February 6, 2002

Review: Fluxbox window manager as nimble as Blackbox, with more features

Author: JT Smith

- By F. Grant Robertson -

When I heard about Fluxbox, my first reaction was surprise. Having been a user of Blackbox for several years and many versions, I was a bit skeptical about Fluxbox's ability to extend a window manager that in my opinion, was already great. Nevertheless, after reading the list of enhancements to the desktop over Blackbox 0.61, I was excited to give it a try.

My test system is an AMD k6-II 350 running Mandrake 8.1. Consulting the Fluxbox download page, I decided to first try the binary rpm package. The package wasn't specific to a Mandrake version it was created for, and it had one dependency that wasn't installed on my test system. After reading the directions at the Fluxbox download site, I got the impression that compiling the source RPM might work a little better. An uneventful "rpm --rebuild" later, I was ready to go.

It should be pointed out that the instructions at the Fluxbox site for making Fluxbox your default window manager only apply if you are starting X from the console. If you have Mandrake configured for a graphical login, there aren't any other steps necessary beyond installing the rpm. This worked very well on my test system. I only had to logout and log back in selecting Fluxbox as my window manager. Instructions for users that run "startx" from the console are included at the Fluxbox Web site and, are reasonably well written.

The differences in Fluxbox, and its ancestor, Blackbox are not immediately apparent. Visually, you may first notice the window tabs, something absent altogether from Blackbox. Window tabs are hardly the only difference, as Fluxbox provides support for KDE and Windowmaker dock applications. This is a little strange, coming from years of Blackbox use, because the lack of docked application support has always been one of its defining features. I do believe that Blackbox's stability, speed and simplicity are still retained in Fluxbox and, if you're not inclined to run docked applications, you'll never notice a difference. If you have ever looked at Blackbox and said, "That's nice but, I wish I could run that," your wait is over. Support for docked applications is well done, and works just as you would expect.

Fluxbox also adds a native key grabber to the base functionality it inherits from Blackbox. The key grabber gives the ability to not only handle keyboard shortcuts for common window manager commands, but it also allows sophisticated multi-key sequences to be assigned in a manner similar to Emacs. Personally, I'm not big on keyboard shortcuts; however, the functionality is easy enough to configure and works as advertised. For users who were running a separate program to manage keyboard shortcuts, this provides an integrated solution. Fluxbox's Web site also provides a conversion utility for current users of Bbkeys.

Finally, on the list of enhanced features, are the changes made to Blackbox's signature taskbar. All of your iconified windows are displayed on the taskbar, with a single click returning them to their previous state. This is a little more efficient than finding them through the middle mouse button menu but, you might find it cumbersome if you tend to have many windows iconified at once.


What hasn't changed: Fear not, all of your Blackbox themes are still 100% compatible. If you are a current Blackbox user, the change to Fluxbox is almost invisible. You will, obviously, have to add your collected Blackbox themes to your new Fluxbox configuration and then select the theme you wish to use. This also gives Fluxbox the benefit of a well defined base of community provided themes, even though it's a relatively new project, with version 0.1.6 the current release.

Overall, Fluxbox makes a very nice set of enhancements to the "no-nonsense" style of Blackbox. I have been a faithful Blackbox user over the years and, what it has lacked in flash and features has always been well worth the trade-offs in speed and stability. I found Fluxbox to be just as stable and fast, and the features it adds are definitely worth checking out.

I can happily recommend Fluxbox to current Blackbox users and to users of other window managers who would like a more nimble environment, without giving up some of the creature comforts available in heavier window managers.


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