Lightweight and a delight: i3 tiling window manager

  Last modified on Saturday 30 April 2016

As a former Fluxbox and Openbox user I can understand the love for a lightweight, minimal window manager where I can "paint" my applications across the screen. I was curious about tiling window managers but never quite grokked the advantage from screenshots: seeing consoles arranged in a grid made me think tmux a better choice for that task, and why would I want to watch a video in a reduced square in the corner of a screen?

And then I tried i3 and found my new default desktop:

Still want to use a mouse here-and-there? Hey, i3 is flexible and OK with that. Provides a statusbar, but you can swap it out for an alternative or run none at all.

Starting out I find myself mostly happy with the default keybindings and behaviour; making only a few adjustments and additions to my ~/.i3/config and /.i3status.conf. [1]


I use the third-party i3 Ubuntu repository. Download and install the keyring, configure apt, and install the latest window manager packages ...

$ wget
$ sudo dpkg -i sur5r-keyring*.deb
$ sudo cp /etc/apt/sources.list /etc/apt/sources.list.$(date +%FT%H%M%S).bak
$ sudo echo "## i3 window manager" >> /etc/apt/sources.list
$ sudo echo "deb $(lsb_release -c -s) universe" >> /etc/apt/sources.list
$ sudo apt update && sudo apt install i3 i3status i3lock

Auto-start applications

In my ~/.xinitrc I have added a few applications to start at launch: a script to detect and setup a second display if attached (using xrandr), another script to configure things like my Thinkpad USB keyboard and empty Trash, and finally open a terminal.

In the i3 configuration file I replace the default dynamic application launcher dmenu with rofi (sudo apt install rofi) ...

# rofi - window switcher, run dialog and dmenu replacement
bindsym F3 exec --no-startup-id rofi -show run
bindsym $mod+Tab exec --no-startup-id rofi -show window

Window tabs

I remove tabs from windows and replace them with thin coloured bars by reducing window title font size to zero ...

# Font for window titles. Will also be used by the bar unless a different font
# is used in the bar {} block below.
font pango:DejaVu Sans Mono 0

... and setting the colour for active/inactive windows ...

# Colours
# * class                 border  backgrd text    indicator
client.focused            #ff0000 #ff0000 #ffffff #2e9ef4
client.focused_inactive   #333333 #333333 #ffffff #484e50
client.unfocused          #000000 #000000 #ffffff #292d2e
client.urgent             #2f343a #900000 #ffffff #900000


Arrange containers (windows) to default to a tabbed layout ... and allow a few applications to start in alternate floating (unmaximized) mode ...

# Layout mode for new containers
workspace_layout tabbed
# Enable floating mode
for_window [class="Remmina"] floating enable
for_window [class="Remmina"] border normal
for_window [class="VirtualBox"] floating enable
for_window [class="VirtualBox"] border normal
for_window [class="vlc"] floating enable
for_window [class="vlc"] border normal


I install scrot for screenshots and eog as image viewer ...

$ sudo apt install scrot eog

... and configure key combos to trigger desktop/active window/selected area snapshots ...

# Screenshot
# * desktop
bindsym --release Print exec --no-startup-id scrot '%Y-%m-%dT%H%M%S.png' -e 'mv $f ~/Downloads && eog ~/Downloads/$f'
bindsym --release F4 exec --no-startup-id scrot '%Y-%m-%dT%H%M%S.png' -e 'mv $f ~/Downloads && eog ~/Downloads/$f'
# * active Window
bindsym --release $mod+Print exec --no-startup-id scrot -d 4 -u -z '%Y-%m-%dT%H%M%S.png' -e 'mv $f ~/Downloads && eog ~/Downloads/$f'
bindsym --release $mod+F4 exec --no-startup-id scrot -d 4 -u -z '%Y-%m-%dT%H%M%S.png' -e 'mv $f ~/Downloads && eog ~/Downloads/$f'
# * selected area... (click and move mouse)
bindsym --release Shift+Print exec --no-startup-id scrot -s '%Y-%m-%dT%H%M%S.png' -e 'mv $f ~/Downloads && eog ~/Downloads/$f'
bindsym --release Shift+F4 exec --no-startup-id scrot -s '%Y-%m-%dT%H%M%S.png' -e 'mv $f ~/Downloads && eog ~/Downloads/$f'


I use a combination of pavucontrol, volnoti (a lightweight sound notification utility), xbindkeys + shell script to control PulseAudio volume levels.


Theme dependencies, fonts, and config utilities ...

$ sudo apt install gnome-themes-standard gtk2-engines-murrine gtk2-engines-pixbuf fonts-liberation ttf-ubuntu-font-family xfonts-terminus lxappearance qt4-qtconfig

I use the Ambiance Colors GTK and Vibrancy Color Icon themes. Download the *.deb packages separately and install using sudo dpkg -i *.deb.

Run lxappearance to setup the GTK theme (outputs to ~/.gtkrc-2.0 and ~/.config/gtk-{2,3}.0) and qtconfig-qt4 to configure QT4 (outputs to ~/.config/Trolltech.conf) to use the GTK+ default theme.

Theming for QT5 applications can be configured using the qt5ct utility. Download the qt5ct package available on the WebUpd8 PPA and sudo dpkg -i qt5ct*.deb.

Add to ~/.xinitrc ...


Exit from X and log back in. Run qt5ct (outputs to ~/.config/qt5ct/qt5ct.conf) and configure QT5 to use GTK settings.

See: Uniform look for QT and GTK applications and Configure QT5 with QT5CT


Screen locks are handled by i3lock and systemctl deals with system suspend/reboot/shutdown ...

# Lock/Logout/Suspend/Reboot/Shutdown
# *
set $Locker i3lock -i ~/.i3lock.png && sleep 1
set $mode_system System (l) lock, (e) logout, (s) suspend, (r) reboot, (Shift+s) shutdown
mode "$mode_system" {
    bindsym l exec --no-startup-id $Locker, mode "default"
    bindsym e exec --no-startup-id i3-msg exit, mode "default"
    bindsym s exec --no-startup-id $Locker && sync && systemctl suspend, mode "default"
    bindsym r exec --no-startup-id systemctl reboot, mode "default"
    bindsym Shift+s exec --no-startup-id systemctl poweroff -i, mode "default"

    # back to normal: Enter or Escape
    bindsym Return mode "default"
    bindsym Escape mode "default"
bindsym $mod+Pause mode "$mode_system"

Happy hacking!


[1]My configs and scripts: .i3/config, statusbar (for my Chromebook) .i3status.conf, .xinitrc, dual-display detect/config script dldsply, some xinit extras, and .gtkrc-2.0 generated by running lxappearance.

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