ALT Linux and Window Maker: Good Brain Food

ALT Window Maker

It’s been a couple weeks since I’ve returned to ALT Linux and Window Maker as my desktop.  How’s it going?  To be completely honest with you, it’s been very enjoyable.

I find it interesting to see how my habits change over time, and how convenience can sometimes cause me to forget about certain things.  And it’s not like the things I’ve forgotten are unpleasant or anything like that.  I suppose it’s just because the conveniences can just make me lazy in a certain way and become the easier path to take.

This recent rediscovery of  Window Maker, which I chose to use with my new install of ALT Linux is a very good example.  For many years now, the Trinity Desktop Environment has been my desktop interface of choice.  It performs well on my aged netbooks and provides many conveniences that makes it very easy to get on with my every-day computing needs.  But, there’s a price to pay for these conveniences and an added level of complexity that can get in the way sometimes.  The thing is, however, is that I’ve been using TDE for so long I’ve forgotten about the control (and responsibility) that I used to have over my computer because I took these conveniences for granted.  I got lazy.

By choosing to “take a step back” (as some people probably think) and going back to Window Maker, I’m starting to clear the cobwebs from my mind, which were spun by convenience, and re-awakening the knowledge I gained many years ago.  I see it like this: using desktop environments (like TDE, XFCE, Mate, Gnome, and KDE) is like going to the grocery store and buying a gourmet frozen pizza for dinner.  It’s already made for you, all the ingredients have been selected, arranged and cooked for you.  All you need to do is get it home and reheat.

Using a window manager (like Window Maker, IceWM, or Fluxbox) is more like going to the grocery store, but rather than buying frozen pizza, you go to the produce and deli departments and choose your own ingredients.  Then you take them all home, make a crust, add your toppings, then slide it into the oven to cook.  Using the command line is one step further.  Rather than going to the grocery store for the ingredients on your pizza, you grow them all yourself in your own back yard.

These last couple of weeks with Window Maker has reminded me at how much I actually enjoy taking the time and effort to pick out my own produce and don’t even mind spending some time in the garden, if you take my meaning.

There are two major advantages, which I have been thankfully reminded, that Window Maker has over the desktop environments I’ve used over the last few years:

1-  it’s lightning fast.  Launching applications take much less time on WM to get going, and they remain very responsive once they’re running.
2- It’s highly customize-able.  It’s so much easier to customize just about every aspect about WM over other desktop environments.  And you can assign just about any task imaginable to a keyboard short-cut (hot-key).

Window Maker has a very user friendly “preferences” interface that helps you control how it performs, looks, and interacts with you.  I find it so much easier to use the WM control interface than the ones found in other desktop environments and window managers.  It literally is all there at your fingertips.  And if you’re more comfortable at the command line, all of these settings can be configured in the collection of text files found under your own GNUStep folder on your hard drive.

Use Window Maker for a few days and it’s inevitable that you’ll begin to build a strong relationship with the Linux command line.  In my mind, this is not a bad thing at all.  In fact, I think it brings a level of appreciation for your computer that gets brushed over by the more “sophisticated” desktop environments.

In my early years of being a Linux user, I used to be able to do so much with just a terminal emulator and the command line.  I kick myself for getting so lazy from too much DE “junk food”.  I didn’t realize how much I actually did enjoy learning and doing things via the command line until I started using it all over again.  Getting to know my way around WM and the command line again has been “good brain food!” TM

Deciding to move back over to Window Maker was also one of the reasons why I chose to come back to ALT Linux, too.  Not only do they have a rock-solid foundation and still hold to their original Linux philosophies (like using SU rather than SUDO), but they also have the best implementation of Window Maker I’ve used.

Every once in a while, I’d install WM on the Linux distro I was using at the time, but they always had issues of some sort.  It was like the WM was there on their repositories, but never seemed to me maintained by anyone who actually used it.  So, my time with WM never lasted very long and I just went back to TDE (for Q4OS and Exe) or XFCE (for Zorin).  ALT Linux is much different, in that regard; WM runs and looks great!

Because my desktop has been running so light and smooth, I’ve also been trying to find good alternatives to the more bloated software you typically find on other Linux distros.  For example: I was looking for a good word processor.  Since I’m not using TDE, I couldn’t use KWord.  I also didn’t want to have to install the huge list of libraries that go along with getting LibreOffice installed.  I don’t really care for AbiWord, so my choice of word processors was getting pretty short.  But, then I remembered SeaMonkey’s Composer (the suite’s HTML editor).  It’s actually a really good word processor and could be used for more than just creating HTML code.  Best of all, it was already installed!

It’s WYSIWYG interface is just as good as any word processor, with a few less bells and whistles.  It saves to HTML files, but what do I care?  I can use one of many online conversion services to turn any HTML file to and from DOC, OSD, or RTF file if I ever need to send someone a file.  And exporting to PDF is just as simple with SeaMonkey, with the PDF virtual printer in CUPS.  Best of all, when using SeaMonkey Composer to do the prep work for my blog entries, the code is easier for WordPress (or other on-line editor) to interpret.  All the formatting is carried over from one to the other.

To compensate for margin settings (which Composer doesn’t utilize), I just create a frame-less table with a width of 800 pixels.  It works very similarly as margins in a regular word processor and produces the same results.

One of the more crucial things I’ve had to relearn with Window Maker is the handling of USB storage medium.  Unlike most desktop environments, WM does not have a method of auto mounting storage devices “out of the box”.  It’s been a long time since I’ve had to think about the “mounting” of storage devices, so it took a little bit of research for me to re-learn the process which, at one time, I did without a second thought.

I did discover the utility “pmount”, which I can’t recall if I used before.  Even though it’s still a process that needs to be done from the command line, pmount makes the manual device-mount process easier, as you don’t need Super User access to use it, nor have to make changes to fstab.  Although this way of mounting USB devices isn’t as convenient as letting the desktop environment handle, it certainly makes for more efficient and “cleaner” process.

Here’s a look at my /mount directory, from my partition that still houses my Exe install.  Just look at the confusing jumble that has been left by TDE as it’s auto-mounted and auto-unmounted the several different USB devices I’ve used over the past couple of years:

Compare that to my current ALT Linux /media folder (which pmount also uses), which currently sits empty.  I much prefer this level of control, even if I have to do the mount and unmount manually.

Finally, I think the real benefit I’ve been gained is the level of efficiency of my Acer Aspire One netbook.  The resources Window Maker requires to run is much less, leaving more for the actual applications to use.  With ALT Linux and WM, it’s the first time that I can effectively run both SeaMonkey and Vivaldi web browsers side by side for any length of time.  On the other distros I’ve tried, if I used these two applications together at the same time, the system would quickly grind to a slow crawl.  But, now, they seem to be quite content to run together without becoming completely unusable.

Window Maker may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if performance, compatibility, and a high level of customization is something you’re looking for, I think it’s one of the best choice out there.  And if a very stable foundation is also important to you, there are few Linux distributions that can do better than ALT Linux.  They’ve also been around as an independent Linux distribution for a very long time, maintaining (what has to be) one of the largest independent Linux software repositories available.  So they definitely know what they’re doing.

Even if WM isn’t for you, I’d still recommend ALT Linux and one of there more “conventional” offerings, like Simply Linux.  In any case, I’m very glad I chose to go back “to my roots”… I haven’t had this much fun on my computer for a long time.