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Window-managers 101: The desktop beyond GNOME and KDE
Plus, a backgrounder on X Window System
Jul 9, 2002

Page 3 of 3

Larswm used to be one of my favorites among the extreme minimalist window managers. When I first tried it, it automatically tiled all the windows you open. The active application always took up most of the screen, and the rest of your open applications were automatically tiled in a vertical stack on the right of the screen. I love this behavior because it's much easier to see the work you're doing in various applications than if you minimize inactive applications to taskbar/icons or assign them to other virtual desktops.

This approach wasn't without its problems, however. For one thing, the default behavior of the old larswm could be pretty annoying whenever your application popped up a dialog box. This dialog box usually switched itself to be the active application, which means it expanded to fill the active portion of the screen and assigned your main window to the tiled stack on the right.

Over the past few years, the author(s) of larswm has addressed this and many other issues, but the solution seems worse than the problems to me. You can now customize the behavior of windows, keys and applications so that some applications will appear at predefined sizes and desktop locations, others will automatically tile, dialogs will not expand automatically and so on.

Forcing applications that were designed for traditional window environments to work in an auto-tiling environment solves one problem, but the last time I tried larswm, its default behavior wasn't anything I liked. I looked into what it would take to make it work the way it used to and solve the annoying problems. I concluded that I'd have to invest hours of testing and editing configuration files to get to my goal. That was simply too great a price to pay, so I gave up. If you've got time to twiddle, though, look into larswm.

pwm and fluxbox
Aside from larswm, the most inventive window managers I've seen so far are pwm and fluxbox. They're not based on the same code, but they share one great feature in common: they let you combine multiple applications into a single tabbed window. You can switch between the applications by clicking on the appropriate tabs. Think of it the same way you can select between open browser windows in Mozilla, Opera and Galeon (and coming soon to Konqueror). You may be more familiar with the same tabbed-selection feature in KDE's terminal application Konsole or GNOME's terminal application multi-gnome-terminal.

Pwm and fluxbox extend this capability to unrelated windows. This means you can connect an X11 terminal to a Mozilla browser and a word processor in a single-tabbed window and switch between them using the tabs. It's purely a personal preference, but I believe this is the most efficient use of screen space possible. It's also more convenient than virtual desktops as a way to switch between applications without having them create clutter or compete for screen space.

So which should you try? Both. If you like the look and feel of Blackbox, then be sure to give fluxbox a try. It is based on the Blackbox code and has basically the same elegant look.

There are countless other window managers out there. Some have so few features they're practically useless, while others have innovative approaches to window management like pwm, fluxbox and larswm. I featured the ones I feel are the most interesting, but if you are inclined to try more, search Freshmeat or another software index and you may be surprised at the variety of ideas and implementations of window managers you can find.

Page 1 Window-managers 101: The desktop beyond GNOME and KDE
Page 2 The obscure & the arcane
Page 3 larswm

About the author
Nicholas Petreley, a computer consultant and writer in Hayward, Calif., is the founding editor of VarLinux.org.


· GNOME vs. KDE revisited (LinuxWorld)
· GNOME & KDE docs & themes (LinuxWorld)
· GNOME vs. KDE: A license to sell (LinuxWorld)
· Why KDE applications have a bright desktop future (LinuxWorld)
· Window-managers 101: The desktop beyond GNOME and KDE (LinuxWorld)
· Xfce, Icewm & Enlightenment compared (LinuxWorld)
· Ion a not-too minimalist window manager (LinuxWorld)
· Favorite minimalist file managers (LinuxWorld)
· How to run both stable & development versions of KDE with Debian (LinuxWorld)

· Sawfish (formerly called Sawmill)
· Blackbox
· Larswm
· Pwm
· Fluxbox
· Freshmeat Window Managers

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