Guided Tour

Getting started with xmonad

This is a guided tour of the core features of the xmonad window manager, allowing you to gain an understanding of the motivation, and use of a tiling window manager, and learn how to achieve the kind of screen configuration you want, simply and easily.

If you’re already familiar with the basics and want to learn how to configure xmonad and customize it to your liking, head over to the configuration tutorial.

We’ll assume you’ve been able to install xmonad and set it as your window manager.

our goal

Opening clients

When you start xmonad, without launching clients, you’ll be presented with an empty screen:

no windows open

Let’s start some clients, to fill the screen. xmonad uses the mod1 key (alt) by default, and we can start by launching a terminal with mod-shift-return. The new terminal will fill the screen (and we’ll use a bit of image processing to contrast the terminals a bit for the tutorial):

one window

Let’s open up another terminal mod-shift-return:

two windows

The window manager has now tiled the screen such that both windows fit, without overlaps, filling the plane. Note that the new window was inserted to the left of the previous window. What happens if we insert another client? mod-shift-return.

three windows

xmonad uses a simple tiling algorithm to tile the windows to fill the screen without gaps, while ensuring space is managed in a reasonable way. xmonad, by default, divides the screen into two panes. All windows are then partitioned into these two panes. The ratio each pane takes up on the screen is configurable, as are the number of clients in each pane. By convention, one pane is denoted as the ‘master’ pane, and is used to place the largest window. Other tiling algorithms are possible, (for example, fullscreen mode, or floating windows), and in these the concept of a ‘pane’ has no real meaning.

Layout modes

We can try out the other layouts now, with mod-space, which cycles through the available tiling algorithms:

a new layout

The next mode up is the ‘wide’ mode, a 90-degree rotation of the initial tiling. This is useful for smaller screens. If we hit mod-space again, we end up in fullscreen mode, where the currently focused window is maximised, and the only visible window:


Other tiling algorithms may be written directly in configuration files.

Moving focus

Let’s return now to the original ‘tall’ tiling, mod-space. We can move focus around with the mouse, or with mod-j and mod-k (which moves the window focus up or down) (coloured red here for emphasis):


We can also increase, or decrease, the number of windows stored in the master pane, with mod-comma and mod-period:

two master windows

and again mod-comma:

three master windows

Use mod-period a few times to decrement the master pane count back to 1, to return to the default tiling.

Shuffling window order

Now, let’s open up another client, we’ll launch glxgears:

several open windows

We can shuffle the window ordering in three ways: mod-return, mod-shift-j and mod-shift-k. First, let’s try mod-return, which swaps the focused window with the window in the master pane:

moving the focused window

mod-shift-j (and its inverse, mod-shift-k), swap the currently focused window with its neighbour above or below. This allows us to ‘bubblesort’ the window ordering, to achieve a desired ordering of windows. Applying mod-shift-j twice:

moving it back

and we’re back where we started.

Resizing clients

We can resize the ratio between the master and subordinate areas with mod-h and mod-l. Hitting mod-h a few times:

resizing windows

Now, let’s cycle to wide mode, and shrink (mod-space, then mod-l):

resizing in wide mode

We can return to tall mode by cycling through the tiling modes some more.

Floating clients

xmonad supports floating windows. Certain windows (such as transients) will be placed in a floating layer in front of all the tiled windows. Additionally, you can move a window to or from the floating layer on demand. To float a window (or move an already-floating window), click and drag it with the mod-button1 held down. To flatten the window back down to the tiling layer use mod-t. Floating windows can be resized by dragging the window with mod-button3, and a floating window can be brought to the top with mod-button2.

Deleting windows

When a window is closed naturally, or using mod-shift-c to kill it, focus is moved to the next window down in the workspace list. Let’s kill glxgears. Focus should move to the xterm below it:

after killing glxgears

To fully quit xmonad, use mod-shift-q to exit X (don’t do that now!).

Launching clients from dmenu

Assuming you have installed ‘dmenu’, you can launch programs from the status bar, by typing a few characters of the program’s name. Use mod-p to launch dmenu, and then type ‘fir’ to find firefox:


After firefox launches, it is inserted above the focused window:

new firefox window

Now, let’s close a terminal, use mod-space to enter wide mode, and mod-return to move firefox into the master window:

shuffling windows

Using other workspaces

xmonad has by default 9 virtual workspaces. Each physical screen is a portal onto one of these workspaces. The relationship between physical screens and virtual workspaces is described by the following image, which shows a conceptual model of xmonad, with 2 physical screens acting as portals onto 5 virtual workspaces.

virtual workspaces

You can switch between workspaces using mod-1 to mod-9. Switching to workspace 4 mod-4 we find it empty:

new workspace

Let’s open xclock here, using dmenu:


We can now move firefox from workspace 1 to this new workspace 4, by first switching back to workspace 1, mod-1, then using mod-shift-4 on firefox’s window, to toss it over to #4. This removes firefox from workspace 1, passing focus there to the next window in the list, and view workspace 4, after , looks like:

transferring windows from one workspace to another

Workspace 4 is using tall tiling, and workspace 1 is still in wide mode. xmonad allows you to run different tiling modes on each workspace. And that is the core set of window manager operations covered:

Please consult the man page for more details. With just these basics it should be possible to get started productively using xmonad as your tiling window manager. With custom configuration in Haskell, you can try out all sorts of interesting tiling or key binding ideas quite cheaply, as well as producing nice eye candy.

with the spiral plugin

Throw away the mouse, and get productive in X!