Switching to a Tiling Window Manager, and Why You Might Want To

Screenshot of i3 window manager

[This is a guest post by Nabeel Siddiqui, a doctoral candidate in American Studies at The College of William & Mary, where his research focuses on personal computers and the intersection of the public/private sphere. You can find him online here.--JBJ]

If you a watch a Mac user use a Windows machine or vice versa, you know how attached people can become to their operating systems. The frustration when people try to switch, however, has little to do with the underlying structure of the systems themselves. Instead, the peculiarities in navigating the file directory, closing and opening windows, and using keyboard shortcuts causes the most frustrations. While people often blame this on the operating system, most of the grievances come from the differences in desktop environments.

Although Windows and OS X tend to provide little leeway in changing desktop environments, Unix/Linux users often have dozens from which to choose. Recently, I wanted to see if a different desktop environment would alter how I worked or cause me to reexamine my assumptions about human computer interaction. Rather than finding an environment following the traditional desktop metaphor, I tried a tiling window manager.

Tiling window managers emerged in the 1980s but have recently become more widely available and easier to use. (Lincoln wrote a post about a tiling window manager three years ago.) I wanted to explore if I could they could help me as an academic. While most desktop environments stack windows, tiling window managers place windows next to one another and allow the user to view all programs simultaneously. As one commentator notes, if the traditional desktop metaphor treats application windows as pieces of paper that the user can resize, tiling window managers are similar to drawers where all the windows are neatly placed in their respective spaces.

The concept is easy to understand but requires practice to use efficiently. When you launch a program using a tiling window manager, the first window will take over the full screen. When you open another program, the window manager will “tile” the program side by side with the first one either vertically or horizontally. If you close the second window, the first window will go back to taking up the full screen. This continues as long as you open and close windows. In addition, you can move windows between workspaces and in most cases, the window manager or desktop environment will provide a means to automatically open select applications in distinct workspaces.

Moving around is almost purely keyboard driven, and users usually launch programs using keyboard launchers. To switch between applications, you hold a “modification” key along with another key indicating the direction you want to change the focus to. For instance, in the i3 window manager, which I use, you hold either the Alt key or Windows key. Then, you can set up i3wm to use key bindings like mod+left arrow to focus on the window to the left and mod+right arrow to focus on the window to the right. You can also set up different shortcuts to move windows to different workspaces, and they will tile with any other windows in the workspace.

My own workflow has changed significantly after switching to i3wm. While I am a heavy keyboard user, like most users, I rely on the mouse for most of my computer interaction. After switching to i3, I began using more applications that I could control with the keyboard only. In fact, once I got used to it, I began to find the mouse clunky and changed my workflow to be more keyboard driven.

Setting up workspaces was the most important shift in mindset when switching to a tiling window manager, and I encourage others to experiment with setting up different workspaces for different tasks. For instance, I created separate workspaces for my browser, writing application, PDF reader, and music player. If I ever need to reference a PDF or web page, I switch the application to my writing workspace and it automatically tiles the windows next to one another. Because I am usually typing on a laptop, this allow me to use my laptop’s screen much more effectively.

While tiling window managers may not fit everyone’s workflow, trying such a setup is an interesting experiment. Since they provide fewer distractions, I believe they are especially beneficial for those of us who have to constantly look at or edit text. Plus, you don’t need to run Unix/Linux to try a tiling window manager, although there are fewer options for other operating systems, similar tiling window managers exist for OS X and Windows, and they can be quickly uninstalled if you decide the workflow isn’t for you.

Do you use a tiling manager? Which one? Let us know in comments!

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