I have a HTPC with Debian currently installed on. I would like to run applications which got a gui but without using a desktop environment such as gnome, kde etc.

I was wondering if running X would be enough to run the applications and then use screen so I can switch between different gui applications running.

  1. Is this possible?
  2. If no, what else do I need?
  3. Are there any potential problems I might bump into?
  4. Are there a better way to achieve what I want?

Thank you

  • 1
    I saw in another question that you've already found Ratpoison. I was surprised that noone mentioned it since it's modeled on GNU Screen. Some other screen-like wms (ie keyboard oriented, minimal, non-stacking) worth mentioning are also awesome and Scrotwm
    – micke
    Jan 10, 2012 at 23:47

4 Answers 4


So far as I know, screen won't help for X Windows applications.

I believe the minimum you need is a Window Manager for X11 (e.g. FVWM or Blackbox). Without a desktop I think you'd have to start a xterm shell manually for subsequent launching of X apps (e.g. xterm & exec fvwm - see xwinman.org)

You might try a lightweight desktop environment (e.g. XFCE or LXDE) Your distro's package installer should be able to install this.

  • Thank you. I will look into using xterm first and have the lightweight desktop environments as a fallback if it doesn't work out as I have planned :) Jan 9, 2012 at 12:02
  • I've found openbox and fluxbox a bit lighter on resources than XFCE or LXDE, but others might have different results.
    – Rob
    Jan 9, 2012 at 15:00

You can run twm and xterm over a plain vanilla x install - gentoo does this for testing purposes, and run screen on that xterm session that. I do believe there's supposed to be a way to just run xterm over x as well.

The moment you have x installed, you wouldn't need to use screen to switch - run the programme with an & at the end to start it, use xkill or similar to stop it (though you could get a keyboard centric window manager of some sort) - and for moving and switching you can treat it just as you would any window.

It isn't exactly what you want, but it should give you a close enough result.


Maybe it's worth giving tinywm a try.

TinyWM is a tiny window manager that I created as an exercise in minimalism. It is also maybe helpful in learning some of the very basics of creating a window manager. It is only around 50 lines of C. There is also a Python version using python-xlib.


There is no correlation between screen and a windowing environment ("window manager"). No matter what form of windowing manager you run, you can still run screen.

The question then becomes what lose/gain by moving away from a desktop environment to a windowing manager. What does a desktop environment give you:

  • Standardized programming interfaces for apps (from Gnome and KDE) to integrate with the environment.
  • Notification systems
  • Integration with display manager (gdm, kdm, lightdm, lxdm); automated starting of environment.
  • System tray (window managers can include, but are more like "task lists" than real system trays) and other add-ons.
  • Better integration with settings managers to automated settings up the environment.

For a list of Window managers, look at http://xwinman.org/. When you have chosen which system to work with, then you will need to figure out how to start the system (for the most part it is the same, but each window manager has their own convention).

Desktop environments all have a window manager running underneath so you could still choose a different window manager and keep your desktop.

  • Yes, I understand that they don't correlate at all. The idea of using screen was so that I can switch between running applications easily without being forced to use a window manager. Of my time using my computer I use the terminal about 80%, so that's why I wanted to eliminate as much as possible that has something to do with the DE/WM. So I could just launch certain gui applications (such as the browser) when I needed them. Jan 10, 2012 at 8:26
  • You won't need a desktop, but you need at least a window manager. Otherwise you will have trouble switching between windows (from screen in an xterm, for example, to the graphical web browser) and with simple decoration (like the 'close' button) - it is doable, but less than satisfactory. From inside screen, you could bind keys to launch the apps to X.
    – Arcege
    Jan 10, 2012 at 13:15

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .