A comparison of four window managers

April 26, 2008

Judging from the search engine terms that show up in my WordPress dashboard, a lot of the visitors to this blog are searching for a comparison between either Fluxbox and Openbox, Openbox and Pekwm, or Pekwm and Openbox (search terms such as Pekwm vs. Openbox, or Openbox vs. Fluxbox are rather common).

To satisfy the desires of my dear readers, and to help those who want to know more about some window managers, I have therefore created the following table comparing four very popular window managers (or three very popular ones and one that I happen to like a lot :-)): Icewm, Fluxbox, Openbox and Pekwm.

Icewm, Fluxbox and Openbox have a wide user basis, and a very loyal following. Pekwm is a lesser known window manager that deserves more attention. I mainly use Openbox and Pekwm, and occasionally Icewm.

Please note that this table is not an indication of the most versatile, most developed or ‘best’ window manager. If a window manager lacks a feature, it may have some different strengths. Openbox, for example, does not support pixmap themes, but its theme options are the most complex and elaborate theme options of these four window managers (which makes creating themes for Openbox so much more fun!). Some features may also be primitively implemented: Pekwm supports dockapps, for instance, but its harbour is not very well developed. Nor does this chart provide an exhaustive list of features for these window manager. Icewm, for example, has a number of unique features that are not mentioned in this table (such as an email indicator and some system monitoring tools for the taskbar), and a lot of the basic features of window managers are left out.

I created the table so you could easily find out what each window manager can or cannot do. Choose whichever window manager you like best. Using one over the other doesn’t make you superior. 🙂

There is a reasonable possibility that this table contains some errors. If you find any, please let me know. If I can think of more categories, I’ll add those later.

Icewm Fluxbox Openbox Pekwm
First release 1997 2001? 2002 200?
Last stable release 1.2.34
(17-04-2008 )
Language C++ C++ C C++
Based on Blackbox originally Blackbox originally aewm++
EWMH standards partial partial yes partial
Panel yes yes no no
Support for dockapps no yes (slit) yes (dock) yes (harbour)
Native wallpaper support yes yes no no
Alt-tab dialog yes (vertically and horizontally!) no yes yes
Command dialog yes (in taskbar) yes (fbrun) no yes
Xinerama support yes yes yes yes
Native (fake) transparency no yes no no
Pixmap themes yes yes no yes
Multiple workspaces yes yes yes yes
Viewports no no no yes
Add/remove workspaces no no yes no
Usable screen edges no no no (in git version) yes
Strut support no no yes no
Right-click desktop menu yes yes yes yes
Configurable client menus no no no yes
Keyboard shortcuts in menus yes yes yes no
Dynamic menus no yes yes (pipe-menus) yes
Additional custom menus no yes yes yes
Icons in menus yes yes only in client-list-menus no (only in client-list-menu of git version)
Grouping/Tabbing of windows no yes no yes
Opaque moving/resizing yes yes only resizing yes
Minimize window to tray yes no no no
Hide windows yes no no no
Tiling yes (vertically and horizontally) no no (GrowTo… actions) no (‘MaxFill’ actions)
Per-app settings yes only grouping yes yes
Configurable key bindings yes yes yes yes
Chainable keygrabber no yes yes yes
Configurable mouse behaviour Some in the preferences file yes (in keys file) yes yes
Session management/
Autostarting applications
yes yes yes yes
Confirm logout yes no yes (3.4.7) no
Shutdown/reboot control no no yes (3.4.7) no
Graphical configuration tools plenty Fluxconf, Fluxmenu Obconf, Obmenu no

28 Responses to “A comparison of four window managers”

  1. Hanna said

    At the moment I’m using Openbox. There was short moment with Pekwm, but I got irritated when tasks didn’t disappear from Pypanel. eg. I have epiphany open (so it’s in Pypanel), then I bookmark something (bookmarking thing is pypanel), I check bookmarks (bookmarks is in Pypanel). And when I close those, they’re still there until I close also Epiphany. So there was quite a hassle going in Pypanel.
    I’m not sure why, but I have no problems with Openbox :/ Maybe I should have checked other panels, how they work with Pekwm (though Pypanel has been so far definitely best for me of those panels I tested with Openbox), or just be without it, otherwise Pekwm is very interesting wm. 🙂

    And thanks for the interesting post 🙂

  2. urukrama said

    Thank you, Hanna.

    This pypanel issue is a known problem with Pekwm 0.1.6, which has been fixed in the git version. See here.

  3. Hanna said

    Thank you a lot. Maybe I’ll go back Pekwm then.

  4. chris4585 said

    Nice article, I prefer openbox myself, I like to use fbpanel’s with openbox but now that I finally got my menu’s setup i think I’ll slim down my panel’s some. Have you seen my article about how to get fbpanel’s to look like ubuntu’s? or similar i need to edit that.

    good work!

  5. freduardo said

    Great article indeed.

    If ever anyone asks me what the main difference/advantage is between e.g. fluxbox and openbox I’ll refer them to this page 😉

  6. Sam said

    chris4585: If you want to make the panel slimmer, I suggest making its width smaller. If your widthtype is percent, I suggest between 60-80 as a value for it.

    I, myself, use the xdream theme on OpenBox with a nice wallpaper from socwall and a transparent fbpanel (75%) with some launchers for PCManFM, urxvt, Firefox, and Vim.It stays out of my way and works like it should. The only real changes from the default: changed the clock colour, removed the menu, and made it transparent.

  7. Porównanie Icewm, Fluxbox, Openbox i Pekwm…

    Jedną z podstawowych zalet Linuksa jest możliwość wyboru środowiska graficznego, menedżera okien oraz menedżera plików. Szeroki wybór pozwoli zaspokoić niemal wszystkie potrzeby i gusta, pozostaje tylko zainstalować, porównać i pozosta[…..

  8. Martin said

    Icewm have dymamic menu, and pipe menu too.

  9. Danniel said

    Fluxbox HAS the option of adding/removing workspaces. By default, it has only 4, but the default “keys” file shows that the F keys are assigned to about 12 desktops. It’s pretty easy to add/remove them, something like middle click, add workspace.

  10. Mark said

    Hai Uruk!

    Actually, adding new workspaces in IceWM is as easy as opening the preferences file in your /home/you/.icewm folder (which I’m assuming you have), scrolling down until you find this line

    WorkspaceNames= ” 1 “, ” 2 “, ” 3 “, ” 4 ”

    And then just adding the new workspaces in the same format, thus:

    You can even use the same line to give your workspaces wacky names. Like this

  11. blackbelt_jones said

    >>Choose whichever window manager you like best. Using one over the other doesn’t make you superior.

    Very true! WM geeks need to put aside their differences, and remember that all that really matters is our shared superiority to users of Gnome and KDE.

    (Insert Winky face here.)

  12. […] is not based on blackbox June 16, 2008 | In nerdery […]

  13. […] by fain on Fri 21-11-2008 Alternative distros: DeLi Linux Saved by InesHecate on Fri 21-11-2008 A comparison of four window managers Saved by PinkCoffeeDog on Sat 15-11-2008 Set a chinese using environment on DeLi Linux 0.8 Saved […]

  14. anonimous said

    openbox is also written in C++

  15. […] Please note that this list is not an attempt to rank window managers or desktop environments.  If you strongly prefer fluxbox, then AntiX should be your choice among these.  If you cannot stand JWM, then Puppy is not going to work for you.  If you aren’t sure which one you like, then just try one of the distros above, or check out this overview of lightweight window managers or Window Managers for X or this comparison of icewm, fluxbox, and OpenBox. […]

  16. anonymous said

    Fluxbox CAN add/remove workspaces… in the Fluxbox configuration submenu you can add, remove und rename workspaces…

  17. mythus said


    I just wanted to correct you on something. You stated that you cannot minimize windows to tray in fluxbox. That is incorrect. There is a setting for the fluxbox tray that allows you to show only iconified windows, all windows, or no windows. Thus you can minimize windows to tray in fluxbox, I do it all the time.

  18. Sooraj Kenoth said

    Hi friend,
    Please update the contents of this site. There is a lot of wrong information here. It is not your mistake. But newer version are released with newer features.

  19. Adam said

    This is perhaps a silly question, but are there any utilities that can be added to IceWM that give it a ‘trashcan’ feature?

    I like IceWM and Xfce. While some people have been trying to get me to use Lxde, I don’t see what the advantage is over IceWM, when there isn’t a trashcan.

  20. Marcos said

    It´s great to have those options, isn´t it? I love them. I have used flux, ob and ice. I just need some apps, so… why use a gnome or kde?
    It´s not a question of “worst or better”, but “that fits better to you”.
    Panel in ice is handy – easy access to workspaces, but… I´ve wondered I just need a menu – neither icons, nor panels.
    To don´t loose a window in a black hole, in ob, we can extract minimize option of window in config file. Remember we have workspaces, if we need a clean space.
    Why do we have to choose just one? Now I use ob, further I use ice.
    Sam is right. Fbpanel is a good option – config it!!
    You can use obconf and nitrogen in ob – it´s enough to take great looks from ob.
    Nice analysis!!! Keep it updated.

  21. Marcos said

    I know memory usage is controversial. We are in 2010, and I believe people have powerful machines.
    I try a free -k in console, without window managers, and with ice, open and fvwm. Difference between open and ice is small. They use by 18MB, but… Ice got a panel. So, I tested fbpanel – 3.6MB, and lxpanel – 2.3MB. Fvwm uses by 38MB, but… default config got background, tray…
    Nothing like windows 7 that take 20% from my 4GB RAM. Yes, I can config it too, but… It´s a black box to me.

  22. Mark said

    Actually you can change the number of desktops in PekWM by editing the config file.

  23. cyp said

    in the articol you fail to say that although they are more light than metacity they show the child windows in the taskbar (major bugggg) . bug reproduces on openbox,fluxbox, and icewm. curious how so many are fast to ditch metacity but never say anything about the others serious bugs.

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  25. Ikem said

    I like to see how much memory each one uses.

  26. KYJazzyJeff said

    From what I’ve seen, IceWM actually does support dock apps. Maybe an earlier version of IceWM was being referenced in this article, who knows.

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