The Beauty of the i3 Tiling Window Manager

i3 with nothing open

As I’ve mentioned, I’m working on a book about learning to use Linux. The book uses Ubuntu 14.04 as its base, although I get into lots of other distributions and desktop environments.

Since it’s taking up pretty much every second of time I have, I decided to put clean, stock 14.04 on my Asus 1015E which previously had Xubuntu 14.04. This allows me to more easily work on the book from different locations (my ThinkPad is kind of big to drag around).

One challenge, however, is that Unity is pretty system-intensive. The 1015E struggles with it. So one of the things I’ve done to give it a little more pep is to also install i3, the tiling window manager, for the many times when I don’t need Unity.

I’ve been interested in tiling window managers for a while, but I never felt compelled to install one. Luckily for me i3, is amazing, and while there was a learning curve, it was fairly short.

i3 with two tiled windows
i3 tiling away

I should also mention that because the 1015E has such a small screen, I’m rarely tiling. Most of the time I’m running a single program in a single workspace.

The first time you install i3, it asks you to pick an action key. It’s usually left-Ctrl or the meta key. After that, you’re up and running. Meta-D gives you a launcher (the elegantly simple dmenu, which is basically the Alt-F2 pop-up terminal). You choose workspaces with Meta-number and can send programs to different workspaces with Shift-Meta-number. You can split windows vertically and horizontally and move between them using Meta and the vim movement keys (h, j, k, and l).

i3's dmenu
dmenu in action (such as it is…)

I thought I would feel limited without a full desktop environment, but once you know a few basic i3 commands (the documentation is really good, which helps), you’re all set. You can configure programs to launch with each i3 session, which I did for ClipIt, which I use religiously. You can also use your mouse with i3, which is a nice little lifeline.

Once I figured out the commands, i3 was easy to use. There were some problems with Thunderbird notifications freezing the client, but once those were turned off, everything worked like it usually does.

i3 has breathed new life into an old, slow computer. It’s a no-frills interface that’s surprisingly easy to work with. Even connecting to new WiFi networks is as easy as launching nm-applet.

If you don’t have much need for a full desktop environment, i3 is a great option. And the beauty of Linux is that if I do need something more robust, desktop-wise, Unity is just a login session a way. But aside from going into it for screenshots and for some odd trackpad configurations I couldn’t figure out in i3 (I’ve since discovered the joy of gsynaptics, which works just fine from i3), it’s really been a pleasure to use.

Throw it on a computer, login, and set yourself free from the bling of your desktop. i3 is like a vacation from your computer.