Modern desktop environments like GNOME and KDE involving a lot of mousing around and I much prefer using the keyboard where I can. This is why I switched to the Ion tiling window manager back when I interned at Net Integration Technologies and kept using it until I noticed it had been removed from Debian.

After experimenting with awesome for 2 years and briefly considering xmonad , I finally found a replacement I like in i3. Here is how I customized it and made it play nice with the GNOME and KDE applications I use every day.

Startup script

As soon as I log into my desktop, my startup script starts a few programs, including:

Because of a bug in gnome-settings-daemon which makes the mouse cursor disappear as soon as gnome-settings-daemon is started, I had to run the following to disable the offending gnome-settings-daemon plugin:

dconf write /org/gnome/settings-daemon/plugins/cursor/active false

While my startup script doesn't run this tool directly, installing the dunst package is required to receive desktop notifications:

apt install dunst


In addition, gnome-screensaver didn't automatically lock my screen, so I installed xautolock and added it to my startup script:

xautolock -time 30 -locker "gnome-screensaver-command --lock" &

to lock the screen using gnome-screensaver after 30 minutes of inactivity.

I can also trigger it manually using the following shortcut defined in my ~/.i3/config:

bindsym Ctrl+Mod1+l exec xautolock -locknow

Keyboard shortcuts

While keyboard shortcuts can be configured in GNOME, they don't work within i3, so I added a few more bindings to my ~/.i3/config:

# volume control
bindsym XF86AudioLowerVolume exec /usr/bin/pactl set-sink-volume @DEFAULT_SINK@ '-5%'
bindsym XF86AudioRaiseVolume exec /usr/bin/pactl set-sink-volume @DEFAULT_SINK@ '+5%'
bindsym XF86AudioMute exec /usr/bin/pactl set-sink-mute @DEFAULT_SINK@ toggle

# brightness control
bindsym XF86MonBrightnessDown exec xbacklight -steps 1 -time 0 -dec 5
bindsym XF86MonBrightnessUp exec xbacklight -steps 1 -time 0 -inc 10

# show battery stats
bindsym XF86Battery exec gnome-power-statistics

to make volume control, screen brightness and battery status buttons work as expected on my laptop.

These bindings require the following packages:

Keyboard layout switcher

Another thing that used to work with GNOME and had to re-create in i3 is the ability to quickly toggle between two keyboard layouts using the keyboard.

To make it work, I wrote a simple shell script and assigned a keyboard shortcut to it in ~/.i3/config:

bindsym $mod+u exec /home/francois/bin/toggle-xkbmap

Suspend script

Since I run lots of things in the background, I have set my laptop to avoid suspending when the lid is closed by putting the following in /etc/systemd/login.conf:


Instead, when I want to suspend to ram, I use the following keyboard shortcut:

bindsym Ctrl+Mod1+s exec /home/francois/bin/s2ram

which executes a custom suspend script to clear the clipboards (using xsel), flush writes to disk and lock the screen before going to sleep.

To avoid having to type my sudo password every time pm-suspend is invoked, I added the following line to /etc/sudoers:

francois  ALL=(ALL)  NOPASSWD:  /usr/sbin/pm-suspend

Window and workspace placement hacks

While tiling window managers promise to manage windows for you so that you can focus on more important things, you will most likely want to customize window placement to fit your needs better.

Working around misbehaving applications

A few applications make too many assumptions about window placement and are just plain broken in tiling mode. Here's how to automatically switch them to floating mode:

for_window [class="VidyoDesktop"] floating enable

You can get the Xorg class of the offending application by running this command:

xprop WM_CLASS

before clicking on the window.

Keeping IM windows on the first workspace

I run Gajim on my first workspace and I have the following rule to keep any new window that pops up (e.g. in response to a new incoming message) on the same workspace:

assign [class="Gajim"] 1

Automatically moving workspaces when docking

Here's a neat configuration blurb which automatically moves my workspaces (and their contents) from the laptop screen (eDP-1) to the external monitor (DP-3-1) when I dock my laptop:

# bind workspaces to the right monitors
workspace 1 output DP-3-1
workspace 2 output DP-3-1
workspace 3 output DP-3-1
workspace 4 output DP-3-1
workspace 5 output DP-3-1
workspace 6 output eDP-1

You can get these output names by running:

xrandr --display :0 | grep " connected"

Finally, because X sometimes fail to detect my external monitor when docking/undocking, I also wrote a script to set the displays properly and bound it to the appropriate key on my laptop:

bindsym XF86Display exec /home/francois/bin/external-monitor