I have a headless build; which has no x11 server nor any desktop manager.

I would like to run some music applications; so I can use a small touch screen that I recently found; and I was wondering if there is a way to run an application from terminal, that launch a UI, without install the ton of packages required to run a X11 server.

My whole system run on 2 GB; I would like to use this configuration (board plus touchscreen) as controller for a midi keyboard; so I can have a stand alone synthesizer basically; and use the touchscreen to change banks, samples, midi instruments or parameters.

Not sure if this is even possible; I always ran applications via X11 on linux, but I thought that asking here may give me some ideas.

The final objective is to have the board to run connected to a midi keyboard as standalone; if I need to flash again the sd card that's fine; I can use a larger one, if there is a distribution that works for my case; otherwise I don't mind to geek out on the file system and make changes to make it happen; although I am not able to find much on the subject.


2 Answers 2


You don't need X11 or a desktop environment to have a user interface (UI). X11 is just one (widely used) option if you want a graphical user interface. The desktop environments for Linux usually build on X11, and provide many other functions, a window manager is just one of those.

If you have just one application in mind, a desktop environment is certainly overkill.

If you write your application yourself, you can just address the screen yourself. But it may be easier to just install the X Server without many of the fancy libraries, and just pass the commands to draw on the screen to the X Server, because that is the purpose of the X Server.

However, if you don't write your application yourself, you must install whatever the application needs. But there are also applications like aplay that can play a sound and don't need X11.

Regarding the size, 2GB should be enough for an X11 installation.

  • Thanks; I do write my applications, but in this case, I can't write my own audio applications, so I am going to rely to what I find online. I would favor GUI apps but due to the fact that I want to keep my distro lean, I thought that going for terminal based apps was OK; as long as I can actually drive those via GUI. I thought of python executing shell calls and use something like QT or Tkinter to get the UI going, but I was not sure about the requirements. I will look further into console apps;most of the apps I found, do have a very complex UI, which won't fit on my small 3.5 LCD
    – rataplan
    Commented Jun 9, 2019 at 17:54

I run a minimal X11 desktop using the icewm window manager and xdm for display manager on Raspbian. Starting with Stretch Lite, I install the following packages:

apt-get install xserver-xorg xserver-xorg-core xserver-common xdm icewm xterm x11-apps \ 
        xfonts-base xfonts-100dpi xfonts-75dpi xfonts-scalable

Not sure how much space these require, but it's definitely a LOT less than any full-blown desktop environment. If you also want to use VNC with this, you can install tigervnc-standalone-server and use the configuration details described in How To Install and Configure efficient LAN-based VNC on raspbian

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