My Spectrwm Configuration File

Actually, the default spectrwm.conf works pretty well, apart perhaps from changing the Mod key. It’s easy to try out changes on the fly; just edit the file with the help of the man page and test it with Mod+q. If you make a mistake Spectrwm will tell you by printing an error message in the bar.

Just one caution: some mistakes may prevent spectrwm from starting, so be careful about using Mod+Shift+q. If that happens you will have to edit .spectrwm.conf without using X. This doesn’t apply to Mod+q.

# NOTE: all rgb color values in this file are in hex! see XQueryColor for examples

# Mod key, (Windows key is Mod4) (Apple key on OSX is Mod2)
modkey = Mod4

workspace_limit = 5 # I don’t need more than this

bind[flip_layout] = Mod+r # default binding doesn’t work on my keyboard.

# The next three entries replace the default Mod+Space. Why? By default, this command cycles between the different layouts (vertical, horizontal, full screen). I seldom need to do this whereas I very frequently need to alternate the focus between main and stack. So I set Mod+Space to give focus_main and provide commands to give vertical and horizontal configurations in case these are needed. (Mod+e gives full screen.)

bind[focus_main] = Mod+space # Replace the default
bind[layout_vertical] = Mod+v # Provide vertical layout
bind[layout_horizontal] = Mod+z # Provide horizontal layout

# Window Decoration
border_width = 2
color_focus = red
# color_unfocus = rgb:88/88/88
color_unfocus = blue
tile_gap = 2

# Remove window border when bar is disabled and there is only one window in workspace
disable_border = 1

# Bar Settings
bar_enabled = 1
bar_border_width = 2
# bar_border[1] = rgb:00/80/80
# bar_border_unfocus[1] = rgb:00/40/40
bar_border[1] = yellow
bar_border_unfocus[1] = yellow
# bar_color[1] = black
# bar_font_color[1] = rgb:a0/a0/a0
bar_font_color[1] = white
# bar_font = -*-terminus-medium-*–*–*–*–*–
bar_font = -*-courier-*-r-*–*-120-*–*–*-
# bar_action = conky
bar_justify = left
bar_format = %a %b %d %R +S +F +L +V
#bar_format = +N +I +S <+D>+4<%a %b %d %R %Z %Y+8<+A+4<+V
bar_at_bottom = 1
# stack_enabled = 1
#clock_enabled = 1
# clock_format = %a %b %c %d %R %Z %Y
# region_padding = 0
window_name_enabled = 1
# verbose_layout = 1
# urgent_enabled = 1

# Split a non-RandR dual head setup into one region per monitor
# (non-standard driver-based multihead is not seen by spectrwm)
# region = screen[1]:1280×1024+0+0
# region = screen[1]:1280×1024+1280+0

# Launch applications in a workspace of choice
# Not needed because my desktop is normally running non-stop

# Customize workspace layout at start (not needed – see above)
# layout = ws[2]:0:0:1:0:fullscreen
# layout = ws[3]:0:0:0:0:vertical
# layout = ws[4]:0:0:1:0:fullscreen

iconic_enabled = 1

# This restricts toggling bar to one workspace
bind[bar_toggle_ws] = Mod+b

# The default key bindings for screenshots are easy to hit accidentally so replace these with Mod+F12 etc.
bind[] = Mod+s
bind[] = Mod+Shift+s
bind[screenshot_all] = Mod+F12
bind[screenshot_wind] = Mod+Shift+F12

# Swap between workspaces back and forth (very useful)
# Can use alternatives
bind[ws_prior] = Mod+Shift+Up
bind[ws_prior] = Mod+Shift+Down
bind[ws_prior] = Mod+Shift+Left
bind[ws_prior] = Mod+Shift+Right

# This allows you to include pre-defined key bindings for your keyboard layout.
# keyboard_mapping = ~/.spectrwm_us.conf

# Validated default programs:
program[lock] = xterm # I don’t need to lock screen so avoid doing it accidentally
program[term] = xterm

# Default quirks, remove with: quirk[class:name] = NONE
# quirk[MPlayer:xv] = FLOAT + FULLSCREEN + FOCUSPREV
# quirk[ 2.4:VCLSalFrame] = FLOAT
# quirk[ 3.0:VCLSalFrame] = FLOAT
# quirk[ 3.1:VCLSalFrame] = FLOAT
# quirk[xine:Xine Window] = FLOAT + ANYWHERE
# quirk[Xitk:Xitk Combo] = FLOAT + ANYWHERE
# quirk[xine:xine Panel] = FLOAT + ANYWHERE
# quirk[Xitk:Xine Window] = FLOAT + ANYWHERE
# quirk[xine:xine Video Fullscreen Window] = FULLSCREEN + FLOAT
# quirk[pcb:pcb] = FLOAT
quirk[Xsane:xsane] = FLOAT + ANYWHERE
# quirk[XaoS:xaos] = FLOAT + ANYWHERE
# quirk[Firefox:firefox] = TRANSSZ
# quirk[Firefox:Dialog] = FLOAT
quirk[Gimp:gimp] = FLOAT + ANYWHERE
# quirk[XTerm:xterm] = XTERM_FONTADJ

Four Tiling Window Managers Compared



For several months last year I was trying out various tiling window managers and here I offer my assessment of the ones I’ve used most.

Summary for the impatient

My outright favourite is Spectrwm because I find that it offers all the features I want without making things over-complicated. Configuration via the text file is easy and the commands quickly become intuitive and automatic. Dwm is almost as good as Spectrwm but lacks some features that I want. i3 seems to be a popular WM and is better known than Spectrwm, I like it quite a lot but I find Spectrwm more intuitive to use. Xmonad is an attractive WM but is irretrievably let down by requiring Haskell to configure it.

The window managers in more detail


1. Spectrwm
This is currently my favourite. Configuration by a plain text file is simple.   I should say that it is the most flexible and intuitive WM that I’ve tried.

Here are some screenshots.

Change master window (Mod + Return)
Screenshot 2

Enlarge master window (Mod + L)
Screenshot 3

Change to horizontal split (Mod + Space)

Screenshot 4

Make a window fullscreen.(Mod + E)

Screenshot 5

Switch to Workspace 2 from Workspace 1 (Mod +2 or Mod + R. arrow)
Screenshot 6

Note: the xsane windows are floating (set via Quirk in ~/.spectrwm.conf)

My Spectrwm configuration file

Get spectrwm here


 2. i3
I liked i3 quite a lot and used it for a time. Configuration is simple since it is done in a plain text file. In many ways it is similar to Spectrwm but the way the windows are arranged is slightly different. i3 seems to be better known than Soectrwm with a larger following However, having tried out both of them fairly extensively I find I prefer Spectrwm.

I have a detailed comparison of Spectwm and i3 here.

3. Xmonad
his has a large user base and a helpful mailing list. It has many of the features I want and is quite similar to Spectrwm but is let down by its being configured in Haskell, which makes any configuration beyond the most basic a major undertaking requiring hours of research on the internet. There is also a large disk space overhead required to house the libraries needed for said configuration. For these reasons Xmonad loses out to its competitors, at least for me.

4. Dwm
Dwm is the forerunner from which many other tiling WMs forked. There is still a lot going for it: it’s simple and functional and easy to learn. Configuration is via C, but don’t be put off; it’s easier than it looks even if you don’t know C (I don’t). If you are not willing to embark on learning Haskell, dwm would be an attractive alternative. If Spectrwn were not available I’d use Dwm.


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Asem on :

Yeah, XMonad is really nice. Especially the total freeodm of configuration, the numerous layouts, the easy keyboard shortcuts I really think that tiling WM are the way to go, floating every windows just wastes so much time in reorganization and resizing. As to why this is still the predominant paradigm I would venture that tradition has much to do with it (going back to the first WMs by Xerox) and also the fact that most tiling WMs target a keyboard-using audience which is traditionally limited to advanced computer users.Getting to know a tiling WM is slightly more demanding than KDE, Metacity or Windows (though those now sports some shortcuts that beginners never know exist) but it’s much more rewarding in the end and XMonad’s stability and reactivity makes it one of the best choice in this field nowadays.My first contact with XMonad came after I grew tired with some bugs in Metacity (Gnome’s WM) and I might say that I won’t ever be coming back to Metacity since I can’t see anything in it that XMonad don’t do better already.

Greg Strockbine on :

Xmonad has another problem, it doesn’t handle Java applications, like Netbeans and Eclipse.

the first time you launch, say Netbeans, you get a grayish blank window. The fix is to lie about the name of the window manager.

the second time you launch Netbeans, it looks okay. But when you try to type text into the search box of the find in projects dialog box, you discover you can’t type anything. It doesn’t have the focus.

I found several blog entries that claim to fix it, but I never got it to work.

I changed to spectrwm and Netbeans works fine without any tuning.

Xmonad was my first tiling WM. I had known about tiling WMs for a while, but never tried one, they didn’t seem to make sense to me. Now I love them.

msx on :

spectrwm was my real first tiling WM, understanding for real the first one that took over my heart (thanks to E1NS for that!). Before it I played with lot of different WMs for some time like Musca (I loved it), Ratpoison, StumpWM, Awesome, wmi, Subtle… you name it; however those were just fleeting affairs.
Like you say spectrwm brings a sane configuration file which you can edit without learning a new programming language – nice to see some common sense.However I eventually departed from it as I discovered I wanted still more control than any dynamic tiling WM could ever give me…
That’s how I briefly tried Notion which I liked a lot but found somewhat outdated. Then I experienced this old-love revival with hlwm (herbstluftwm is THE minimalist manual tiling WM), Musca’s sucesor.But yet again after some months I hit some invisible walls so once again I took my gear and hit the road again. And I couldn’t be any happier nor more grateful: i3

msx on :

Hum, no idea why the entry was chopped, anyways here’s the mising part:
And I couldn’t be any happier nor more grateful: i3

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Spectrwm – minor annoyance solved

One of the commonest things I do in Spectrwm is swap two windows (Main to Stack or vice versa).  This is done instantly with Mod+Return. But a minor annoyance is that the focus doesn’t follow the swap.

Suppose you have two windows open, A in Main and B in Stack, and the focus is on A. After the swap the focus is still on A but this is now in the Stack. I usually want it to be in Main, which now contains B. I can achieve this with Mod+m, which alternates the focus back and forth between the two windows. This is OK but can become annoying if I do it a lot since it’s easy to miss-type the m.

For a time I solved this by setting the pointer focus to “follow” instead of the default, but this wasn’t ideal; it required me to keep the pointer always in the left side of the screen and occasionally the display got messed up and needed fixing with Mod+q.

The solution I’ve adopted now is to remap Mod+Space (quick and easy to type) to give me focus_main. By default Mod+Space cycles between vertical, horizontal, and full-screen layouts, but I hardly ever need to do this. I’ve mapped Mod+v and Mod+z to give me vertical and horizontal layouts in case I do need to change them; for full-screen I use Mod+e.

Here are the entries in .spectrwm.conf.

bind[focus_main] = Mod+space
bind[layout_vertical] = Mod+v
bind[layout_horizontal] = Mod+z

i3 and Spectrwm compared


I’ve long heen an enthusiast for tiling window managers and have blogged about them previously. I last used i3 a number of years ago (perhaps version 4.11). At that time I said that I liked it but preferred Spectrwm. Now i3 is at version.4.6 and its popularity seems to be expanding, so I thought it was time to give it a fresh look to see whether I still prefer Spectrwm. I find I do although i3 is certainly impressive.

Here I summarise what seem to me to be the main differences between the two WMs. Obviously this is a subjective comparison but I shall give the reasons for my preferences.

Community and support

Here i3 has the clear advantage. It has a large user base and lots of online support (mailing list, IRC etc.), which makes it easy for newcomers to get help.

For Spectrwm this element is pretty much lacking. It has good documentation but there isn’t an online community of the kind that i3 enjoys. But it is still maintained; the most recent version (3.2.0) was released in Sept. 2018, and you can chat with the developers at OFTC channel #spectrwm.

Winner: i3

Design differences

The main way in which the two WMs differ is in how they arrange their tiled windows (both offer floating windows if wanted).

Spectrwm is similar to Dwm and Xmonad. The first window appears in the ‘master’ area on the left of the screen; subsequent windows are created in a stacking area on the right.

Spectrwm screenshot
Spectrwm screenshot

This isn’t as rigid as it may sound. You can work in any window you have open, whether it is in the master area or not.

i3 doesn’t have the concept of a master area. It places its windows either side by side (horizontally) or one above the other (vertically). All the windows are of equal status.

i3 screenshot
i3 screenshot

Each of these methods has its advantages and disadvantages.

i3 can produce more complex patterns than Spectrwm; you can mix vertical and horizontal windows in the same workspace, as shown above. Spectrwm can’t do this; the windows are either horizontal or vertical but not both in the same workspace.

However, in i3 you have to decide which layout, horizontal or vertical, to use before you create a new window, and as far as I know you can’t alter this later without deleting and recreating the windows concerned. In Spectrwm  you can alternate between these layouts on the fly with Mod + Space.

In practice I hardly ever need the complexity that i3 offers because I seldom have more than two or three windows open in any one workspace. On the other hand I prefer the working window to be on the left of the screen; this is easy to achieve in Spectrwm, simply by swapping the stacked and master windows with Mod + Return. Swapping two windows is possible in i3 but more complicated (you have to change the “mode”).

Winner: Spectrwm

Altering the size of the windows

In Spectrwm you can increase or decrease the size of the master area by pressing Mod + l or Mod + h. I find this extremely useful. In i3 you are encouraged to use the mouse to alter the size of windows, which is quite fiddly. I prefer to use the keyboard whenever possible; there is a way of doing this in i3 but it’s not very straightforward (change the “mode”).

Winner: Spectrwm


A peculiarity of i3 is that instead of using the vi key bindings (hjkl) for movement it uses jkl; by default. This annoys me . You can of course change it, but then you have to find an alternative for Mod + h which by default is used to set the horizontal window layout. This seems an unnecessary and eccentric complication.

Winner: Spectrwm

Available commands

As far as I can see, all the commands that i3 offers are also present in Spectrwm apart from those that are i3-specific . On the other hand, a useful feature of Spectrwm that I don’t think is present in i3 is the option to “iconify” a process, which means that it is no longer on-screen but doesn’t stop working. For example, suppose you start mplayer or mpv in an xterm to play some music. If you iconify the window the music will continue playing. When it finishes or if you want a different piece you simply un-iconify the window to make the changes. This command is also useful if you want to start a second browser temporarily or compile a large program.

Winner: Spectrwm


As you can see, for me Spectrwm comes out on top for all comparisons except community support.

Making this analysis of the differences between i3 and Spectrwm has been a useful exercise. It’s shown me why I prefer Spectrwm. But I don’t want to knock i3; it’s an excellent tiling WM and deciding which is better comes down to personal preference and priorities.  Newcomers to the world of tiling WMs would probably find it easier to use i3 initially because it allows for more hand-holding. But even if that’s your case I’d suggest trying Spectrwm later as well.

Fortunately experimentation is easy. Both i3 and Spectrwm work well out of the box with their default settings; perhaps the only immediate change that may be needed is to assign the Windows key (Mod4) as modifier in place of Alt (i3 has a wizard which offers you this choice as part of its setup process.) Anyway, both have configuration via plain text files so there is no need to learn a new programming language in order to configure them.