The Artists' Guide to the Linux Desktop—Part IV

Variety is the spice of life.

The two previous articles in this series were focused on particular window managers: Enlightenment and Window Maker. I looked very closely at those two window managers because they epitomize the personalization that is possible in the Linux desktop. Unlike in the Mac or PC world, the look and feel of the Linux desktop can vary to the extreme. One Linux user's windowing interface need not look—or act—anything like anyone else's. The windowing interface you choose is like a big empty apartment. Not until you add the furniture and hang some pictures does it become a livable space. The kitchen is still a kitchen, but in Linux, it's your kitchen.

In this, the fourth and final part of the series, I'm going to take a quick look at some of the other, less well-known window managers available for Linux. Most of them have unique benefits over any other window manager—smaller memory footprints, more efficient code, better extensibility and so forth. They all look and behave slightly differently, although aside from AfterStep, none are designed with the graphical variety intended in both Enlightenment and Window Maker. That doesn't mean you don't want to consider them. On the contrary, there are definite situations in which you'll want to consider these alternatives, particularly if you do much work on a laptop.

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  • Requirements: XPM, JPEG and PNG libraries are recommended, but these should already be on any recent Linux distribution.

  • Compliance: GNOME (partial), KDE (unknown)

  • Extras: if it runs on Window Maker, chances are good it runs with AfterStep, but it's not guaranteed.

Figure 1. AfterStep's Default Theme

When I originally started this series, I had planned on looking at AfterStep in the same thorough manner I looked at E and Window Maker. After doing some research, I discovered Window Maker and AfterStep are pretty much the same beast. Internally and politically they may differ, but from an end-user perspective they're very similar, so much that if you read the previous article, you're up to date with AfterStep.

Still, there are a few things I need to mention about this window manager. AfterStep adds a bar across the top of the display, similar to the task bar of GNOME and KDE. The bar actually shows up only when the first application has been started; after that, each application gets added to the bar. It allows you to jump to applications very quickly, although personally I don't particularly like these types of features.

AfterStep features can be enabled or disabled prior to compiling the software. The configure script has far more options than most of the other window managers. This allows you to turn off some features, hopefully slimming down the window manager for use on resource-limited systems. However, if you use the -prefix option, be aware that the “make install” process doesn't create the /bin and /man directories under the directory you specified—you'll have to do that manually.

Unlike Window Maker, AfterStep has a pager similar to FVWM's pager, which I like quite a bit. It appears to look and work much like the one I'm used to and is available in the default configuration. Although I probably won't switch to AfterStep (the icon features I disliked in Window Maker are also present in AfterStep), I am more curious about it now that I've found a reasonable pager.

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  • Requirements: none

  • Compliance: GNOME (no), KDE (partial)

  • Extras: BBPager, BBTime, various others; all available from the main Blackbox site. Supports Window Maker dock applications through the use of a built-in tool called the Slit.

Figure 2. Blackbox, Using an Accompanying Theme

Of all the window managers I tried, Blackbox is certainly the easiest to build and install. It needs no special libraries, has no special requirements and took only a minute or two to compile. Obviously, this will depend on your hardware configuration, but the point is, this is the slimmest, most streamlined window manager available. That also means it's the one with the fewest bells and whistles.

While most of the other window managers provide some form of pizzazz through icons or image handling, Blackbox provides nothing more than simple gradients. It does include a tool for placing background images on the root window, but that's about all the pizzazz you'll find here. Still, the implementation does include support for dockable applications from Window Maker, through a built-in function called the Slit. I didn't try this feature, since the point of Blackbox is to not add snazzy appearance. It's truly a window manager designed to provide a decent look with as small a memory footprint as possible. This makes Blackbox a likely candidate for use on laptops.

Like with most window managers, you have to edit text files to make changes to the root menu. This isn't a serious problem, however. A fairly complete description of the menu file format is available on-line, linked from the Blackbox web site.

Blackbox has a panel across the bottom of the screen which includes a clock, two sets of arrows for cycling through windows and desktops, and an area displaying the title from the window which currently has the keyboard focus. An additional tool, BBPager, is available which provides many of the same pager features that FVWM's and AfterStep's pagers do. Although the pager accepts standard -geometry settings to set its position on the screen, the panel appears to be forced to the bottom of the display. I'd like a way of changing that, to move it to the top or side of the display, but didn't see whether that was possible.

One thing Blackbox doesn't do is enforce edge resistance by default. Edge resistance lets you slide a window up against an edge of the display, but not past it without a little applied force. I like window managers that do this; I seldom use windows that span workspaces, but do like to butt windows up against the edge of the display.

In general, I like Blackbox; I just need to learn how to configure it properly.