Gno More Gnome: Enter the Tiling WM

Gnome has always treated me well. It provides many of the features a user needs on a daily basis, and then some. Converts from Windows will appreciate the similar look and feel of a task bar, mouse behavior, and floating window layout thanks to Compiz or Metacity. Gnome has been my DE for quite some time now. I tinkered with KDE and XFCE, but they never seemed to behave as cleanly as Gnome. As my Linux skills have developed, I’ve found myself increasingly using the terminal. I’m proud to say that I’m 100% sold on Vim as a fully functional text editor with just about every feature I could ever want. My music player of choice is ncmpcpp — an ncurses based front end to MPD, and I use irssi for IRC. Gnome-Do, a fantastic application launcher, essentially was relegated as a launcher to urxvt. Then it hit me. Why am I bothering with this now seemingly archaic mouse-centric interface when I’m constantly using the keyboard? My GUI should complement this! I browsed around looking at various tiling window managers which were purported to be more keyboard friendly. Here’s a few I checked out:

Xmonad: Fairly lightweight, but being based entirely in Haskell, ends up being a fairly large investment if you’re not already using other Haskell programs. The config is, of course, also based in Haskell. Any changes require a recompile of the source code, as the config is essentially a header file, but this can be done on the fly and isn’t that unfriendly of a process. Addons such as Xmobar exist to give you a launcher and panel interface, making the environment more immediately informative. Given the Haskell overhead requirement and my lack of interest in learning the language, I quickly moved on. This isn’t to say that I’m discounting Xmonad as a window manager. A Haskell programmer would be more than at home here.

AwesomeWM: This tiler is, as you might expect, completely awesome. I found it to be somewhat full featured for the lightweight world of tilers. The source and config is written in Lua — a language I’m very familiar with after writing addons for World of Warcraft for a year. However, because its interpreted, it can be a little less responsive than a window manager based on a compiled language.  Awesome comes with several  helper libraries to improve your experience, colorfully named such as: awful, beautiful, wicked, and naughty. They bind with outside programs to give you features such as keybindings, popup notifications, and widgets. The downside is that the author of Awesome doesn’t live up to his own WM. Many users have left Awesome frustrated because of the tendency of the author to change the entire configuration format on a new release. Writing a proper config for a tiling WM can be tedious the first time. I’m not sure I want to be forced into rewriting just to get access to new features and bug fixes. It was here that I had my first introduction to a tiler called DWM, which Awesome is a fork of.

DWM: Dynamic Window Manager by suckless.org. Or as I would like to call it, Damn! Win Much? In addition to uncovering this via Awesome, I had also read briefly about DWM by way of the Arch Linux forums. I had seen oh-so pretty snapshots of users’ desktops in the monthly screenshot thread. This WM is about as basic as it gets, but it quickly grows on you. The codebase and config are both C, and who doesn’t have gcc installed on a Linux box? After gleefully compiling and building a package for DWM (which took less than 10 seconds), I was wondering if it would even work. Was I missing a file? An entire directory? There were no errors. Hrmm.. a quick check with `du -sh` in the build directory revealed something beautiful: The source code, dump files, compiled code, and the ready to install package comprised less than 400kb. It runs. A recompile is required when changing the config, but it can be done seamlessly. By executing dwm in an infinite loop via .xinitrc, you can recompile and reinstall DWM, use the default shift+mod1+q to kill the WM, and it immediately pops back with all your programs still running. Fabulous. The WM makes gratuitous usage of what it calls tags. Programs are defined in the config as associated with these tags so that they’re always opening where you expect them. Dmenu is another piece of software made by suckless meant to complement DWM. It’s an application launcher that will make Gnome-do users feel right at home. One last bit of praise — DWM has a man page in which no user of this WM will want to go without reading, as it provides extraordinarily useful shortcuts which you will use on a regular basis. You’ll also find that they’re somewhat reminiscent of Vim — mod1+h, j, k, l invocation is present.

Scrotwm: Honorable mention for name.

I’ll definitely be sticking with DWM for a while. While I’m not rushing off to uninstall Gnome just yet, I’m thinking it’s only a matter of time. One other thing to mention about almost any of these low level tiling managers is that the config doesn’t end with the WM specific config file. You’ll find yourself writing all sorts of helper scripts as well as fleshing out your .xinitrc, .Xresources, .xsession, .profile, etc. in order to complete your GUI experience. I won’t lie. It’s going to be a lot of work to get it just right, but similarly to a program like Vim, you have to look ahead and know that with the steep learning curve comes great power and fantastic results. You’re not alone though. The great Google provides unlimited resources for configuring just about everything, and many users of DWM and other tilers have made available their dot files and configurations via GitHub.

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7 Responses to “Gno More Gnome: Enter the Tiling WM”


  1. 1 jzacsh November 29, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    I was actually just pondering the other day, with all the SSH action I’ve been having, how much a stretch it would be for me to tone down this default graphics experience that comes with Ubuntu. Awesome timing, yet again.

  2. 2 jzacsh December 3, 2009 at 7:36 pm

    Do you have to do anything special (even pick different packages) when using stuff like GIMP or OpenOffice? I was reading up on windowing systems and learned that GTK and QT are examples of what provides the interface between software and the x server. So does that mean you have to get packages written with different interface APIs?

    thanks 🙂

    • 3 Dave December 3, 2009 at 8:25 pm

      The lack of Gnome or KDE doesn’t prevent you from installing those APIs by themselves. You are however, limited or forced to alter your software choices. A lot of programs that come with the Gnome desktop have several other dependencies rooted in Gnome libraries (e.g. Brasero or any Gnome Panel applet). There’s nothing stopping you from installing the entire Gnome desktop and using these programs with DWM, but that sort of defeats the purpose of going light weight, doesn’t it?

      On the other hand, if you’re truly dedicated to conforming to the style of a tiling WM and using your mouse less and less, you’ll find that a lot of these programs need replacing. Here’s some of the transitions I’ve made:

      music player (was Songbird): MPD + ncmpcpp
      video player (was VLC): mplayer + pymp
      im client (was Pidgin): irssi + bitlbee

      On the other hand, I still need programs like Inkscape and GIMP to continue working. In these cases, I still have GTK installed, and I’ve custom built a version of Inkscape that doesn’t depend on Gnome. I also retain Qt libraries for VirtualBox and OpenOffice. This is where a distribution like Arch Linux truly shines. The power users are all using tiling window managers (lots of Xmonad and DWM setups) and due to their nature, they support themselves and share the wealth via PKGBUILDs in the AUR.

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