looks like it would be unsupported :().
    I could never use a Windows system again. (it would be too difficult and I would miss Gnome 3.8) But if you do like the new Windows 8(.1) better than any Linux desktop it is OK for me.

  7. Kelly
    September 18, 2013 at 11:06 pm

    It looks nice but any thing Linux for desktop is a huge waste of time. You end up spending most of your time trying to get something working, or the way you want.

    • Danny S
      October 31, 2013 at 9:47 pm

      No, these are just the extremes meant for people who love to tinker. Other Linux desktops are dead simple to set up and use.

  8. Rudi Pittman
    September 18, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    enlightenment desktop as used in bodhi linux. It allows for plenty of eye candy while still maintaining a small footprint.

    • TechnoAngina
      September 18, 2013 at 7:56 pm

      I'm a big fan of enlightenment as well. Bodhi is a really nice distro, but it's definitely a thing. I like the enlightenment ability to build apps, but the documentation really isn't as good as it could be though I know that they are trying to do better.

    • TechnoAngina
      September 18, 2013 at 7:59 pm

      I've never really understood the functional differences between all the box variants. Is there a real difference or is it just forking for preference? xmonad actually looks pretty speedy, will have to look into it.