Over to you

Living with dwm

You may have heard of tiling window managers like dwm or i3. These are pretty interesting from a nerdy elitist hacker perspective ("I know Unix!"), but can also look quite nice and make good use of on-screen space. I switched to dwm yesterday and enjoyed spending some time to figure out the absolute basics. On my old, small laptop though, I realised that it suits me best to just have a separate tag per application. Tags are like workspaces, but more flexible; in my case though it’s just a separate desktop for each app.

What’s missing?

Lots of things are missing that you normally take for granted in a full desktop environment like Gnome or KDE. Here are some of the things I’ve noticed so far:

  • Keyboard mapping is unset (defaults to en_US).

  • No keyboard hotkeys for e.g. changing volume.

  • System status bar only tells you about the window manager. You don’t even get a clock!

  • notify-send popups are ugly.

  • No screensaver / lock.

There’s probably a bunch of other things I haven’t even noticed yet. So if you want to live with a minimalist window manager, you have two choices:

  1. just live without these things and do everything from the command line (you can launch one with Alt+Shift+Enter, or in my case Super+Shift+Enter since Alt was conflicting with shortcuts in Firefox)…​ or

  2. find and configure (or write your own) external tools to replace the missing parts.

Adding what you need

Let’s take a look at my ~/.xsessionrc file which should run a bunch of programs when I next start dwm. (I say should because I haven’t logged out and back in yet.)


setxkbmap ie
dunst & disown
xautolock -time 10 -locker "xset dpms force off && slock" && disown
~/bin/scripts/dwm_status & disown
xbindkeys -f /home/omf/.xbindkeysrc

The first command is straightforward — it just tells X to use the "English (Ireland)" layout for the keyboard. No problem.

Next, we use Dunst as the system notifier, so that messages displayed with notify-send can be formatted and have arbitrary timeouts. Note the use of command & disown to launch programs as daemons that stay the background.

We then use xautolock and the extremely barebones slock to lock the screen after 10 minutes of inactivity. I also want the screen to turn off when locking, so xset dpms force off does that until we move the mouse or hit a key.

Then, we run a script called dwm_status to periodically update the dwm status bar at the top of the screen. Updating the status bar is done by calling xsetroot -name "(new text)". Let’s have a look at the dwm_status script.


while true; do
  sleep 30

We can see that it just sleeps in a loop, calling dwm_status_update once every 30 seconds. Okay, what’s in that file?


DATE=$(date +"%F %H:%M")
VOLUME=$(pactl list sinks | grep 'Volume: front-left' | awk '{print $5}')

xsetroot -name "⏰ $DATE | 🔊 $VOLUME"

Okay, now we have something. So our status bar so far just has the date/time and system volume. We used pactl and some ugly grep/awk to get what we needed. It’s a shame there’s no machine-readable output from pactl. You set the volume by calling set-sink-volume but there’s no get-sink-volume which would have been handy.

You might ask why this is split into two scripts. That’s because I want to be able to do things that immediately update the status bar without waiting 30 seconds. The last action in .xsessionrc, calling xbindkeys, gives an example of that.


Mod4 + KP_Add

Mod4 + KP_Subtract

Note that Mod4 means Super, otherwise known as "Windows key". So Super+Numkey_PLUS/MINUS raise or lower the volume by a small increment. Let’s look at one of those scripts.


SINK=$(pactl list sinks short | grep RUNNING | awk '{ print $2 }')

pactl set-sink-volume $SINK +5%

This sets the volume up by 5% then calls the status bar update script. Note that you can get the desired sink name with pactl list sinks | grep Name:.


So far it’s been a fun journey, and it certainly seems to yield a noticeable performance improvement on this fairly old laptop. There are a few limitations that I’m still not super happy with, like the fact that you can only run one instance of xautolock, so you can’t have e.g. the screen switching off (with DPMS) after 2 minutes idle, but locking after 10 minutes. They have to both happen in the same single step.

On the other hand, dwm includes the fantastic dmenu which functions as an application launcher, but can also be used in interactive scripts to do cool things. More on that in future maybe.

I’m not sure if I’ll stick with this minimalist setup, but it’s certainly doable and you’ll undoubtedly learn from the process.

Update 2020-04-19

Some other things I’ve taken for granted with full desktop environments that don’t come out of the box with dwm:

  • Screenshots.

  • More intelligent control of backlight via DPMS (i.e. don’t turn it off when I’m playing a video, and if the display wakes while locked, but I don’t unlock it, then it should sleep the display again after a few seconds).

  • Floating dialog boxes that look good.

  • Widgets for e.g. Bluetooth and wifi configuration.

  • Hitting a hotkey (Super in Gnome) to see all windows in a zoomed-out view, without generating mouse events in them.

All of these are things you can probably replace with alternative tools (or write your own) without a huge effort, but it’s easy to forget how useful they are until you don’t have them.