Sabayon Linux, the easy-to-use Linux distribution built on top of Gentoo Linux, recently announced three new experimental editions that supplement their previous GNOME, KDE, Xfce, and Core releases. Two of the new experimental editions are equipped with unsurprising desktop environments: LXDE and E17 (Enlightenment). The third desktop choice, however, is surprising: the awesome window manager.
Awesome is no stranger to me: I have been using it for three years as the window manager on my main work computer because it's highly configurable and visually minimalistic, so I can focus on my work without any distractions. It's not so surprising that awesome isn't popular, as it's going up against modern desktop environments like GNOME 3, KDE 4 and Unity. In contrast to those desktop environments, awesome doesn't want to appeal to non-expert users, doesn't offer an Apple-like experience, and doesn't come with all kinds of bells and whistles. This makes it even more interesting that a mainstream distribution like Sabayon chose to include an edition with awesome.
A framework window manager
Awesome is called "a highly configurable, next generation framework window manager for X" by its developers. By "framework window manager" they mean that users actually build their own window manager with awesome: while it's usable with the default configuration, it is meant to be extended and configured by the user. Because of this, awesome is primarily targeted at power users, developers, and anyone who wants to have fine-grained control over their graphical environment. In contrast, if you don't like tweaking your system or if you like out-of-the-box bells and whistles, awesome probably isn't for you.
Awesome has a small code base and memory footprint and is fast. Because
it's using the asynchronous XCB
library instead of the synchronous Xlib, it also promises less latency than
other window managers, at least according to the home page. It prides itself on implementing many Freedesktop standards, such as EWMH (Extended Window Manager Hints) that allows programs to give hints to the window manager about the type of their windows, Desktop Notification to provide popup notifications on the desktop, System Tray to display small icons provided by running applications, and D-Bus for interprocess communication. And it even supports multiple monitors in XRandR, Xinerama, and Zaphod mode. So while it's a minimalist window manager, it doesn't fall short in its features.
Everyday working with awesome
By default, awesome has a simple but already quite usable configuration
that will even support multiple monitors. When you start an awesome X session, you'll see a minimalist desktop with a status bar on top of the screen. Awesome can be controlled completely with the keyboard, so you'll have to memorize some keyboard shortcuts to become proficient at it. For instance, Win+Enter opens a new terminal window (Win is the key with the Windows logo, called Mod4 in awesome's documentation and configuration file), Win+j cycles through the windows, Win+h or l resizes a window (but Win+right-click and dragging with the mouse is a bit more convenient), Win+Shift+j or k moves a window (as does Win+left-click and dragging with the mouse). With Win+Shift+c you close the focused window. Starting a program is simple: enter Win+r, after which you see a "Run:" prompt in the status bar and you can type a program name (with tab completion). It pays to read ~/.config/awesome/rc.lua a bit to get to know all these keyboard shortcuts. When you're used to them, awesome lets you really manage your windows in a very efficient way.
By default, awesome behaves like a regular stacking window manager, but
it started as a tiling window manager and I still find this mode the most
efficient to use. Just click on the icon in the upper right to use the
tiled layout. When you open your first window, it covers the whole screen,
and subsequently opened windows are tiled automatically alongside the other
windows, so the available screen real estate is always covered completely unless you have no windows open. By default, the most recent window is shown at the entire left part of the screen and the other ones are automatically rearranged on the right side. You don't have to juggle with your windows to get the most out of your screen; awesome does the job for you. By the way, there are no title bars attached to the windows by default, although you can change that in the configuration file.
The status bar at the top of the screen shows nine numbers by default at its leftmost part. If you click on one of them, you get a completely empty screen, ready to contain some new windows. Superficially, this looks like the workspace concept in many other desktop environments, but in awesome they are called tags and the relationship is backwards: while a workspace contains windows, in awesome tags belong to a window. This means that a single window can have multiple tags, but you can also view multiple tags together by right-clicking on another tag in the status bar. The nine tags can be reconfigured to have more descriptive names, although you probably should keep them short. For instance, I have tags "read", "talk", "surf", "type", "file", "hear" and "root". All in all, the concept of tags is much more flexible than traditional workspaces.
To the right of the tag list comes the task list, which is the list of
windows on the currently visible tag(s). To the right of that, there's the
clock, and at the rightmost part of the status bar is the layout box which
we already mentioned earlier. If you click on it, the way in which awesome
arranges all visible windows changes. You can cycle through all available
layouts with left-click (forward) and right-click (backward) or by using Win+Space. There's a spiral layout, a maximized layout (which only shows the focused window), a fullscreen layout (which even covers the status bar), a magnifier layout (which shows the focused window in the middle and the other ones on the background) and a floating layout, which shows all windows free-floating and covering each other, like you're used to from stacking window managers.
You can also toggle the floating/tiled status of the focused window with Win+Ctrl+Space and you can configure awesome to automatically force specific programs (like GIMP) to always float. You can also set the default layout programmatically in the configuration file. For instance, I have set the layout of my left screen to tiled and the layout of my right screen (which stands in portrait mode) to tiled.bottom, which tiles the windows vertically. This kind of personalization is very easy to do in awesome.
Tuning your desktop environment
Awesome is just a window manager, so, by default, a lot of functionality
offered by a complete desktop environment will be missing. But most of this
functionality can be added to the configuration file or supplemented by
external programs. The upside is that you can pick your components: you can
for instance choose lightweight alternatives. The downside is that you have
to configure a lot of things that come out-of-the-box with a desktop
environment such as GNOME or KDE and you have to add many programs to your
awesome key bindings or to your ~/.xinitrc before you have a
working desktop environment with things like an automounter, a file manager, a
network applet or
a screen shot program. You can also add widgets to
the status bar, e.g. a systray, graphs of the memory or CPU usage, and so on.
If you like the complete desktop environment that GNOME or KDE is offering and you just want to swap their default window manager for awesome, that's also possible. This gives you your familiar desktop environment, but with the much more flexible window management functionality of awesome. Have a look at the wiki on how to set up awesome with GNOME or with KDE.
Some programs have to be tuned to be able to use them well with awesome. For instance, if someone mentions you on IRC when you're using the irssi client, the tag associated with your irssi client can become orange (or whatever color you have configured in your awesome theme) by setting up a couple of things. There are also some problems with Java programs when you use a Java virtual machine older than version 1.7, but most issues can be overcome.
Awesome began in September 2007 as a fork of dwm, an extremely minimalist window manager which can only be customized through editing its source code (all options meant to be user-configurable are contained in a single header file). Debian developer Julien Danjou liked dwm's minimalism, but wanted it to have an external configuration file. In version 3.0, he decided to use the programming language Lua for the configuration file format.
Danjou is still the primary author of
awesome, but there are a lot of other contributors, and Uli Schlachter
maintains awesome now. After a frantic development speed the first two
years, development has slowed down now, with the latest release, 3.4.10,
being made on May 16 along with a rather low number of commits in the
project's repository. In an email interview, Danjou said that the reason for the slowdown is simple:
Awesome is rather complete. It misses a few things,
but there's enough to do what people want. The fact is that the X protocol
part about window management doesn't evolve, so once it's implemented and
exposed to users so that they can do whatever they want, you've pretty much
finished your job.
The missing parts are advanced stuff like new XInput and multi-touch support, but we were blocked by XCB for those, and users seem to be able to live without them. Now, since everyone seems really happy with the 3.4 branch, I think it's enough that we just keep maintaining it.
Although one could say awesome is finished now, there's an active community of users and the wiki is a goldmine for resources, including some user configuration files, themes, user-contributed widgets, and example screenshots. Awesome is available in the repositories of a lot of Linux distributions (but surprisingly not in Fedora), and also in the BSDs. Some of these distributions have their own wiki pages with a guide and distro-specific information, such as Arch Linux and Gentoo.
Tune it now
Although awesome is not an easy program to learn, the framework window manager invites you to experiment with and tune your desktop environment. For instance, you can modify your rc.lua file and restart awesome for these changes to have effect with a simple Win+Ctrl+r. To get some idea of the possibilities, have a look at all the signals awesome emits, to which you can hook your own handler functions. If you dislike the way how GNOME, KDE, and Unity are evolving and you want a window manager that you can tune to get out of your way, you definitely should take a look at awesome. For a quick glance, try the new Sabayon 7 Awesome edition.
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