Windows Users: Consider a Tiling Window Manager

12 February 2024 5 Minutes History

Tiling window managers are what all the cool kids have been doing for 40 years, yet they're almost entirely overlooked on Windows.


Note of warning to the reader: the words "productivity" and "efficiency" occur in abundance in the following text.

Tiling window managers, or TWMs, are an often-hyped feature of true Linux nerddom and a permanent staple in the toolbelt of any honest around-the-clock workflow optimizer. In short, it's what the cool kids are doing (and have been doing for about 40 years). The concept isn't new - using keyboard shortcuts and clever defaults to keep windows arranged optimally on the desktop - but they're almost entirely overlooked on Windows.

This is unfortunate though, because those of us working on Windows stand to benefit just as much from the TWM as our Linux-using colleagues. Though ultimately coming down to a matter of personal preference, I would suggest that it is worthwhile for Windows users to consider a TWM. The benefits of using a TWM are essentially productivity and customizability. I've been using one on Windows for about half a year now, and the control it's given me over my workflow has had a noticeable impact on my productivity. To the point of customizability, how else could I be taken seriously when I pull out my laptop at a conference but by opening it to a thoroughly riced-out RGB setup that reports my CPU temperature in Kelvin?

Keyboard Shortcuts #

There's no question (in my mind at least, but hopefully in yours too) that ALT+(number) is a much more efficient way to navigate than ALT+TAB+TAB+TAB+TAB+TAB+(SHIFT+TAB)+(stare for a bit)+(release ALT). I find myself switching between windows and contexts a lot, and being able to have a single keystroke take me to the same window context every time has done so much to help keep me focused, and that directly feeds into productivity. My IDE is always at ALT+2 no matter where I am. I can do all my communication (Slack, Discord, email, Zoom) at ALT+3. I don't really need to set anything up each time I start my machine; everything is in its place for me.

Using and learning the keyboard shortcuts isn't difficult, either. I haven't really been a keyboard shortcut person until recently, and I was able to become really proficient with the shortcuts after a couple days' use. This is a case where the investment in learning the tool is so small that it offers excellently outsized returns with the productivity gain.

Workspace Navigation #

A lot of the time when we're working with windows we need to context switch twice to fully be able to reorient ourselves: once to change up our window arrangement and another to switch into the next context. I find that the workspace customization offered by TWMs eliminates the middle context switch, saving me a lot of time not just in the process of switching the windows around, but reducing the mental load I need to bear. This workspace customization extends to my multiple-monitor setup. I've already set up which tools I want on which monitors, and I have a couple of simple keystrokes to switch them between monitors when I need to switch that. This extends the predictability and efficiency of my setup, and almost entirely removed any need for me to drag windows back and forth or spend extra time trying to get my windows lining up correctly.

Windows 11 has the ability to sort windows into panels, but that is lightyears behind the capabilities offered here by TWMs: with the latter I can set up any windowing arrangement without needing to take the time to manually move the windows around each time. The real estate of each screen is always perfectly optimized with a TWM. Not just that the windows are all maximized by default, but that they're arranged in the specific manager that you expect them. The same way each time, and when you need to change the window arrangement you'll be changing it in consistent and predictable ways. I've already set up how I want my windows tiled in each workspace, and that gives me a framework to work in when I need to rearrange windows as my work progresses. The less I need to focus on the minutae of where my windows are and why, the more I can focus on the work I have at hand (like typing a mediocre article on tiling window managers).

Customization is Fun #

Yes, having a well-customized system is also a feedback in efficiency and productivity and all the good things. However, if I'm being honest with myself, customization is a bit of flair for flair's sake. To me, that's fun. I enjoy being able to show off a super-nerdy desktop and make things flash around with a couple keystrokes. I have a VS Code extension that puts space images in the background of my code, and while I might be able to make a case that having different colored code panes better helps me find my way around my code, really it's just fun to have.

TWMs offer customization in all of the workspace and productivity ways, but they also offer aesthetic customization, and you can tinker pretty fine-grained with it. Yes efficiency is important but the personalized tweaks can be a huge benefit just for their own sake. I think this is an important point about TWMs, and it's something that we sometimes lack on Windows.

Conclusion #

If you use Windows, consider using a TWM. Try it out for a week! It's not everyone's cup of tea, but if you're open to the idea you might find that you like it. I tried it out half a year ago just to see what the hype was and I ended up loving it. The same could be true for you.

Two great ones to consider are GlazeWM and Komorebi. A couple others which I have not tried, but look interesting, are HashTWM and FancyWM.

Happy tiling!

Hi, I'm Ian

I'm a software engineer, architect, and team leader in Minneapolis. My career has largely focused on .NET and web technologies, spread across several industries. Currently I'm working for Crate & Barrel on their ecommerce solutions. You can find me on this blog, contributing to open source repositories, and at conferences around the Midwest.

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