z3bra, the stripes apart

Home, sweet home

28 October, 2013


Yes, a summary, because that's gonna be a LONG article.


Okay, so you have finally installed your distro of choice, cleaned the whole setup, installed, xterm and vim...

And now, what?!

I've asked myself this question more than I should (probably because I liking tweaking my desktop, but that's not the point here).
And I bet that you did too !

In this post, I'll go through all the mandatory tweak that should be done to a clean base system. YOUR system, 'cause there is no place like home.
Once standing in your ~, starring at your shell prompt, you should be like Uuuh that is life, eh!

I'll not wait more to give you my secrets, but please, keep in mind that these are MY OPINIONS and I'm not asking you to agree with me. If you feel uncomfortable with some points, just avoid them. You're not here to feel bad, but to find advices on setting up your home!

Window manager

This is the most important part of your future environment. It is the god that will tell all your windows where to go, how to move, etc.. So you can take a little time to choose a WM, it totally understandable.

There are three types of window managers:

Floating management is the management style we're all used to, windows are independent and you can resize/move them freely around your desktop.
Tilled window managers arrange the windows depending on what is currently on your desktop. The windows CAN'T overlap. When you create a new window, the whole set of window is rearranging to let the new window find a place (Not always in fact, but that's the idea behind tilling).
Finally, dynamic WM can switch between the two managment styles (most of the time, at cost of complexity and binary size, but that's just my opinion). Note that most tilling WM are, in fact, dynamic WM. But the way they manage floating windows is just so poor...

Oh, and for the alien part, keep in mind that some WM just don't manage windows like that. But their behaviors are to specific to be described here. Just RTFM 'em.

FYI, here is a non-exhaustive list of window managers I like (F = floating, T = tilling, D = dynamic... U DON'T SAY!)

Note that I DIDN'T mentioned AwesomeWM or openbox. beuâh.

Once you have chosen your WM, go through its manpage/doc, set it up to look the way you want. Use stuff like librgba, compton to make it even prettier!

cwm screenshot Here is a quick CWM setup, using compton and librgba

Oh! A last advice, do not bind applications through your WM. Using an application like xbindkeys to do that is a better idea, as it follow the UNIX philosophy, and it will help you a lot if you want to try another WM.


Here we are. The terminal. The central part of the whole setup!

As an advanced user, you spend a lot of time within the terminal, so it is important to keep your terminal a pleasant place for your eyes.
There are, in fact, only two ways to tweak your terminal: colors and font. The goal is to find the best readability/usability/awesomeness ratio.
I'd recommend that you start from a dark scheme, as it's better for your eyes by night (But that's just my opinion, light colorschemes can look pretty good!). Terminals usually manage up to 256 colors, but you will use only 16 of them:

→ [0-7] for normal text
→ [8-15] for bold text
Here is the color chart:

black red green yellow blue magenta cyan white
dark 00 01 02 03 04 05 06 07
light 08 09 10 11 12 13 14 15

Now, just tweak each color to fit your perfect theme!
To do so, refer to the manual of your terminal.

If you don't have one, here is a list of terminal you can use:

I have stick with rxvt-unicode (urxvt) personnally. I find it pretty powerfull, light and fast. Also, it can be extended in perl, which is great (muh URL selection).

Back to terminal colors! The best way I know to change the terminal colorscheme, is using the X server resource database (xrdb). But it does not work with every terminal (it works, at least, with xterm and urxvt).
All you have to do, is configure your colors in a file called ~/.Xresources, and source it with the command:

xrdb -load ~/.Xresources

For example, here is mine (screenshot at the end of the section):



*color0:    #222222
*color1:    #8b3e2f
*color2:    #526f33
*color3:    #665847
*color4:    #4a708b
*color5:    #7a378b
*color6:    #528b8b
*color7:    #999999

*color8:    #4c4c4c
*color9:    #d75f00
*color10:   #cee318
*color11:   #eee685
*color12:   #9ac0cd
*color13:   #9f79ee
*color14:   #79cdcd
*color15:   #e8e9ca

For the font, it's quite the same, but I suggest that you search for the terms xft font, bitmap fonts and X resources cause it can be a little tricky to understand.

Quickly, there are two way to draw fonts in your terminal, with, and without xft. XFT allows you to draw nice fonts and scale them the way you want, like BitStream Vera Sans, Monospace, etc... But these are "slow" to draw. The other method is the one used by TTY, bitmap fonts. Those are fixed pixeled font that can look odd, but draw fastly.
Just make a choice.
To declare a XFT font:

xft:<font name>:size=<size>

Bitmap font are declared like this (taken from xfontsel -print, thanks to Gnu42 for the package). You can then use the xfontsel package, or look for a file named fonts.dir in your font directory.


Here is a small example:


*font: xft:monospace:size=10
*font: -misc-tamsyn-medium-*-*--14-101-*-*-*-*-*

So, we have seen how to tweak the terminal, let's see what it looks like! I wrote a small script for the purpose:

term screenshot A terminal running the script that dump 16 colors along system informations


right after seeing the terminal, you can't avoid it's main program: the shell.
If you don't know this already, the shell is the link between the user and the programs. It's a program you will communicate with to manipulate your system. An important program tough. Choose it carefully then. Here is the main shell list:

I personnaly used zsh a lot because it has a feature I like, the right prompt. also, it's completion system is really great (argument completion is a good thing to have, trust me..). But I now use bash again because I don't need much of the features zsh provide, so that was kinda like using a chainsaw to cut a thin rope.

Anyway, I'll treat here only the "standard shell": bash

The first thing you will see from the shell is its prompt. The prompt is a set of characters that gives info to the user, and invite him to input commands. Basically, it looks like this:


Fancy huh ? The prompt chars are contained in the variable PS1 for sh/bash, and PROMPT/RPROMPT for zsh.

$ PS1='z3bra-$ '

(You don't have to issue the two command to make it works.) Take a look at the bash manpage, section "Prompting" for more info on how to tweak it. Here is my personnal prompt:


# Fancy prompt
fg=('\[\e[0;30m\]' '\[\e[0;31m\]' '\[\e[0;32m\]' '\[\e[0;33m\]'
    '\[\e[0;34m\]' '\[\e[0;35m\]' '\[\e[0;36m\]' '\[\e[0;37m\]'
    '\[\e[1;30m\]' '\[\e[1;31m\]' '\[\e[1;32m\]' '\[\e[1;33m\]'
    '\[\e[1;34m\]' '\[\e[1;35m\]' '\[\e[1;36m\]' '\[\e[1;37m\]')

PS1='';[ -n "$SSH_CLIENT" ] && PS1="${fg[8]}$(hostname|cut -b-2) "
export PS1=" ${PS1}${fg[11]}──── ${nofg}"

And my old zsh prompt:


PROMPT=" %{$fg_bold[yellow]%} »  "
RPROMPT="%{$fg[black]%}%M:%{$fg_bold[yellow]%}%~%{$reset_color%}   "

shell screenshot A few different prompts, from top to bottom: sh, zsh, bash, zsh

CLI tools

The shell is the core of a UNIX/Linux based system. So having a bunch of fast, light and efficient CLI tools is a must. There are applications for (almost) everything you do on a daily basis with you computer: IRC clients, Text editor, Video games, Web browsers, image viewer, ...

Okay, I agree that some of them are not really practical to use everyday. Mostly when it involve images (web lurking, image processing, gaming, ...).
But when you don't need images, unleash your shell!
Use CLI based app for text-based task. It has many advantages:

I personnaly use vim, irssi and mutt on a daily basis.
As an alternative, take a look at emacs, weechat and Alpine.

cwm screenshot Mandatory screenshot of the setup with those apps (and custom themes).
top-left: vim
top-right: mutt
bottom-left: tmux
bottom-right: irssi

Status bar

All of this is great, but I think that if you want to check the time, you're not willing to open a terminal, and type:

date +%H:%M

It's not really practical most of the time. The same can apply to the amount of free space, to current volume level or the number of unread mails you have.
That's what status bar are made for. They pick infos for you and display them in a thin bar on an edge of your screen.

My bar of choice is, by far, bar ain't recursive, by Lemon Boy.
It is light, fast and simple. Exactly how I like it! the purpose is simple:

  1. Write a script that output a bunch of informations
  2. Pipe that script into the bar
  3. Run them within an infinite loop!

That is all you need. For example, if you only need the date in the bar:

while :; do date; done | bar &

And there you go! You can achieve really great looking stuff with that simple process:

bar screenshot You can also choose to put your status bar within a terminal multiplexer status bar, as phyrne suggested in one of his blog post


Now that we potentially have a working desktop, let make it spawn correctly, using ONLY one file: ~/.xinitrc.

That magical file is simply a shell script that is called by default with startx. In fact, when you proceed this command, it does the following:

$ startx ~/.xinitrc -- :0

It source your ~/.xinitrc, and launch it on the Xorg server number 0. To launch your wm of choice from the xinitrc, just add the command to launch it in the file, preceded by 'exec'. It will replace the current process (your shell) by the window manager, so that the session will terminate with your WM.

Okay, now you have the theory. Before starting to pratice, I'll give you a few hints for a "good" xinitrc (yeah, I love making lists):

Finally, here is my own xinitrc


# ~/.xinitrc

# load nvidia config
nvidia-settings -l

# Set wallpaper
hsetroot -tile ~/usr/img/bg/stripes.png &

# default cursor
xsetroot -cursor_name left_ptr &

function wm() {
# Load X resources
xrdb -load ~/.Xresources &

# personnal bindings

# set WM name
xsetroot -name $1

#status bar
~/bin/bar/ & # it acts kinda weirdly

# Compositing
# enable RGBA module for GTK
export GTK_MODULES=rgba

#compton -cCb -t-5 -l-5 -r4.2 -o.4
compton -cb -o0

# spawn window manager
exec $1

[[ -z $1 ]] && wm cwm

wm $1

final screenshot That shot show off the whole setup, with prompt, bar, applications, etc... I hope you will like it!


The end, finally. That is a damn long article. I have deliberately not expanded some point by lack of "space". I want this article to end someday. It will give you a good start to tweak your own setup, and make it look like what you want it to look.

Make your environment yours, and have fun doing so!