Using Linux With Wayland? What You Need to Know
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Aspects of the Linux desktop change all the time, but some components have been around for decades. Take the X Window System (known primarily as X). Work is underway to create a replacement that’s faster and more secure. That replacement is Wayland.

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Wayland has been a long time coming, and several Linux-based operating systems have embraced it as the default display server protocol. If yours hasn’t yet, there’s a chance it will soon. Here’s what it means to use Linux with Wayland.

What Is Wayland?

How Wayland functions
Image Credit: Freedesktop.org

Wayland is a protocol that tells programs how they should appear on your screen, based on your actions (such as moving a window around or clicking a button). Technically, Wayland is not a replacement for the X server by itself—Wayland only defines the way in which such a display server should talk to those applications.

Wayland relies on a third party, known as a Wayland compositor, to serve as the display server. Examples include Mutter and KWin (of the GNOME and KDE Plasma desktops respectively). Wayland attempts to simplify display server communications, making future development easier and faster.

Like many future technologies, Wayland has some teething to work through. X has been around for a long time and has been steadily built on. That means that Wayland has plenty of catching up to do (along with the display servers which implement it). But for now, there are a few things to know to make testing it out much smoother.

Avoid GTK+ 2 or Qt 4 Apps on Wayland

Most of the Linux apps you you interact with day to day are written for one of two graphical toolkits: GTK+ and Qt What's the Difference Between GTK+ and Qt? You've probably heard of GTK+ and Qt, but what are these development toolkits? And how do they impact how you use Linux? Read More . These frameworks act as clients to the display server, asking for things to be drawn onto your screen. However, these requests need to be understood first, and that’s up to the toolkit to do.

As a result, only some types of programs can actually run on Wayland desktops. For example, GTK+ 3 programs also can run properly. So can those written in Qt 5 (the toolkit the Plasma desktop is based on).

That being said, if you do try to open, say, a Qt 4 application, you’ll have a fair chance of it running. Wayland does this by running the X server behind the scenes, to listen to the apps which it can’t understand. However, this can lead to higher memory usage, and slightly lower speeds. Plus, there are some things that this approach just can’t do at the moment.

Some Apps Are Incompatible With Wayland

GNOME Night Light feature in System Settings

Wayland and X are designed in different ways, so some apps that work with X simply won’t be able to work on Wayland.

Consider screen color-shifting apps like Redshift and f.lux. These apps filter blue light from your display based on the time of day. They operate using X extensions, such as RandR, which provides programs with an easy way of asking X to change your screen’s display.

While Wayland provides the means to recreate this ability somewhat, it’s reliant on each Wayland compositor to actually implement it. This means that while one desktop environment might support something like Redshift (such as the GNOME Night Light feature pictured above), that functionality isn’t necessarily available elsewhere.

You can expect to run into similar issues with screen recording software. As a security feature, a Wayland display server blocks apps from recording the screen. That’s not to say that screen recording is fundamentally impossible on Wayland. Developers are working to implement the feature in a different way.

Compositing Is a Must

Compositing is a technique which helps to prevent screen tearing and artifacts. This is done by keeping copies of your display in memory, usually with the help of your graphics card. This way, even if apps stop responding, your display server will still have something to work with. Compositing also provides window animations and shadows.

Wayland is designed to make this process much more efficient than X by making it compulsory. X has compositing as an optional feature, through an extension called Xcomposite. But because of how it’s implemented, it takes a little more time compared to Wayland.

That being said, compositing can lead to some problems. Compositing results in slightly lower performance of programs such as games. In X, most desktops turn compositing off when an app goes full-screen. But many Wayland compositors still need to implement this. If you’re interested in using graphics intensive programs on a Wayland desktop, this is quite important to keep in mind.

Nvidia Graphics May Not Work With Wayland

More specifically, if you’re using Nvidia’s proprietary graphics driver How to Install Proprietary Graphics Drivers in Ubuntu, Fedora, and Mint Most of the time, you'll be fine with open-source software on Linux. But if you want real gaming and graphical power, you'll need proprietary drivers. Here's how to get them. Read More , Wayland probably won’t work for you. This is related to the compositing problem above. To make the process work, your graphics driver must talk to Wayland compositors in a certain way.

Intel and AMD graphics cards don’t have this problem, since they use the expected standard, called GBM (Generic Buffer Management). Nvidia believes that their way of speaking to Wayland, called EGL, is better, and as such sticks to that instead.

This problem can be solved in two ways: Nvidia drivers implement GBM, or Wayland compositors implement EGLStreams. Currently, Nvidia seems uninterested in pursuing the former solution.

How to Use Wayland

At this point, most Linux distros give you the option to install Wayland, but most still run X by default. You can search for Wayland in your distro’s repositories, log out from the desktop, and select Wayland when logging back in.

Fedora was one of the earliest distros to buck this trend and has run Wayland by default for a few years now. Fedora is known for using the latest technologies the Linux desktop has to offer, while also being quite usable. But Fedora isn’t alone.

Some Distros That Provide Wayland By Default

  • Fedora
  • Debian
  • openSUSE Tumbleweed
  • PureOS
  • Red Hat Enterprise Linux
  • SUSE Enterprise Linux

Why haven’t more distros made the switch? Many are waiting for a few more issues to clear up. A lot of people expect to use Nvidia’s proprietary graphics driver to get the most optimal gaming experience. Some want to record their screen to create podcasts or stream video online.

Given that the display server is not something that most of us notice, distros are not eager to introduce such noticeable problems in exchange for benefits that, while real, exist largely behind the scenes. And if you try to fix things using a remote desktop Ubuntu Remote Desktop: Easy, Built-In, VNC Compatible Need to remotely connect to your Ubuntu PC? Use Ubuntu's remote desktop tools to access your PC from Linux, macOS, or Windows. Read More , well, that’s just the sort of thing that may or may not work under Wayland.

Explore more about: Display Server, Linux.

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  1. Mike Walsh
    December 22, 2019 at 10:52 am

    I think most 'Puppy' users will like as not stick with 'X', given that the majority of hardware running 'Puppy' is usually pretty old (and therefore also exhibits 'issues' when attempting to composite.

    Said hardware also usually has limitations where CPUs/RAM/amount of RAM are concerned. For us, it makes no sense at all to even attempt using Wayland. (Oh, and before somebody blindly parrotts the 'standard line - 'But Wayland is more secure by design.....' - with Pup's unique mode of operation, we COULDN'T catch any 'nasties' even if we wanted to.)

    When everything runs in RAM, and disappears into cyberspace at power-off, how CAN you?

  2. Wonder
    October 9, 2017 at 10:36 am

    I have been testing plasma with wayland on mageia 6. Everything is fine, and the graphics applications seem to run faster and smoother, except that the graphics desktop never comes back out of sleep. It always gives me EDID errors, and the system does not even respond to ctrl-alt-del or ctrl-alt-Fn. The system is still running. You cannot ssh into it and does things, including open graphics on remote screens. It's just the graphics service that's not responding.
    So I have to revert back to plasma without wayland support. I am using a Radeon graphics card, which doesn't have the nvidia problem.

    Haven't tried the Gnome with wayland. Maybe should give it a try some time soon.

  3. Amin
    September 7, 2017 at 9:40 pm

    Wayland vs Xorg is like Laptops vs Desktops when laptops were being known to people in their very first days...
    Just wait... we would have much better linux graphical experience in the near future.

  4. dragonmouth
    September 5, 2017 at 11:49 pm

    Why limit oneself to Fedora. There's been a version of KaOS with Wayland since April.

  5. Rod Donovan
    August 31, 2017 at 11:23 pm

    Windows is for complete idiots. Stick with it. We Linux users do occasionally have problems, but we have communities that help. Once running, they run for years. Automatically evolving as the need arises. Viva OpenSUSE!

    • Austin Luong
      September 1, 2017 at 1:30 pm

      Perhaps you're a little mistaken? This article has nothing to do with Windows. It merely talks about some Linux technologies.

      • John Smith
        September 4, 2017 at 5:39 am

        I think Rod was commenting on another article that was trying to convince users to stick with Windows.

  6. Olivier El Mekki
    August 31, 2017 at 10:12 pm

    It's been some years now that we're being mentionned wayland, but there's still one thing annoying me about it : I still don't know what it brings that X doesn't have (on the contrary, the list of what X has that wayland hasn't seems quite long - and prohibitive).

    The usual argument I hear in favor of wayland is that X is old. It kind of reminds me of when a company decides to make a v2 of their app because no one knows anymore how the previous one works, and this usually leads to a lot of regressions, feature wide, and many years of hybrid where both versions run concurrently.

    I would love if someone could point out something exciting about wayland.

    • Beb
      September 1, 2017 at 12:15 am

      Screen locking in X11 is insecure. It's just another client that passes input to layers underneath and around.

      Screen locking in Wayland is secured through a separately privileged process/protocol.

      Search this: "Why screen lockers on X11 cannot be secure"

  7. Cacgoen
    August 31, 2017 at 8:11 pm

    Arch or Arch-based (or Arch installer) distros are also a good bet. I run Antergos and have have no Wayland problems that aren't problems with Wayland everywhere.

    • Austin Luong
      September 1, 2017 at 12:23 am

      That's right! The reason why I recommended Fedora was because it's known for being very up to date, meaning any further improvements on Wayland would be rolled out as soon as possible.

      Since Arch and co. are also on the bleeding edge, sometimes even moreso, they also make a lot of sense to use with Wayland. A lot of the reasons for using Fedora can apply to Arch and its derivatives.

      That being said, I reasoned that Fedora would best support it, since the company behind them, Red Hat, appears to be interested in it, and therefore willing to fund support for it.

  8. David Greengas
    August 31, 2017 at 7:46 pm

    I use Wayland on Arch with Gnome and I have no problems. I tried it on kde and found it to be very experimental (e.g. Window button resizing or notification fonts).

  9. dragonmouth
    August 31, 2017 at 7:14 pm

    " if you want a good experience on Wayland, Fedora is your best choice"
    Maybe you'll have good Wayland experience but a lousy Linux experience. Fedora has its own quirks and idiosyncracies that people might not like. Besides, quite a few distros have Wayland in their repositories. All one has to do is install it.