How to install and configure the AfterStep window manager in Ubuntu

A dark Linux Ubuntu desktop showing icons

Image: Jack Wallen

In a recent article about cool things you can do with your Linux desktop that you can’t with MacOS or Windows, I mentioned a few of the many Linux desktops I’ve used over the years. One of those desktops (actually a window manager) was instrumental in helping me realize how great Linux is.

Now, before we go any further, you should know that the development of the AfterStep window manager ended some time ago. That means you are not receiving updates at this time. Even so, it can still be installed on Ubuntu Linux and works exactly as it did in the late 90’s when I first started using it.

Why would you even want to try a desktop that is out of date and no longer in development? First of all, just to see how cool the desktop can be. But a second benefit could be that if enough people fall in love with this desktop (as I did a long time ago), maybe some developer or team will fork it and breathe new life into this remarkable window manager.

Also: The 5 best Linux distributions for programming

Either way, installing AfterStep is so easy that it’s worth taking a look at what helped make the Linux desktop so unique. AfterStep is the most different desktop you’ve ever experienced, it’s highly configurable, and it’s (surprisingly) quite efficient and lightweight.

How to install and configure AfterStep

Let me show you how to install AfterStep on Ubuntu Linux and what makes it so special (for me at least).


To get AfterStep up and running, you’ll need an instance of Ubuntu Desktop (the version number doesn’t matter). You will also need a user with sudo privileges. And that’s it. Let’s add this fantastic desktop to your system.

The first thing you need to do is log in to your Ubuntu instance and open a terminal window.

With the terminal open, you can run the install command:

sudo apt-get install afterstep -y

The above command will install quite a few dependencies but won’t take up too much space on your local drive (as I said, AfterStep is pretty lightweight).

Once AfterStep is installed, log out of your desktop, select AfterStep from your login menu (how it works will depend on the login manager you use), and log back in. What you will find is a fascinating desktop. (Figure 1), ready to make computing fun again.

The dark blue AfterStep desktop with minimal icons.

Figure 1: The AfterStep desk in all its old-school glory.

Image: Jack Wallen

Here’s what you need to know to get up and running with AfterStep easily. If you click anywhere on the desktop, the main menu (Figure 2), where you can open applications, search for files, enable modules, open various settings, and perform other tasks.

The AfterStep desktop menu.

Figure 2: The AfterStep desktop menu in action.

Image: Jack Wallen

Here is a list of the other desktop items:

  • Above: A tabbed bar that allows you to focus on open applications.
  • Upper left corner: The dock allows you to open specific applications.
  • Upper right corner: the pager allows you to select a workspace to use.
  • Bottom right: folders where you can add different entries.
  • Bottom left: apps minimized.

Configuration options

This is where AfterStep gets a bit tricky. Each configuration option is handled through a text file, which means there is no GUI application to configure anything. The file that houses the configuration options is /usr/share/afterstep/database and contains entries that look like this:

Style "*" Icon interface.xpm
Style "Unknown" Icon Unknown.xpm
Style "Untitled*" Icon AfterStep3.xpm
Style "Wharf" NoTitle, Sticky, StaysOnTop, WindowListSkip, NoHandles, AvoidCover
Style "Zharf" NoTitle, Sticky, StaysOnTop, WindowListSkip, NoHandles, AvoidCover
Style "Banner" NoTitle, Sticky, StaysOnTop, WindowListSkip, NoHandles
Style "*Pager" NoTitle, Sticky, StaysOnTop, WindowListSkip, NoHandles, AvoidCover
Style "WinList" NoTitle, Sticky, StaysOnTop, WindowListSkip, NoHandles, AvoidCover
Style "*clock" StaysOnTop, WindowListSkip, NoHandles

The file is actually quite long, so you’ll want to spend some time getting to grips with the layout. I’m going to show you one of my favorite settings from the past.

To open the configuration file for editing, issue the command:

sudo nano /usr/share/afterstep/database

What I am going to show you is how to move the title bars of the window from the top to the left edge. It’s a simple trick but one that makes the desktop even more unique.

In the configuration file, find the line that looks like this:

# This record is for the AfterStep menu :

Above that line, add the following:

Save and close the file.

Open the desktop menu and click Quick > Restart Window Manager. Once AfterStep restarts, you should see that the title bars for all windows are now on the left edge (figure 3).

An example of AfterStep's left sidebars.

Figure 3: The left side title bar configuration is an AfterStep exclusive design.

Image: Jack Wallen

An interesting thing about AfterStep’s title bars

One of my favorite things about AfterStep’s title bars is that they allow you to shadow windows, which means the windows themselves will roll up so you only see the title bar. To shade a window, click __ near the right end of the title bar (or at the top, if you’ve moved the title bars to the left edge). Once you have shaded a window, you can remove the shading by clicking the __ icon again. With shaded windows, you can easily see what’s open and save screen space (Figure 4).

AfterStep showing shaded windows.

Figure 4: Left-side title bars and shaded windows make for a cool desktop.

Image: Jack Wallen

And that’s your introduction to one of my favorite old-school Linux window managers. Install AfterStep and spend some time customizing it so you can show off a great desktop to your friends, coworkers, and family.

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