Is there any way (such as a command or environmental variable) to determine what window manager is the one actively running in the current session?

10 Answers 10


If you have wmctrl installed, the first line of output from command

    wmctrl -m

will show you the name of the window manager. If you don't have wmctrl installed, use the following command to install it:

    sudo apt-get install wmctrl

Note, man wmctrl (that is, the man page for wmctrl) says in part:

-m Display information about the window manager ...

On my Ubuntu 11.10 / Linux 3.0.0-14-generic #23-Ubuntu x86_64 / metacity 2.34.1 system, the first line of output from wmctrl -m was: Name: Metacity
while echo $DESKTOP_SESSION showed ubuntu-2d and echo $XDG_CURRENT_DESKTOP showed Unity.

On a fresh Ubuntu 15.10 install of Ubuntu desktop software on an old laptop, the first line of output from wmctrl -m was: Name: Compiz
while the DESKTOP_SESSION and XDG_CURRENT_DESKTOP values were ubuntu and Unity

  • 4
    Unfortunately this doesn't work over ssh even if X11 is enabled. – Sridhar-Sarnobat Apr 22 '14 at 4:54
  • 1
    @Sridhar-Sarnobat on ubuntu 15.04, running ssh -Y {host} 'wmctrl -m' does return some values (e.g., "Name: Compiz", and several N/A's), but it makes sense that ssh would have limited info about the window manager. – michael May 4 '15 at 2:52
  • on debian running cinnamon, this does not work. output of wmctrl -m is Name: Mutter(Muffin) while $XDG_CURRENT_DESKTOP=X-Cinnamon – Floyd Jan 2 '16 at 8:58
  • On Xubuntu Wily, running Window Maker 0.95.6 - wmctrl reports N/A for all entries. GDMSESSION is set to wmaker-common but XDG_CURRENT_DESKTOP isnt set at all. – Mei Jul 11 '16 at 19:13
  • @Mei, do you have Window Maker running on any other systems you can compare? Also, do either of wmctrl -d (List all desktops managed by the window manager) or wmctrl -l (List the windows being managed by the window manager) work ok on Xubuntu Wily with Window Maker? – James Waldby - jwpat7 Jul 12 '16 at 18:55

On Linux systems I tested environment variables XDG_CURRENT_DESKTOP and GDMSESSION and got the following results.

You can use this line to get the output:

printf 'Desktop: %s\nSession: %s\n' "$XDG_CURRENT_DESKTOP" "$GDMSESSION"

Ubuntu 18.04 (Ubuntu)

  • GDMSESSION=ubuntu

Ubuntu 18.04 (Ubuntu on Wayland)

  • GDMSESSION=ubuntu-wayland

Ubuntu 16.04

Unity (7)

  • GDMSESSION=ubuntu

Ubuntu 14.04

Unity running with Mir

  • GDMSESSION=ubuntu

Note MIR_SERVER_NAME is also set


Unity running without Mir

  • GDMSESSION=ubuntu



Ubuntu 12.04


  • GDMSESSION=kde-plasma

Unity 3d

  • GDMSESSION=ubuntu

Unity 2d

  • GDMSESSION=ubuntu-2d


  • GDMSESSION=gnome-shell

Gnome Classic

  • GDMSESSION=gnome-classic

Gnome Classic (no effects)

  • GDMSESSION=gnome-fallback

Other Ubuntu based distributions

Mint 13 (Cinnamon)

  • GDMSESSION=cinnamon

Mint 16 (KDE edition)

  • GDMSESSION=default

Mint 17 (Cinnamon)

  • GDMSESSION=default

Lubuntu 12.04

  • GDMSESSION=Lubuntu

Wasta 14.04 / 18.04

  • GDMSESSION=cinnamon

Wasta 14.04 using Gnome desktop.

  • GDMSESSION=gnome

Ubuntu Mate 18.04


Xubuntu 18.04

  • GDMSESSION=xubuntu
  • 4
    Mint 13 (Cinnamon): XDG_CURRENT_DESKTOP=GNOME, GDMSESSION=cinnamon – rik-shaw Dec 11 '12 at 18:02
  • 1
    Lubuntu 12.04: XDG_CURRENT_DESKTOP=LXDE, GDMSESSION=Lubuntu – rik-shaw Dec 11 '12 at 18:07
  • What about $DESKTOP_SESSION ? As a backup solution :) – Savvas Radevic Jan 2 '13 at 10:25
  • 1
    What if I don’t use GDM? – Robert Siemer Mar 13 '14 at 11:20
  • 6
    And further it doesn’t answer what window manager I use! – Robert Siemer Mar 9 '15 at 11:22

In the terminal type env to see all environment variables. Some of them are:

XDG_CURRENT_DESKTOP - Tells you what desktop environment you are using

GDMSESSION - Tells you what option you selected from the lightdm greeter to login.

To use them, go to the terminal and type:


(Will output for example 'unity' if you are using Unity)



(Will output for example 'ubuntu' if you selected ubuntu in the login or 'ubuntu-2d' if you selected that one in the login.)

You have others if you look closer at the output of env like DESKTOP_SESSION and COMPIZ_CONFIG_PROFILE

Since what you are looking for is the name of what Window Manager is in use, the only way I see how to get this is by looking in the process list. To do this there is a command called pgrep ( Wikipedia ). I did the following to get the name since the parameter -l adds the process ID:

pgrep -l compiz |cut -d " " -f2 since the process is running by the same user there is no need to prefix the sudo part. You can then use this to create a script that does an action based on the Window Manager.

To look for other types, just change the word compiz to another like mutter, kwin, etc..

  • 2
    Those just tell me the session name and desktop environment. Example it says "GNOME" which is a desktop environment that can use Metacity, Mutter, Compiz or other window managers. It says "gnome-classic" which is a session name, there is no such window manager with that name. – Anonymous Oct 26 '11 at 23:04
  • 1
    There you go. Found a command that can help with the process list. pgrep. Got to that part, at least it shows you the name of the window manager if found. Trying to check if I can add all of them together there. Your question is very good since Ubuntu 11.10 confuses a bit by using Compiz (Or mutter if when Gnome 3.x) so would be nice to point out the actual Window Manager that is used in Unity. – Luis Alvarado Oct 27 '11 at 0:11
  • $XDG_CURRENT_DESKTOP is the current desktop environment, NOT the window manager. – Ken Sharp Feb 22 '18 at 16:49

I found pstree to be a big help.


sudo apt-get install pstree


This is what I got.

 │         ├─lightdm─┬─gnome-session─┬─bluetooth-apple───2*[{bluetooth-apple}]
 │         │         │               ├─compiz─┬─sh───gtk-window-deco───2*[{gtk-window-deco}]
 │         │         │               │        └─5*[{compiz}]
 │         │         │               ├─deja-dup-monito───2*[{deja-dup-monito}]
 │         │         │               ├─gnome-fallback-───2*[{gnome-fallback-}]
 │         │         │               ├─gnome-screensav───2*[{gnome-screensav}]
 │         │         │               ├─gnome-settings-───2*[{gnome-settings-}]
 │         │         │               ├─nautilus───2*[{nautilus}]
 │         │         │               ├─nm-applet───2*[{nm-applet}]
 │         │         │               ├─polkit-gnome-au───2*[{polkit-gnome-au}]
 │         │         │               ├─ssh-agent
 │         │         │               ├─telepathy-indic───2*[{telepathy-indic}]
 │         │         │               ├─update-notifier───2*[{update-notifier}]
 │         │         │               ├─vino-server───2*[{vino-server}]
 │         │         │               ├─zeitgeist-datah───{zeitgeist-datah}
 │         │         │               └─3*[{gnome-session}]
 │         │         └─{lightdm}
 │         └─2*[{lightdm}]
  • 1
    this got me there with my custom buildroot system. – jc__ Feb 5 at 21:12
xprop -id $(xprop -root -notype | awk '$1=="_NET_SUPPORTING_WM_CHECK:"{print $5}') -notype -f _NET_WM_NAME 8t 
  • 1
    Can you explain how this works? Also, I think you' re missing a ) at the end. – Louis Matthijssen May 15 '14 at 6:53
  • @LouisMatthijssen 1. xprop -root -notype displays all of the root window's properties (and omits types for easier parsing), the output is send to awk via pipe; 2. awk instruction $1=="_NET[blah]CK:"{print $5}' compares first column of each row of the input it got through the pipe with a given string and if it finds the match it runs the code in brackets which prints the fifth column from this row - just so happens (entirely by accident, I bet) to be the ID of the "_NET_SUPPORTING_WM_CHECK" atom; 3. this ID is then used again to get the properties of the Windows Manager with xprop -id – cprn May 15 '14 at 19:31

I've been testing also with KDE and my conclusion is:

a) Graphical way, with HardInfo: the answer is normally in "Operating System" > "Desktop Environment", but if not you can look to "Environment variables". HardInfo is ready with all the tested distros, except the one with KDE, but it can be easily and quickly installed (only 2 packages in Linux Mint 13).

b) Command line, with this command: ps -A | egrep -i "gnome|kde|mate|cinnamon|lx|xfce|jwm". The item that appears in more lines should be the answer (if there is a draw the item with "session" should be the solution).

  • XFCE also has several gnome-... processes (and a kde hit with kdevtmpfs) – Xen2050 May 7 '16 at 4:55

None of the above actually worked for me, I just wanted to know whether I had Gnome running as my current desktop session.

This is what worked, open a terminal

lsb_release -a

(to check which flavor or version I had installed on my UBUNTU​ machine)

ls /usr/bin/*session

(launches which desktop session/desktop environment currently in use)

gnome-shell --version 

(to find out which version of gnome is installed)


This is sort of possible with dbus and the Accounts Service (both by default in Ubuntu).

$ qdbus --system org.freedesktop.Accounts \                                                                
> /org/freedesktop/Accounts/User1000 \                                                                                     
> org.freedesktop.Accounts.User.XSession                                                                                   

Worth noting that I've tested this with logging in through lightdm (that is the graphical login screen) , it did detect a classic desktop like blackbox , and obviously detects Unity. I suspect this is a value of what user selects on the login screen as session, that's why it's a bit easier to use that checking for processes



The following script resulted as the best answer to a similar question I posted over at unix.se. It also works great with Unity and LXDE.

if [ "$XDG_CURRENT_DESKTOP" = '' ]
  desktop=$(echo "$XDG_DATA_DIRS" | sed 's/.*\(xfce\|kde\|gnome\).*/\1/')

desktop=${desktop,,}  # convert to lower case
echo "$desktop"

I can only think of checking for known window managers in the running processes. There used to be a key in gconf that was set to the preferred window manager, but its deprecated since Gnome 2.12.

So, if this is for a programming purpose, I suggest you to research for all the linux window managers; some popular are:

  • gnome-shell*
  • compiz
  • metacity
  • mutter
  • sawfish

You would have to run a check for each with the command pgrep -l $WINDOW_MANAGER, where $WINDOW_MANAGER is the name of the window manager you want to check for. The pgrep command checks for running processes.

I am not 100% sure if Gnome Shell is considered a window manager; the rest of the window managers I got from a list in the /usr/bin/gnome-wm script. This script in fact should be usable (since its present on a clean install) but in my case it tries to run compiz which is not my default window manager (not in my Gnome session).


Well @Anarci 's comment seems to be more accurate. In my case it did show gnome-shell.

  • 1
    Seems pgrep supports regex so a pattern with alternations can be used. pgrep -l "compiz|metacity|mutter|kwin|sawfish|fluxbox|openbox|xmonad" – Anonymous Oct 26 '11 at 21:58
  • 1
    That's not enough: what if the user is running several X sessions with different managers? You should at least check that the window manger's operating on the display you're interested in (you can do that by examining $DISPLAY in its environment). – Gilles Oct 26 '11 at 22:05
  • Ubuntu 18.04 LTS Desktop: Unity:Unity7:ubuntu Session: unity – user2584621 Sep 28 '18 at 17:06

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