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Use Linux long enough and you’ll discover one of the many reasons why the open source operating system has become so beloved around the world. Choice. With Linux, you can either just use the default settings that come with your distribution, or you can install more options to give you different choices. This is true for almost any user software, from web browsers, email clients, file managers, image editors, and even desktop interfaces.

That’s right, if you don’t like GNOME, switch to KDE, Cinnamon, Mate, Pantheon, Budgie, Xfce, Enlightenment, Fluxbox, or any number of desktop environments or window managers.

But there is one type of window manager that is usually left out of the mix, especially when it comes to user-friendly interfaces. This type of window manager is stackable in nature. For those who have never encountered the docker window manager, they can be quite confusing at first due to how much they depend on keyboard shortcuts (rather than the mouse). This in itself prevents many new users from embracing the arrangement window manager.

At this point, you’re probably wondering what exactly a stacking window manager is. Let me explain it to you in the simplest terms.

I’ll start my description of a nested window manager by asking a question: Have you ever used window snapping on your desktop? Window snapping is when you can move an application to the right or left edge of the screen and the desktop interface automatically “snaps” the window so that it takes up half of your display. Snap another window to the other end of the display and it will automatically take up the other half of the screen. If you want a full-screen app, drag the window to the top of the display and it will automatically cover the entire display.

Also: How to snap your windows on MacOS and Windows

Window snapping is a very handy feature that makes it easy to focus all your efforts on two windows at the same time. I use intercept often when I need to work between two Firefox tabs without clicking between tabs.

And it’s the same driving force behind tiled window managers, but they take the idea to new extremes. Instead of just snapping windows to the left, right, or full screen, the stackable window manager uses your screen real estate in a very efficient way.

Imagine you open an app and that app initially takes up the entire screen. With the Docking Window Manager, you can open a second app and it will automatically open to share the screen with the previously opened app. You are now opening a third application. What’s happening? One of those previously open apps will move up to the right or left side of the display to allow the new app to take up 50% of that side. Open another app and it can share the top half of the right side of the display with whatever app is occupying that space (Figure 1).

Work order window manager.

Figure 1: This type of layout is incredibly easy to achieve with a stackable window manager.

Image: Jack Wallen

With each window you open in the stacking window manager, it will automatically fit into the growing puzzle on your desktop. Of course, this has its caveats, as the more apps you open, the smaller they can become (Figure 2).

The Pop!_OS window stacking feature is enabled.

Figure 2: I’ve opened several apps that keep shrinking the size of previously open windows.

Image: Jack Wallen

The reason why so many hardcore users prefer stacking window management is that it makes desktop space management automatic, which can help boost productivity. And because windows never overlap in a stacked window manager, you can be sure that every inch of your display will be used to best facilitate your workflow.

The pitfalls of arranging window managers

Stackable window managers are great for the right type of user because they make the most of the screen and keep your fingers on the keyboard. While the first feature is quite appealing to most users, the second feature can be a little off-putting. Some tiled window managers avoid mouse for keyboard navigation.

For example, the i3 stack window manager uses the following keyboard shortcuts to navigate the desktop;

  • [Alt]+[Enter] – open a new terminal
  • [Alt]+[J] – focus left
  • [Alt]+[K] – focus right
  • [Alt]+[L] – focus
  • [Alt]+[;] – focus right
  • [Alt]+[A] – focus parent
  • [Alt]+[Space] – switch focus mode

This does not mean that the i3 window manager does not allow you to use the mouse. You can. And you can configure the key bindings to better suit your needs (since i3 is a very customizable window manager). But for those who have trouble switching, a window manager like i3 will be a very hard sell.

The truth is that docked window managers put keyboard focus on the mouse. This is designed to make you as productive as possible.

The most popular stack window managers available for Linux

Currently, the best stacking window managers to consider are the following:

  • i3: Highly configurable and widely respected.
  • bspwm: Lightweight but poorly documented.
  • Rocking: Supports the Wayland X server.
  • Xmonad: It “just works” and is very stable.
  • Great WM: Allows you to rearrange windows using the mouse, but requires some skill to use.

An honorable mention must also go to System76 Pop!_OS distribution as it allows users to enable/disable stacking on the fly. If you only want to use the stack window manager for certain workflows (which I do), Pop!_OS is your best bet.

Also: Pop!_OS may have a complicated name, but it makes using Linux so easy

If you’re looking to not only get the most out of your screen, but also work as efficiently as possible on your computer desktop, a tiling window manager might be just what you need.

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