New Window Manager Howtos

Table of Contents

Published: 2018-01-01

It's a new year, and in continuance of my yearly tradition of desktop customization over Christmas break, I have published new howto guides in the LinuxCSUF wiki for Openbox and dwm. These guides are sister guides of the Window Maker Howto that I wrote last year.

Those who know me know that I am a staunch Window Maker fan. Window Maker is one of the few user interfaces that seemed to click for me. For some reason, the large tiles and application grouping make sense to me. But its age sometimes shows, and like everything else it has its own set of weird quirks and bugs.

This year, I decided to try out something a little more modern–Openbox. I am very impressed so far. Openbox is lightweight, and it is super-configurable. Most importantly, it has relatively sane defaults (except for the fact that there is no panel by default).

As a testament to Openbox's flexibility, I can remap mouse bindings by simply editing a text file. One of the reasons I keep returning to Window Maker is the fact I have grown accustomed to some unusual quirks in how it focuses windows. For instance, I can hold the super key and right click on a window to give the window focus without raising it. With Openbox, I can adjust mouse bindings in rc.xml to replicate the same behavior. No other window manager I have used lets me configure mouse bindings to that degree.

However, history shows that it's still most likely a matter of time before I return to Window Maker.

Why use a customized desktop?

This is my workbench, dammit, it's not a pretty box to impress people with graphics and sounds. When I work at this system up to 12 hours a day, I'm profoundly uninterested in what user interface a novice user would prefer.

--Erik Naggum

I agree. Erik Naggum posted this to comp.lang.lisp in 1997. He was complaining about how "dumbed-down" the user interface of Windows 95 was. Things have become far worse since 1997 because of the insanity around "mobile" user interfaces.

When you need to use your system to write code, publish documents, or perform any other serious task for a majority of the day for several days per week for 52 weeks per year, the user interface better be good. Does it make you aim, point, and click on small icons too much? Does it put dialogs in your way when you are trying to work? Do things blink and move, causing needless distraction? Do advertisements pop up while you are working? Any small thorn can become a large sore after enough time.

Fortunately, Linux lets you take things into your own hands. Almost everything about the desktop can be customized.

Scattering versus maximizing

So, you read this far. The topic of a customized desktop environment must fascinate you for some reason.

Before you begin your quest, I think the most important question you can ask yourself is this:

Are you the kind of person who likes to scatter as many windows as possible on your display, or are you the kind of person who maximizes every window?

This question really fascinates me because I find that people usually default to one of the two behaviors religiously.

If you fall into the scatterer category (like me), then you will probably like any of the stacking window managers: Openbox, Window Maker, most desktop environments, fvwm, etc.

If you fall into the maximizer category, then you might be interested in some of the "dynamic" window managers. These window managers try to arrange windows for you, usually by maximizing the area of one window. Examples of dynamic window managers are dwm and awesome.

I happen to be a scatterer. This is why I can only use dwm for a limited amount of time. As much as I like the simplicity of dwm, I cannot get over the fact that everything I do should conform to a specific layout. Sure, that specific layout is nice for most of my tasks. However, every now and then, I just want to arrange the windows how I like.


If you have some free time, try Window Maker. Try Openbox. Try tiling window managers such as dwm and awesome. You might become attached to one of them. You will learn more about how your Linux desktop works.