Here is a little commentary about selecting and starting a window manager (for those who like barebones XWindows) or a full-fledged desktop environment (like KDE or GNOME).
There are countless pages devoted to explaining everything about window managers and/or desktop environments, and I won't bother duplicating them (since this page is mostly to remind myself). In short, as far as lightweight window managers are concerned, I recommend
xfce4 or icewm
and less so I recommend
fluxbox or fvwm
The first (xfce4) really qualifies as a desktop environment, not just a window manager, but it is MUCH LIGHTER than it's big brothers KDE or GNOME. Actually, I recommend xfce4 highly. Just the right blend of functionality and performance.
As far as the full desktop environments are concerned, I prefer (this week) KDE, but I'm sure that when I get sick of it I'll use GNOME more update: I now prefer GNOME more. *shrug*. KDE is very pretty - the flagship of desktop environments, but it requires a lot of resources.
There are two ways that X Windows starts up. Most people will have a graphical login come up automatically when they start their computer. This means that they are using a so-called "display manager". For just plain old vanilla X, this program is called "xdm". It is a daemon that runs in the background and presents a graphical login. KDE and GNOME have special versions of this called "kdm" and "gdm", respectively.
You're on your own if you are using one of these display managers. They're not hard - most of them these days are sleek. They'll allow you to select which desktop you want from a list of what you have installed (KDE or Gnome or whatever).
Personally, I don't like using xdm/kdm/gdm. I like an old-fashioned text login. It just seems faster. If you are doing this then after logging in you can start X Windows by typing
startxat the command prompt. This program runs another one called xinit, which loads first the X server, and then a window manager/desktop environment on top of it.
It is possible to have several window managers installed, for example you can have xfce4, icewm, fluxbox, kde, and gnome. The actual window manager that xinit chooses is determined by a file called
.xinitrcin your home directory. If you don't have one, just create it.
I didn't have one, so I just created it and put in the single line
This starts xfce4, obviously. If I wanted fluxbox, I would just put the line "exec startfluxbox" INSTEAD, for kde "exec startkde", for fvwm "exec fvwm", etc. Note that this file might already exist and be a complicated mess. Just look for the "exec" line and modify as required (you should have only a single "exec" line - comment out the others that you're not using right now).
Tips for a *minimal* install of KDE or GNOME in Debian
Don't just go out and apt-get the packages "kde" (or "gnome") unless you want the entire world to clutter your machine (and desktop). By following the dependencies in these packages, I have determined that a minimal decent base for KDE is given by the package "kde-core". From there you can follow the other dependencies in the package "kde" and see what else you want.
The same goes for GNOME. The minimal fully functional desktop is contained in the "gnome-core" Debian package. Similarly you can follow the dependencies of "gnome" and handpick what else you want. There is FAR too much to talk about here, but that should get you started.
How to install XFCE 4.2 in Debian
THE FOLLOWING IS DEPRECATED. Now XFCE 4.2 is a standard Debian package OK, I've given my two cents about which window managers are best, but I haven't described how to install one. Here I want to describe how to install XFCE 4.2 in Debian.
If you just want XFCE 4.0 then installation is easy - you can just apt-get the xfce4* packages. Unfortunately, at the time of this writing XFCE 4.2 has not been included in Debian. Fortunately, the os-cillation website has packaged up XFCE 4.2 for you.
Unfortunately, os-cillation has a bunch of Debian packages that DO NOT WORK. All of the dependencies are broken. Until this is fixed, I wouldn't bother with it. Fortunately, os-cillation provides a handy graphical installer. The down-side is this: your XFCE 4.2 will not be registered with your Debian package management system. Before you begin, make sure that you have (at least) the bare-bones X installed (Debian package x-windows-system-core). Then you will need the Gtk2.2 development files (Debian package libgtk2.0-dev), the packages libice-dev and libsm-dev, and the package libdbh1.0-dev. Finally, make sure that you have the bzip2 package installed (since the installer will fail mysteriously without it).
After that you will need to download and run the installers. Personally I installed "xfce4-18.104.22.168-installer.bin", "gtk2-xfce-engine-4.2.1-installer.bin", and "xfce-goodies-4.2.1-installer.bin" - these are not PACKAGES, they are actual graphical installers that will install XFCE 4.2 for you. Obviously they will need to be run from X. If you only installed the barebones X then you can run it from the xterm window that automatically pops up when you run "startx".
That's it. Have a look at the os-cillation website for more information.
How to install ICEWM in Debian
I had the pleasure recently of trying to get a "fully functional" version of Debian installed on a Pentium 166 with 98 meg of RAM and a 1.2 gig hard drive. The desktop required word processing, spreadsheet, graphics tools, and a "desktop publishing" program (basically lets my mom create "cute" things like food menus, announcements, birthday cards, etc.).
For the "office type" applications, I decided to go the GNOME/GTK+ way and install some components of GNOME office (OpenOffice is WAY to big and bulky for this machine). I installed AbiWord as a word processor, and Gnumeric as the spreadsheet. Surprisingly, with patience, both ACTUALLY function. I even downloaded the "myspell-en-us" dictionary so that AbiWord has spellcheck!
For the graphics tool, I had NO CHOICE but to install the Gimp. My mom wanted it to be like Adobe Photoshop, which I think that it is (and much cooler, of course, since it's Open). I still cannot believe that it works, but it really does work (on small enough graphics files, of course). For the birthday card junk, I installed Scribus. I hadn't played around with it before, but it seemed like a close approximation to the Print Shop as sold under MS Windows. She'll probably never use it, but whatever.
Of course, such a machine CANNOT support a desktop. It cannot even support XFCE4. So I installed my favorite choice out of all of the "barebones" window managers - ICEWM. As with XFCE4, I first needed a basic XWindows system installed (Debian package "x-window-system-core"). Then I installed ICEWM through the packages "icewm", "icewm-themes", and "iceme". The first two obviously install the window manager itself (with a bunch of themes - personally I find the "Windows XP" themes by far the best - at least Microsoft is good at presentation. I cannot stand all of those geeky window manager setups with nothing on them).
The "iceme" package provides the iceme program which is a graphical menu editor. This was VERY important because ICEWM is barebones and you must configure the "Start menu" yourself (for the most part).
Unfortunately, I have to admit that Windows 98 was faster on that old beast. In my experience, a machine with even 128 meg of RAM is still too dumpy for Linux with an XWindows environment (unless, of course, it is an X Terminal). On the other hand, once you get over that threshold into the 256 meg of RAM/Pentium II territory, Linux soundly spanks Windows!
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