Why You Should Value Function Over Form With Window Managers

Many developers like to spend an excessive amount of time ricing their Linux distros, usually with window managers (WMs) like Awesome, i3wm, and monsterwm. Of course, window managers are often chosen because of their aesthetic, but in many cases, you should value function over form with window managers.

If you’re not familiar with window managers, they essentially split your screen into discrete sections, and assign windows into those sections. You’re free to resize these at any time so that certain windows can occupy more space, and depending on which window manager you choose, you can also stack windows on top of each other, place them in a tabbed view, and switch between multiple different screens. This, combined with the use of workspaces, allows you to conveniently jump back and forth between different sets of windows in an instant.

A screen-capture of i3wm, a popular window manager.

The image above is a bare-basic i3wm setup, with Terminator as the terminal and the standard i3statusbar at the bottom. Aside from modifying the status bar and setting Terminator to use solarized-dark colors, this is an un-riced setup. Typically, ricers will begin the ricing process by using Conky.


The Art of Displaying Tons of Irrelevant Information With Conky


Many ricers love to display an excessive amount of irrelevant information on their desktop as a way to make their screen look fancy and technical. The more scary and overwhelming it looks, the better. Usually, this is done by using Conky, a software whose purpose is to display information on your desktop. At first, this doesn’t sound particularly interesting, but if you’ve ever looked at a riced desktop, then you know first-hand how impressive Conky can make your desktop look.

Conky in action.

I know what you’re thinking — you’re probably thinking, “That’s amazing! I want my desktop to look like that too! Time to close this article and look up a ricing guide“. It’s a trap. Speaking from personal experience, ricing is a massive time-sink. Imagine you’re trying to make a website look fancy by using CSS. Now, swap out the CSS for Lua.

The great thing about making Conky scripts in Lua is that there are no selectors, meaning you need to constantly copy and paste the styling over and over again. For example,  suppose you have yellow text in Times New Roman, font 12. If you want to make ten separate sets of words with that exact styling, you will have to simply copy and paste the exact same styling ten times.

Here’s an example from the Conky setup listed above, which you can find on Conky’s official GitHub page at https://github.com/xyphanajay/conky/blob/master/.conkyrc1

conky.text = [[
${font DejaVu Sans Mono:size=14}${alignc}${time %I:%M:%S}
${font Impact:size=10}${alignc}${time %A, %B %e, %Y}
${font Entopia:size=12}${color orange}CALENDAR ${hr 2}$color
${font DejaVu Sans Mono:size=9}${execpi 1800 DA=`date +%_d`; cal | sed s/"\(^\|[^0-9]\)$DA"'\b'/'\1${color orange}'"$DA"'$color'/}
${font Entopia:bold:size=12}${color red}FILE SYSTEM ${hr 2}${font Noto sans:size=8}
#${offset 4}${color}dev ${alignr}FREE     USED
${offset 4}${color}root (${fs_type /}) ${color yellow}${alignr}${fs_free /} ${fs_used /}
${offset 4}${color yellow}${fs_size /} ${color}${fs_bar 4 /}
${offset 4}${color FFFDE2}home (${fs_type /home}) ${color yellow}${alignr}${fs_free /home/} ${fs_used /home/}
${offset 4}${color yellow}${fs_size /home/} $color${fs_bar 4 /home/}
${offset 4}${color FFFDE2}sda5 (${fs_type /run/media/senpai/6EC832DEC832A3ED/}) ${color yellow}${alignr}${fs_free /run/media/senpai/6EC832DEC832A3ED/} ${fs_used /run/media/senpai/6EC832DEC832A3ED/}
${offset 4}${color yellow}${fs_size /run/media/senpai/6EC832DEC832A3ED/} $color${fs_bar 4 /run/media/senpai/6EC832DEC832A3ED/}
${offset 4}${color FFFDE2}sda6 (${fs_type /run/media/senpai/6EC832DEC832A3ED/}) ${color yellow}${alignr}${fs_free /run/media/senpai/C208F88708F87BAB/} ${fs_used /run/media/senpai/C208F88708F87BAB/}
${offset 4}${color yellow}${fs_size /run/media/senpai/C208F88708F87BAB/} $color${fs_bar 4 /run/media/senpai/C208F88708F87BAB/}
${font Entopia:bold:size=12}${color green}CPU ${hr 2}
${offset 4}${color black}${cpugraph F600AA 5000a0}
${offset 4}${font DejaVu Sans Mono:size=9}${color white}CPU: $cpu% ${color red}${cpubar 6}
${font Entopia:bold:size=12}${color 00FFD0}Network ${hr 2}  
${color black}${downspeedgraph enp8s0 32,80 ff0000 0000ff}${color black}${upspeedgraph enp8s0 32,80 0000ff ff0000}
$color${font DejaVu Sans Mono:size=8}▼ ${downspeed enp8s0}${alignc}${color green} IPv6${alignr}${color}▲ ${upspeed enp8s0}
${color black}${downspeedgraph wlp10s0f0 32,80 ff0000 0000ff}${color black}${upspeedgraph wlp10s0f0 32,80 0000ff ff0000}
$color${font DejaVu Sans Mono:size=8} ▼ ${downspeed wlp10s0f0}${alignc}${color orange} ${wireless_essid wlp10s0f0}${alignr}${color}▲ ${upspeed wlp10s0f0}
${font Entopia:bold:size=12}${color F600AA}Disk I/O ${hr 2}
${alignc}${font}${color white}SSD vs HDD $mpd_name
${color black}${diskiograph /dev/sda 32,80 a0af00 00110f}${diskiograph /dev/sdb 32,80 f0000f 0f0f00}
${font DejaVu Sans Mono:size=8}${color white}   ${diskio /dev/sda}${alignr}${diskio /dev/sdb}
]]

It’s not exactly the prettiest.

But there’s more. With Conky, your desktop doesn’t act like a normal web page, it acts more like a canvas where everything is practically absolutely positioned. Finally, because you’ll likely be too lazy to learn Lua and Conky’s many nuances just for the sake of ricing, you’ll likely resort to to copying and pasting snippets from all over the internet, and with each copy and pasted snippet you add, your configuration becomes even more hacky and unreadable.


If You Value Your Screen Real Estate, Don’t Rice Your Desktop


Ricing your desktop almost always results in massive amounts of frustration, wasted time, and tons of exerted effort. The fun of showing off your setup only lasts for a few brief moments. After that, your riced desktop is basically useless or obstructive, because you’ll either have your Conky setup overlay the desktop, meaning it will be blocked out when you have a window over it, or overlay all of your windows, which means it’s permanently visible.

If you choose to have Conky only on your desktop, it will be 100% covered by whatever window you have open, as a window manager will consume as much desktop space as possible. Since you’ll almost always have tons of terminals or programs running on most of your workspaces, you’ll almost never see your desktop. Once the novelty wears off, your desktop will feel as ordinary as before. If you decide to automate everything, which you likely will do, you’ll have programs automatically opened on all your separate workspaces anyway.

If you choose to have Conky overlay all of your windows, you will quickly realize how annoying it is to have all of that extraneous information plastered over your screen at all times. In most cases, it’s distracting and reduces the amount of visible space on your desktop. If you choose this option, you basically lose anywhere from 20-40% of your screen’s real estate. Assuming that the code you’re working on is limited to 80 characters per line, you won’t be able to split your windows vertically because that would reduce each window’s real estate to only ~30% of the screen, so 80 character lines won’t even fit on your screen.

 

It might be cool to have something like the Conky animation above on your desktop, but if it’s eating up tons of precious desktop real estate, then it’s not worth it. With an animation like this, you won’t be able to read code, debuggers, or terminal/console logs without having your window in full screen. It goes without saying that there’s no difference between using a window manager and a standard desktop environment like GNOME if you’re only going to view things in full-screen mode..

Ricing your desktop might look pretty, but in my experience, it has always turned out to be a massive waste of time, either because the novelty wore off or because it eventually became annoying. The most efficient way to use a window manager is to use it for what it’s made for — maximizing screen real estate. By using 100% of your screen, leaving no blank spots, you’ll be able to maximize the amount of information you can view at once.

Incidentally, by ricing your desktop, you’ll likely either reduce the amount of information you can view at once, or you’ll end up plastering large amounts of useless information on your desktop, both of which will end up reducing your productivity. Should you decide to use a window manager, remember to value function over form, because at the end of the day, computers are tools, not decorations.

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