Comparison of tiling window managers
This article provides an unbiased comparison of the most popular tiling window managers (as opposed to floating window managers).
The following table lists the most popular tiling window managers alongside notable features, providing readers with a quick overview. More in-depth descriptions follow this table.
|Window Manager||Written in||Configured with||Management style||System tray support||On-the-fly reload||Information bars||Compositing||Default layouts||Pixel usage||External control||Library||Multiple (n) monitor behavior|
|Awesome||C||Lua||Dynamic||Built-in||Yes||Built-in, images and text||Yes, with an external manager such as xcompmgr||1-pix borders, h-tab titles||dbus (if enabled)||XCB|
|dwm||C||C (recompile)||Dynamic||None||Optional||Built-in, reads from root window name||Yes, with an external manager such as xcompmgr||v-stack, max||Xlib||n regions, 9 workspaces fixed to each region|
|i3||C||Text||Manual||None||Yes||i3status with dzen2 or xmobar||No||rows, columns, v-tab, h-tab, max||2-pix borders, titles||commands via ipc||XCB||n regions|
|Musca||C||Text, own command set, C(recompile)||Manual||None||No, but allows running of musca commands on the fly||None||No||h-split, v-split, max||commands, hooks||Xlib|
|Scrotwm||C||Text||Dynamic||None||Yes||Built-in, reads from user script||No||nv-stack, nh-stack, max||1-pix borders, no titles||Xlib||n regions, 10 workspaces visible in any region|
|subtle||C||Ruby||Manual||Built-in||Yes||Built-in (Ruby)||Yes, with an external manager such as xcompmgr||grid||variable borders, no titles||hooks (Ruby), subtler (CLI), subtlext (Ruby extension)||Xlib||views include any screen, placement on screens via tags and per runtime|
|wmfs||C||Text||Dynamic||None||Yes||Built-in, set with command, color text||No||nh-stack (and invert), nv-stack (and invert), mirror-v, mirror-h, grid, max||variable borders, titles||commands||Xlib|
|wmii||C||Anything||Manual||None||Yes||Built-in||No||columns, max, v-tab||titles||9P filesystem||one big region|
|xmonad||Haskell||Haskell||Dynamic||None||Yes||No||Yes, with xmonad-contrib and an external manager||nv-stack, nh-stack, max||1-pix borders, no titles||Xlib||n regions, 9 workspaces visible in any region|
Dynamic management emphasizes automatic management of window layouts for speed and simplicity. Manual management emphasizes manual adjustment of layout and sizing with potentially more precise control, at the cost of more time spent moving and sizing windows.
A number of common layout types appear in several tiling WMs, although the terminology varies somewhat.
- max: one window shown fullscreen (with or without a status bar, title and borders). Aka: monocle (dwm).
- h-stack: master area in top half, other windows stack up horizontally in the bottom half. The master area may be resizable. May be inverted top-bottom (wmfs). Aka: bottom stack (dwm).
- v-stack: master area in left half, other windows stack up vertically in the right half. The master area may be resizable. May be inverted left-right (wmfs). Aka: tile (dwm).
- nh-stack: h-stack allowing >=1 windows in master area. Aka: nbstack (dwm)
- nv-stack: v-stack allowing >=1 windows in master area. Aka: ntile (dwm)
- mirror-h: nh-stack with stacks above and below the master area
- mirror-v: nv-stack with stacks to the left and right of the master area
- h-tab: one window shown fullscreen with all window titles shown horizontally (like browser tabs)
- v-tab: one window shown fullscreen with all window titles shown vertically. Aka: stack (wmii).
- h-split: a keybinding splits the current window horizontally creating space for another
- v-split: a keybinding splits the current window horizontally creating space for another
- columns: manual layout style which treats windows as belonging to vertical columns
- rows: manual layout style which treats windows as belonging to horizontal rows
- grid: window positions and sizes based on a regular NxM grid. May be automatic (like wmfs) or manual (like Subtle).
Tiling window managers are usually designed to be used entirely with the keyboard or with keyboard & mouse. This is for speed (reaching for and moving a mouse is slow) and ease of use. Sensible key bindings are crucial to making workflow fast and efficient. Some default sets are better than others, but generally the keys can be rebound as desired by the user.
awesome on its own can provide many of the functions of a desktop environment. Configured in Lua, it has a system tray, information bar, and launcher built in. There are extensions available to it written in Lua, but they are less smoothly integrated than those of XMonad. Awesome uses XCB as opposed to Xlib, which may result in a speed increase. Awesome has other features as well, such as an early replacement for notification-daemon, a right-click menu similar to that of the *box window managers, and many other things.
dwm is by far the simplest of the window managers listed here. It does not include a tray app or automatic launcher, although dmenu integrates well with it, as they are from the same author. It has no text configuration file. Configuration is done entirely by modifying the C source code, and it must be recompiled and restarted each time it is changed. It is more lightweight than the others listed here, at the expense of certain features. The program size is already at the self-imposed line limit, restricting further development.
i3 was created because wmii, the authors' favorite window manager at the time, didn’t provide some features they wanted. Notable differences are in the areas of Xinerama and the table metaphor. For speed the Plan 9 interface of wmii is not implemented.
Ion is a tiling window manager with tabbed frames. It uses Lua as an embedded interpreter which handles all of the configuration. It mainly uses the keyboard to access the functions but also supports the mouse for some things.
A simple dynamic window manager for X, with features nicked from ratpoison and dwm: Musca operates as a tiling window manager by default. It uses manual tiling, which means the user determines how the screen is divided into non-overlapping frames, with no restrictions on layout. Application windows always fill their assigned frame, with the exception of transient windows and popup dialog boxes which float above their parent application at the appropriate size. Once visible, applications do not change frames unless so instructed.
Ratpoison is configured with a simple text file, as opposed to some of the other tiling window managers which are configured with programming languages. While this reduces flexibility, it can be easier to understand. The information bar in Ratpoison is somewhat different, as it shows only when needed. It serves as both an application launcher as well as a notification bar. Ratpoison does not include a system tray and is quite lightweight.
scrotwm is a small dynamic tiling window manager largely inspired by xmonad and dwm. It tries to stay out of the way so that valuable screen real estate can be used for much more important stuff. It has sane defaults and does not require one to learn a language to do any configuration, being configured with a text file. It was written by hackers for hackers and it strives to be small, compact, and fast. It has a built-in status bar fed from a user-defined script.
Stumpwm is similar to Ratpoison but is written and configured completely in Lisp. It can be reconfigured and reloaded while running. As with wmii and Ratpoison, it is a manual window manager. Its information bar can be set to show constantly or only when needed. It does not include a system tray.
subtle is a tiling window manager with flexible manual layouts based on predefined sizes and positions corresponding by default to 1x2, 2x1, 1x3, 2x2 and 2x3 grid elements. It has workspace tags and automatic client tagging, mouse and keyboard control as well as an extendable statusbar.
WMFS (Window Manager From Scratch) is a lightweight and highly configurable tiling window manager for X. It can be configured with a configuration file, supports Xft (Freetype) fonts and is compliant with the Extended Window Manager Hints (EWMH) specifications. It's still under heavy development
wmii uses a manual style of management -- the user must manually move windows around. While more work than dynamic management, this also provides more flexibility by default. wmii is configured via a 9P file system, which allows any program that can work with text to configure it. The default configuration is in bash and rc (the Plan 9 shell), but programs exist written in ruby, for example. It has a status bar and launcher built in, but no system tray.
xmonad is written in Haskell, and it is configured in Haskell. This allows great flexibility, although this can be confusing at times. No text configuration file has been implemented. For all configuration changes xmonad must be recompiled, so the haskell compiler (over 485MB) must be installed. Compilation normally takes ~2 seconds, and can be done without affecting running programs. XMonad, in itself, is quite simple, but there is a large library called xmonad-contrib which provides many other features. XMonad does not include any utility programs, but others, such as dzen2 and xmobar, make it easy to display such things as workspace information. xmonad does not come with an application launcher, but there are modules in xmonad-contrib which provide one, as well as programs like dmenu and gmrun. There is no system tray, but this can be provided by applications such as stalonetray and trayer.