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Trying out a different desktop environment

30.6.2019 14:28:44

I'm a fan of tiling window managers on GNU/Linux. There's something real comfy about using your graphical desktop environment with nothing but your keyboard. I find the paradigm is excellent especially for programming, where you often have multiple terminal windows open at the same time. Now, GNU Screen and tmux exist to split up the terminal into multiple windows, but they're a bit of a hassle and come with their own problems. A desktop environment usually automatically supports multiple monitors and virtual desktops, and has sane default keybindings to work with, with the added benefit that you can also tile any non-terminal programs.

i3 has been my window manager of choice for many years now, and it has worked well. I love the workflow I've developed for it. While programming, I usually have...

  • One virtual desktop for Vim.
  • One virtual desktop for compiling and running (2 terminals).
  • One virtual desktop for Firefox and other graphical programs.
  • Possibly one virtual desktop for running multiple programs after compilation at the same time.
  • One virtual desktop on a secondary monitor with IRC, a music player and possible other chat programs.

Typically I spend most of my time in Vim and compiling/running the program I'm currently developing - two different virtual desktops. i3, like many window managers, has great, intuitive virtual desktop support.

i3 vs spectrwm

Having used the same desktop environment for such a long time, I felt like maybe I should try out something new for a change, you know, to give the old brain a tickle of sorts, and also to see if there's optimizations to be made in my workflow. Sometimes you just get stuck doing the same thing because you've always done it that way, right? So, I tried a few different window managers.

Of the ones I tried, the only tiling WM I ended up liking was spectrwm. It's quite similar to i3, but there were a couple of features about it I really liked:

  • The default config is very sane and good-looking.
  • No mouse required (like i3).
  • It feels light. For some reason, opening windows felt faster than i3 - in i3, you can sometimes kind of see the window resizing after it's been opened. Placebo? I don't know!
  • The bottom bar configuration scheme with a single shell script awesome.

Especially the bottom bar configuration is a feature I like. In spectrwm, the bottom bar's text is the output of a user-defined shell script. You can print just about anything there - just write a bash script with a timed while loop in it, print out the current time, network status, etc. and you have a nice-looking bottom bar with all your important info on it. What would make this event nicer is if there was a way to call into spectrwm to refresh the script - that way, when certain events happen, the script could be updated immediately rather than in the next iteration of the timed loop. Maybe there already is a way and I'm ignorant, I don't know. Of course, there are more compilated ways of doing such a thing in bash, but I don't think I'm up for that much work.

All in all, I really like spectrwm, but it has one feature that makes it bad for my desktop use. The feature is that with a dual-monitor setup, selecting any virtual desktop will place it in your current window, so that even if I created the desktop on the right monitor, it may end up in the left monitor later by accident. I find this a very distracting feature, and if there's a way to disable the behaviour, I'd appreciate to hear of it.

After all that, I am keeping i3 on my desktop machine, but on my laptop, I've moved to spectrwm, since it only has a single monitor and thus doesn't suffer from the aforementioned desktop-monitor-switching feature. It hasn't really changed my workflow, but feels faster and looks slicker by default. Besides, the configuration scheme with the shell scripts and all makes me childishly feel like a bit of a hacker.