A window manager is the program that lets you manipulate windows. It generally draws a frame around the windows that you can use for closing it, moving it and many other things.
Unlike Microsoft Windows, in UNIX-based environments there are lots of different choices for how your desktop looks and feels! Many people eventually find a window manager style that suits them well, allowing them to efficiently and intuitively interact with applications.
How do I change my Window Manager
You can select a different window manager using the "Sessions" menu in GDM before you login.
If you select the "System Default Session", then your .xsession file is run. And if you don't have one if these, the Fluxbox window manager is run (Note).
You can modify your .xsession file yourself, or run the chwm program, which will write one for you.
Be careful when editing your .xsession, as you can easily make mistakes that will prevent you from logging in. If this happens, you can bypass your .xsession file by selecting a different session in the "Sesssions" menu at the login prompt.
What is available?
There are many Window Managers installed at CSE, some more in StuLocal, and you can even install them yourself into your home directory!
Some options include:
Fluxbox - A modern, sleek and lightweight. It tries to leave you with as much screen space to yourself as possible. It provide multiple desktops, "tabs" (useful feature if you get to know it) and many other bits and pieces. See the Fluxbox FAQ page for usage tips. It is the default Window Manager if you do not have an ~/.xsession.
twm - the Tab Window Manager is basic but reliable.
fvwm2 - provides a 3-D look to window frames. It is an updated version of the original fvwm. It provides you with multiple virtual desktops so you can divide up your work, and is infinitely configurable!
ctwm - an improvement on twm, ctwm provides multiple virtual desktops so you can divide up your work, and lots of window options.
Window Maker - is another fast, decent looking window manager.
You can also load a full "Desktop Environment". These tend to be a bit more familiar to users of Microsoft Windows, but are also much slower to load up, and tend to be quite resource intensive and can break in weird and wonderful ways...
KDE - The K Desktop Environment. Many CSE users use this environment.
We are often asked why KDE isn't the default window manager, because it works much like Microsoft Windows?
There are several reasons:
We would like students to be aware that there are other options out there. With practise, the alternatives are actually much more efficient for getting work done!
KDE is still quite slow to start up, and can provide too many options for a new user.
KDE is a very large, integrated set of software. We cannot effectively support the complexity of this environment - when it breaks, it can be quite challenging to find the exact problem (hence our cleankde script which just tries to remove everything).
There are also some historical reasons that haven't been as much of an issue in recent years:
KDE used to be dreadfully slow to start on slower computers. Only our booking terminals get this slow. It also hogged lots of precious RAM. Our current generation of lab machines have plenty of RAM and graphics power.
We had lab machines only capable of 8-bit colour. This worked best with a lightweight WM with a custom (low colour) theme.