Using Compiz As A Window Management Tool

You’ve seen the wobbly windows, you’ve seen the cube, you’ve seen the raindrops. Compiz is just a bunch of useless eye candy right? Wrong. While the flashy effects get most of the attention, Compiz is a top-notch window manager in its own right. In fact, it’s got so many workspace and window management tools that many people use Compiz for years without ever knowing about some of the most useful features. This guide will cover each of the best window management plugins for Compiz and explain how each can be used to create a more productive desktop, with or without wobbly windows.

All plugins can be configured using the CompizConfig Settings Manager available in most distributions. In Ubuntu, you can install it via Synaptic Package Manager, Ubuntu Software Center, or the command:

All examples are done using multiple workspaces – 3 wide and 3 tall.

This plugin arranges your workspaces into a table, and allows you to switch between them with the keyboard. The default key binding is to hold Ctrl+Alt and use the arrow keys to move around the table.

compwin-wall

The wall is semi-transparent so you will be able to see the screens below it as you move between sections, however it does not include “live previews” of the contents of each workspace. Because of this, you cannot tell from the wall alone whether any given workspace is empty, or otherwise what the contents may be. This makes it faster, though possibly less useful, than our next plugin, Expo.

It is this author’s opinion that Expo may be the single most useful plugin in all of Compiz. Much like the desktop wall noted above, Expo will treat your workspaces as a table and allow you to move between them, however it also offers quite a bit more. For starters, Expo does not use a visual overlay to represent your workspace, it IS your workspace, and all the others.

compwin-expo

When you activate Expo, you “zoom out” of your desktop to the point where you can see all workspaces at once – live and active. The video clip in the screenshot above keeps on playing in its shrunken state, no matter what workspace you’re on or what Expo is doing.

Individual windows, such as the video clip above, can be dragged from one workspace to another, or left sitting in the space in between. Expo is an extremely handy plugin, and expect to see a video post in the near future containing a few Expo tricks.

The previous two plugins both dealt with workspace management – the idea being that you could have individual applications residing on their own workspace. Some people don’t like multiple workspaces, and those who do sometimes have multiple windows on one workspace. Whatever the reason, it can get ugly when you’ve got a dozen windows on one workspace to sort through. The standard solution is an application switcher that will let you tab through those windows, and Compiz comes with two tools to perform that basic task – Application Switcher and Static Application Switcher.

compwin-appswitch

Both are nearly identical, the main difference being that App Switcher will fade out background windows while switching, whereas Static will remove them entirely and only show the selected window. The screenshot above is using Static.

As an alternative to the plain application switchers above, Compiz also includes the Scale plugin. Instead of displaying a selection box, Scale temporarily shrinks the windows themselves and arranges them into a grid for your choosing.

compwin-scale

This lets you see all open windows on that workspace and choose the right one directly instead of tabbing through a list.

The final approach Compiz can take toward window management is the Ring Switcher. It’s a combination of the two previous takes. When you activate it, all windows on the current workspace will be thumbnailed and arranged in a ring. You tab between them much like the App Switcher, but you’ve got full live previews like Scale.

compwin-ring

All plugins listed here, while occasionally flashy, are meant for real world productivity. The usefulness of plugins like Expo and Scale demonstrate that Compiz isn’t just a bunch of eye candy – it’s a genuinely effective window manager with some quality features. These Compiz plugins, when combined with other desktop tools like Gnome Do, Specto and Conky can be invaluable to a Linux user who really wants a slick and productive system.

11 comments

  1. As noted near the beginning, these are all plugins built in to the CompizConfig Settings Manager, which is available for download on most major distros. Ubuntu users, for example, can install with “sudo apt-get install compizconfig-settings-manager”, and run it from the menu or with the command “ccsm”

  2. The Grid plugin is also very useful. It lets you position the current window to fill the top, left, right, bottom of the screen with shortcut keys.

  3. Eventually, every desktop will provide what the Enlightenment window manager did ten years ago. I agree that good pagers are one of the most important desktop productivity tools available. E16 provides as many virutual desktops with as many virtual screens as you might want. My peak use was seven virtual desktops providing 63 virtual screens as a 3×3 grids. Not all screens were used but the central cross was mostly filled and many of the corner screens were also used. This worked out of the box with Etch on a PIII with half a gig of RAM, so I'm sure it will work for you. All bets are off if you use Flash but Skpe works well. E16 also did composit right, so that it would work smoothly even without GPU acceleration.

  4. I customized my Compiz a long time ago. The article is right, but it misses one important thing: the power you get by mapping these actions to screen edges..
    I mapped the application switcher, the expo plugin, and the scale plugin to the corners of the screen with a mouse click (move mouse in the corner, press a mouse button). Then I mapped the wall plugin to the edges of the screen, also with a mouse click. Disabled the Shift-switcher and enabled the scale add-ons.
    Combined with select pasting (with emulated middle mouse button) I can perform nearly all window management tasks with the mouse, and that very fast and instinctive.
    I can also rely on the keyboard of course, but I don't have to use both any more (i.e. Alt+Tab-ing is out the window in “mouse mode”).

  5. That's true, I didn't mention the “hot corners” as I personally have never liked that method, but it sounds like you've set yours up much more cleverly and cohesively than I did. Thanks for the tip!

    • It has eye candy, but you can turn that off. The purpose of this article was to describe how Compiz can be still useful to people who do not want a flashy system but want a fast and productive one.

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