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How I use my virtual desktops //at 00:29 //by abe

from the when-individualism-becomes-a-habit dept.

Many months ago I stumbled upon this German written meme about how users use their virtual desktops. I use virtual desktops since my very early Unix times (tvtwm on Sun Sparc SLC/ELC/IPX with greyscale screens running SunOS 4.x), so in the meantime I use them nearly everywhere the same way.

Short Summary

3x5, no overlapping windows, either tiling or fullscreen, keyboard navigation, xterms, yeahconsole, FVWM, panel for systray.

Window Manager of Choice

My window manager of choice is FVWM since more than a decade. I tried others like Sawfish, Metacity and Compiz, but I couldn’t get them behave like the FVWM I got used to, so I always came back.

Since I hate overlapping windows, I use FVWM a lot like a tiling window manager. FVWM has this nice function to maximize windows so that they occupy as much space as available, but do not overlap other windows. This function was also often missing when I tried other window managers. I though do not want to use real tiling window managers since I have a few sticky windows around (e.g. the panner with the virtual desktops and xosview) and they shouldn’t be overlapped either.

Virtual Desktops

Switching between virtual desktops is done with the keyboard only – with Ctrl-Shift as modifier and the cursor keys. The cursor keys are usually pressed with thumb, ring and small finger of the right hand. Which hand presses Ctrl and Shift depend on the situation and keyboard layout, but it’s usually either ring and small finger of the left hand, or pointer and middle finger of the right hand. So I’m able to switch the virtual desktop with only one hand.

I have always three rows of virtual desktops and usually four or five columns.

The top row is usually occupied with xterms. It’s my work space. The top left workspace usually contains at least one xterms with a shell and one with mutt, my favourite e-mail client since nearly a decade. At home the second left virtual desktop in the top row usually contains a full-screen Liferea (my preferred feed reader) while at work it contains the GNU Emacs main window besides two xterms. Emacs and the emacs server are automatically started at login.

This also means that I switch the virtual desktops when I switch between mutt and Emacs for typing the content of an e-mail. Did this already during my studies. (At home mutt runs inside a screen, so there I just switch the virtual terminal with Ctrl-A Ctrl-A instead of the virtual desktop. Not that big difference ;-)

The other virtual desktops of the the top row get filled with xterms as needed. Usually one virtual desktop per task.

The middle row is for web browsers. One full screen browser (usually Conkeror or Opera) per virtual desktop, often opened with many tabs (tabs in Opera, buffers in Conkeror) related to the task I’m accomplishing in the xterms in the virtual deskop directly above.

The third row usually contains root shells for maintenance tasks, either permanently open ones on machines I need an administrate often (e.g. daily updates of Debian testing or Debian unstable machines), or for temporary mass administration (Linux workstations on the job, all Xen DomUs of one Xen server, etc.) using pconsole.


Additionally I have a sticky yeahconsole running, an xterm which slides down from the top like the console in Quake. (It’s the only overlapping thing I use. :-) My yeahconsole can be activated on every virtual desktop by pressing Ctrl-Alt-Z (with QWERTY layout, Ctrl-Alt-Y with QWERTZ layout). It’s the terminal for those one-line jobs then and when, e.g. calling ccal, translate, wget or clive.

Changes over time

Of course the desktop usage changes from time to time:

At work I have more than one monitor, so in the meanwhile the second row with the web browsers “moved” to the second screen – with independent virtual desktops (multiple X servers, no Xinerama). The second row on the main screen at work is now used the same way as the third row with a slight preference for the permanently open shells while the third row is more used for mass administration with pconsole.

At home I used XMMS respective Audacious for a long time (my FVWM panner and xosview are exactly as wide as WinAmp2/XMMS/Audacious, guess why:-) which usually was sticky the same way as the panner and xosview are. But when I started using recently, I moved to Rhythmbox (after testing some other music players like e.g. Amarok) which I use in fullscreen as I do with web browsers and the feed reader. So it occupies a complete virtual desktop, usually the second one in the middle row – below the feed reader because I don’t need a corresponding web browser for the feed reader. (Just found out that there is a player for text-mode, so maybe that will change again. :-)

Another thing which changed my virtual desktop usage was the switch from a classical tabbed web browser (Galeon, Kazehakase, Opera) to the buffer oriented Conkeror. With a tabbed web browser I have either no overview over all open tabs (one row tab bar or truncated tab menu) or they occupy too much space of the browser window. That was another reason for more than one browser window and therefore more than one virtual desktop with fullscreen web browser windows. With Conkeror tabs are optional (and not even enabled by default), Conkeror uses buffer like Emacs and if you want to switch to another buffer, you press C-x b and then start typing parts of the buffer’s name (e.g. parts of the URL or the web page title) to narrow down the list of buffers until only one is left or until you have spotted the wanted buffer in the list and choose it with the cursor keys. So the need for more than one browser window is gone.

For a long time I didn’t need any task/menu/start/whatever bar on my desktop. But since neither NetworkManager nor wicd have a comand-line interface (yet) and bluetooth seems also easier handled from the system tray my laptops also use either gnome-panel (big screen, long sessions with FVWM) or lxpanel (formerly used trayer; use it on small screen, short sessions with ratpoison or matchbox) on my laptops. It’s sticky and always visible. (No overlapping, remember? ;-)

The panel is usually at the bottom on the screen as by default with Windows or KDE, not at top as with GNOME and MacOS. Only on the OpenMoko, I have the panel at the top to be close to what I’m used from Nokia mobile phones.

Things I tried …

… but didn’t survive in my setup:

  • Desktop icons – nearly always covered if you use a tiling window manager. (I though use root window menus – mostly for starting applications later occupying that space where I clicked. ;-)
  • A button to minimize all windows. Only sissies without virtual deskops need that. ;-)
  • Automatically scrolling logfile content on the desktop (root-tail, root-portal, etc) – the space was too precious to not use it for xterms or web browsers. ;-)

Systems without Virtual Desktops

Anyway, there are systems where I don’t use virtual desktops at all. On systems with a screen resolution so small that there’s not enough space for two non-overlapping, fixed font 80x25 xterms on the screen (e.g. on my MicroClient with 8” touch screen, the 7” EeePC or the OpenMoko) I do not use virtual desktops at all. On such systems I use all applications in fullscreen, so switching between applications is like switching virtual desktops anyway. My window managers of choice for such systems are ratpoison for systems with keyboard and matchbox for system without keyboard. With ratpoison you treat windows like terminals in GNU screen, so there are no new keybindings to learn if you’re already used to screen (which I use nearly daily since more than a decade).

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Hackergotchi of Axel Beckert


This is the blog or weblog of Axel Stefan Beckert (aka abe or XTaran) who thought, he would never start blogging... (He also once thought, that there is no reason to switch to this new ugly Netscape thing because Mosaïc works fine. That was about 1996.) Well, times change...

He was born 1975 at Villingen-Schwenningen, made his Abitur at Schwäbisch Hall, studied Computer Science with minor Biology at University of Saarland at Saarbrücken (Germany) and now lives in Zürich (Switzerland), working at the Network Security Group (NSG) of the Central IT Services (Informatikdienste) at ETH Zurich.

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