Installing and using FVWM-Crystal version 3.0.6 in Ubuntu Dapper, Edgy or Feisty.*


Compiz Fusion and similar eye-candy driven desktops are popular, but impossible on older hardware. Most of those spectacular setups employ pure transparency, which again, is unattainable without certain equipment. Anything that predates it just can't do it.

But that doesn't mean pre-composite hardware is stuck with an ugly interface. FVWM-Crystal is an offshoot of the FVWM desktop, and has been directly modified for pseudo-transparent window decorations, menu bars, workspaces and system trays. To quote the FVWM-Crystal web site,

  • "FVWM-Crystal aims to create an easy to use, eye-candy but also powerful desktop environment for Linux or other Unix-like operating systems. It uses following programs: FVWM as a window manager and "main core", ROX-Filer as file manager (manages icons on the desktop), xterm, aterm, mrxvt or urxvt as terminal emulators, MPD or XMMS as music players (there's built-in support for controlling these programs), and several other tools for different functions, like setting a wallpaper or making screen shots."

Here's a screenshot of an easy FVWM-Crystal desktop built with Ubuntu. Note the system monitor, and the fact that this is only a 750Mhz Pentium III laptop with an 8Mb ATI Rage Mobility M1 card. Here's another and another, both using the same outdated equipment. It's possible to build similarly attractive desktops on even older hardware, without too much fuss.

For more screenshots, visit the screenshot gallery at the FVWM-Crystal Web site.


  • FVWM-Crystal is easy to set up.
  • It looks good.

  • It's very lightweight, which makes it speedy even on Pentium II and older computers.
  • It is likewise easy to tweak, set different wallpaper, pick different themes or change colorsets.
  • It has a built-in screenshot tool that is triggered through the Applications menu.
  • It includes xscreensaver by default, and has hot-wired menu items to control it.

  • Most of the desktop menus are automatically configured.
  • XMMS and MPD are integrated into the desktop environment, which means they are controllable through dedicated buttons and menus on the desktop.
  • If you're into customizing your desktop look, most (if not all) of FVWM-Crystal's desktop configuration files are directly editable as text files.
  • It's an active project, which means you have a sub-community of FVWM fans who are also using these sets of configurations.

Some downsides

  • If you're not comfortable with editing text files, or if you are not comfortable with the command line, FVWM-Crystal can seem a little intimidating.
  • Adding to or modifying the automatically generated menus can be daunting.
  • Some of the fancier parts of Ubuntu, Kubuntu or Xubuntu are not included in FVWM-Crystal; for example, automounting CDROMs or USB connections (like digital cameras) is an additional step.

FVWM-Crystal is definitely something you have to try on to see if it fits you. For some people, FVWM-Crystal is love at first sight. For others, something like Openbox or Fluxbox is preferable. Try it for yourself.


The most efficient way of installing version 3.0.4 of FVWM-Crystal is to install the 3.0.3 version from the Dapper, Edgy or Feisty* repositories, then build the newest version and install it over top of that one. This isn't nearly as difficult as it might sound.

What you'll need

  • Your old computer, with a server installation of Ubuntu completed and all your hardware configured
  • An active internet connection, preferably high-speed (you're going to download a lot of packages if you start with a server install)
  • Access to the universe and multiverse repositories (in other words, those repositories are enabled)

  • A human to type the commands Wink ;)

Additionally, since we'll be installing FVWM-Crystal from a tarball package, so you should be comfortable with terminal commands like tar, wget, sudo, aptitude and the like.

Getting started

Since most older hardware won't have the muscle to start out with a full Ubuntu installation, you might do better to install from a server and add the FVWM-Crystal desktop on top. For more information about server installations and how to start from a command-line system, take a look at the LowMemorySystems page. But if you just want to experiment, there's nothing stopping you from installing FVWM-Crystal over top of a Gnome installation.

Set up and install

Start by downloading some essentials. This is roughly 85Mb in size.

  • sudo aptitude install -y xorg fvwm-crystal build-essential msttcorefonts

Note for Dapper (and earlier) users: Substitute x-window-system-core for xorg in that command.

That will put the X framework into place, configure it and ready the desktop. Installing fvwm-crystal brings in the 3.0.3 version, all its dependencies and auxilliary programs like XMMS and Rox-filer. Most of FVWM-Crystal's themes use the Microsoft core fonts, so those have been listed as well; they are, however, optional. And finally, since we plan on building the 3.0.4 version over top of the old one, we need build-essential.

Once those are downloaded and installed, download the newest version of FVWM-Crystal. (Remember that this command will put the tarball in the directory where you issue the command, so if you want it somewhere else, use the destination flag, or move to that directory first. Wink ;) )

  • wget

Now untar it. If you want it to decompress elsewhere, use the -C flag.

  • tar -xvzf fvwm-crystal-3.0.6-tar.gz

When it's finished, change into the directory it creates.

  • cd fvwm-crystal-3.0.6

And install it over the old version.

  • sudo make install

It won't take long.

As one last step, make sure X knows to trigger FVWM-Crystal when it starts up. Enter this command to create an .xinitrc file in your home directory.

  • nano -w ~/.xinitrc

Type this line into it, then hit CTRL+O to write out the file and CTRL+X to exit nano.

  • exec fvwm-crystal

That's it. FVWM-Crystal 3.0.6 is now installed and ready to roll. Start the desktop with the startx command. If you have any video problems, troubleshoot your xorg.conf file and try again.

Adding applications

In its purest state, FVWM-Crystal includes very few programs aside from what it needs to function. So you'll probably want a browser, perhaps a few graphics programs, and a game or two. Here's a basic list, built as a command line, that will at least get you started.

  • sudo aptitude install mozilla-firefox mozilla-mplayer gimp abiword inkscape frozen-bubble

Those are rather random picks; you can add or subtract from that list. But those will give you some of the most common programs seen in Ubuntu -- Firefox, Mplayer, the Gimp, Abiword, Inkscape and Frozen Bubble -- and if you don't know what Frozen Bubble is, you're missing out! Big Grin :)

Each time FVWM-Crystal starts, it checks its database of programs against what's installed on your computer, and builds the menus from that list. So if you add a program and you want it to appear in the menus, restart fvwm-crystal from the Applications menu.

Terminal emulators

xterm and aterm are viable options for terminal emulators in FVWM-Crystal; in fact, right-clicking anywhere on the desktop will activate the default terminal.

However, keeping with the pseudo-transparency theme, you might consider using the xfce4-terminal, which is very easy to configure and will complement your new eye candy quite nicely.

  • sudo aptitude install xfce4-terminal

Restart FVWM-Crystal so it appears as a menu option, and set it as the default terminal through the Applications menu. Then configure xfce4-terminal for your favorite transparency and effects. Have fun!


FVWM-Crystal is mostly self-configured, with plenty of default options for wallpaper, colorsets and window decorations. Play with the default options and focus options as well; if you prefer one button scheme to another, make sure you try that as well.

Recipes, colorsets and window decorations

Recipes define the layout of the system menus and taskbars around the screen. FVWM-Crystal has quite a few as default options; you're also free to experiment and design some more.

Colorsets are the color schemes for the system menus and taskbars, and window, etc., -- not the layout, but the color schemes. These too are editable as text files, if you feel creative.

Finally, window decorations are drawn around application windows, including the title bars and window frames.


By default, FVWM-Crystal keeps a list of default wallpaper in its own directory, but scans for a folder in your home directory called wallpapers. If you make that directory and put some wallpaper in there, they'll be offered as selections in the Applications menu.

It will take a little time for FVWM-Crystal to generate thumbnails (via imagemagick, it should be mentioned -- don't worry, it was installed automatically) when new wallpaper is put in that folder. Be patient, particularly if your machine is slow. And if you add three or four (or more) at once, the delay can be considerable.


FVWM-Crystal's built-in screenshot tool puts the results inside the ~/.fvwm-crystal/screenshots folder.


xscreensaver in its default form has several enabled, but not installed screensavers. In the xscreensaver menu panel, you'll see some screensavers which are "grayed out," but are still activated. As a result, xscreensaver shows brief onscreen error messages when it tries to start those missing screensavers.

This is a quirk in Ubuntu, and is unrelated to FVWM-Crystal. Fortunately, it's easy enough to fix:

  • sudo aptitude install xscreensaver-gl-extra xscreensaver-data-extra

Those two packages will bring in the remaining "missing" screensavers, and allow xscreensaver to run without error. Alternatively, you can deactivate all those enabled screensavers, but that could prove quite tedious.

One more note: Installing xscreensaver does not create the /usr/share/backgrounds folder, which means the first time you open the preferences dialogue, you'll be bombarded with error messages telling you that folder doesn't exist. Solve that with this command:

  • sudo mkdir /usr/share/backgrounds

The error messages should now stop.

Inter-wiki links

Installing Ubuntu on machines with low specs:

Some other window managers that don't have heavy resource requirements:

External links

  • FVWM-Crystal Web site: A good place to start when working with FVWM-Crystal.

  • An excellent review of FVWM-Crystal, with more tips on installation, configuration and use.

  • Xubuntu, a full-featured Ubuntu distribution that is intended for machines that lack the resources of modern computers. It may or may not be an option for your computer, though; it has matured into a complete distro and has lost some of the leanness that was an early hallmark.

*At the time of writing, Feisty repos still listed fvwm-crystal at version 3.0.3. If the package is updated between now and Feisty's release, the installation sequence on this page isn't necessary ... but will still apply to Dapper and Edgy.

FVWM-Crystal (last edited 2009-04-29 23:36:01 by adsl201-244131014)