Recently, as part of my adventure with Arch Linux (more about that in the future!) I have tested a number of desktop environments to select one (or more) that would suit my needs. Having gained significant experience throughout the past two or so months, I find it amusing how my tastes gradually changed. Initially, I favored simple, easy-to-use desktop environments with desktop icons, proper taskbar, system tray and other useful features known to Windows users. Hence, I enjoyed Lubuntu’s LXDE and Bodhi Linux’s E17. Lately though, I went for a quite minimalist approach to free up resources for more meaningful tasks. In my pursuit I have tested most of the lightest desktop environments (or rather window managers, to be exact), such as Fluxbox, Window Maker, Openbox, Joe’s Window Manager and Ice Window Manager. While various window managers/desktop environments differ in RAM usage (nicely summed up at http://l3net.wordpress.com), I believe the choice should not be based on that entirely. One should consider how much graphical user interface (GUI) support does one need.
The truth is that all desktop environments can be fine-tuned by altering the necessary configuration files (usually .conf or .rc files), as it was done before people started using GUIs to simplify repetitive tasks. Skilled Linux users often prefer such level of control, because it is much easier to troubleshoot if something goes wrong. GUIs however were created for a reason and I believe following that reason is not only sound, but also much more efficient in many cases (for instance, changing the desktop background). The definite advantage of text-based configuration is lesser resource usage, enough to run a text editor of choice.
I see the ‘GUI-based vs text-based’ debate as a matter of ‘barter’. The user’s time and experience can be freely exchanged for the computer’s time and computing power (processor, RAM, etc.). In such an equation one should consider which factor is the most limiting and decide based on that. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ here. With sufficient knowledge text-based configuration in most cases can achieve the same results as GUI-based configuration.
I myself lean more towards transparent and clear text-based configuration. That way I can swiftly track and resolve issues, with the added reward of gaining experience. I rely on graphical user interfaces when I deem them useful and not overly complex. The tint2conf GUI package for configuration of the tint2 panel is a good example here. It provides easy access to basic parameters in the configuration file, without unnecessary flashy visual effects.
Surprisingly, when it comes to extremely light window managers, RAM usage can be completely neglected. Reducing it below a certain threshold (in my case 100-150 MB RAM) would require the sacrifice of core features. I have favored IceWM among all others as it is very light, yet still allows the use of themes, system tray icons, quick start icons and a background of choosing.