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What is SmallWM?

SmallWM is an extended version of TinyWM, made for actual desktop use.

Screenshot of SmallWM

Improvements over TinyWM

  • Window Iconification
  • Window Layering
  • Click-To-Focus and Focus Cycling
  • Moving/Resizing Placeholders
  • Multiple Virtual Desktops
  • Window Snapping
  • Window Packing
  • Class Actions


Note that these are the default controls. See the Configuration for details on how to setup keybindings. The only non-configurable key bindings are the ones that involve clicking the mouse, and the Super+1 ... Super+9 bindings.


  • Super+[: Move a window to the previous desktop (client-prev-desktop).
  • Super+]: Move a window to the next desktop (client-next-desktop).
  • Super+,: Switch to the previous desktop (prev-desktop).
  • Super+.: Switch to the next desktop (next-desktop).
  • Super+\: Sticks/unsticks a window; a stuck window is shown on all desktops (toggle-stick).


  • Super+h: Iconifies the current window (iconify).
  • Super+m: Maximizes the current window (maximize).
  • Super+c, Requests the current window to close (request-close).
  • Super+x: Force-closes the current window (force-close).
  • Super+Up, Super+Down, Super+Left, Super+Right: Snaps a window to either the top-half, bottom-half, left-half or right-half of the screen.
    • Actions: snap-top, snap-bottom, snap-left, snap-right
  • Super+Ctrl+Up, Super+Ctrl+Down, ...: Moves a window to the screen in the relative direction of the arrow key.
    • Actions: screen-top, screen-bottom, screen-left, screen-right
  • Super+PageUp, Super+PageDown: Increments or decrements the layer of this window.
    • Actions: layer-above, layer-below
  • Super+Home, Super+End: Puts a window on the topmost or bottommost layer.
    • Actions: layer-top, layer-bottom
  • Super+Tab: Focuses the next visible window in the focus list (cycle-focus).
  • Super-Alt-Tab: Focuses the previous visible window in the focus list (cycle-focus-back)
  • Super+LClick: Dragging the left mouse button starts moving a window - to place it, let go.
  • Super+RClick: Dragging the right mouse button starts resizing a window - to scale it, let go.
  • Super+1 ... Super+5 ... Super+9: These change the layer to the specified value (1, 5, or 9 respectively, in this example)


  • Super+LClick: Left-clicking the root window launches a new terminal.
  • Super+Escape: Quits SmallWM.


As a dependency, you'll need to have access to the headers for Xlib and XRandR. You should be able to easily obtain these via your package manager. You'll also need a C++ compiler - GNU G++ and clang++ work well. You'll also need a C compiler to build the inih library included with SmallWM - GNU C and clang work well for this purpose also.

Other than the dependencies, the Makefile contains everything you need to build and test SmallWM.

  • make compiles a version with symbols useful for debugging. Note that there is no optimized build - if you want an optimized version, open the Makefile and change -g to -O3 in CXXFLAGS.

For modifying SmallWM, the other target that you should be aware of is make check which compiles everything but does no linking. This is useful for incremental building to track compiler errors in source files.


Typically, the easiest place to put the smallwm binary is in /usr/local/bin.

If you want to run SmallWM from your login manager, you should put a file like the following in /usr/share/xsessions/smallwm.desktop:

[Desktop Entry]

Inside the script /usr/local/bin/, you should enter something like the following:

if [ -x $HOME/.smallwmrc ]; then
    $HOME/.smallwmrc &

exec /usr/local/bin/smallwm

At this point, you may choose to write a .smallwmrc file to start any programs you wish to run for the duration of your session. Note that SmallWM does not include a process manager to handle session programs (unlike say, XFCE, which will restart components like the panel or the desktop if they crash). I use a tool I wrote myself, called jobmon, to manage my system tray and other programs, but you are free to choose whatever process manager you like, since SmallWM doesn't care about it.


The C++ version follows a similar configuration file format to the original C version, but with some extended options. It should be placed at $HOME/.config/smallwm.

For example:


The options in the [smallwm] section are (in order):

  • shell The shell launched by Super+LClick (default: xterm). This can be any syntax supported by /bin/sh.
  • desktops The number of desktops (default: 5).
  • icon-width The width in pixels of icons (default: 75).
  • icon-height The height in pixels of icons (default: 20).
  • border-width The width of the border of windows (default: 4).
  • icon-icons Whether to (1) or not to (0) show application icons inside icon windows (default: 1).
  • log-level The severity of logging messages to send to syslog. By default, this is WARNING. See syslog(3) for the other log levels.
  • hotkey-mode What window to apply hotkeys like MINIMIZE to - this can be either focus (which means that the currently focused window is acted upon) or mouse (which means that the window under the cursor is acted upon). The default is mouse.
  • dump-file This is where SmallWM writes internal information dumps when you send it SIGUSR1. This is intended for development purposes only; although it will generally contain information about SmallWM's desktops, clients and screens, this information is for human consumption and its format is not guaranteed to stay the same. By default, this value is /dev/null, so that any dumps SmallWM generates are not stored anywhere.


X has the notion of an application "class" which is supposed to be a unique identifier for a window which belongs to a particular application. For example, there is a popular system tray called stalonetray which I use personally to manage status notifiers (like for NetworkManager, Dropbox, and the like). A quick xprop of the window shows that its class name is stalonetray.

The example given in the Configuration section shows how to stick any window belonging to stalonetray and layer it on top of all other application windows. Generally speaking, any number of these class actions can be chained together by separating them with commas.

The possibilities for a class action are:

  • stick makes a particular window stick to all the desktops.
  • maximize maximizes that window.
  • layer:x sets the layer of the window to x where x is a number in the range 1 to 9; 9 is the highest layer, 1 is the lowest.
  • snap:left, snap:right, snap:top, snap:bottom snap the window to the relevant side of the screen.
  • xpos:X and ypos:Y set the relative position of the window on the screen. X and Y are decimals in the range 0 to 100, inclusive. For example, setting xpos:50 puts the window's left edge in the middle of the screen (because xpos:50 is equivalent to saying that the X position should be 50 percent of the screen's width).
  • pack:CORNERPRIORITY directs SmallWM to fix the position of a group of windows, re-adjusting when they are resized. The CORNER is one of NE, SE, NW or SW (indicating the upper-left, lower-left, upper-right and lower-right corners respectively), and the optional PRIORITY is a non-negative integer (0 by default). See the Packing section below.
  • nofocus prevents SmallWM from automatically focusing windows of the given class. This is useful for windows like system trays, clocks, or other utility windows that you don't want to manipulate by accident.

It is important to know that xpos/ypos and pack are mutually exclusive - whatever is listed last in a class's action list is what is applied. For example, packme is packed but posme is relative-positioned:



Packing allows SmallWM to automatically position windows, according to a very simple set of rules. However, when a window is packed, you lose the ability to manually move and resize it.

The way that the packer works is that it looks at each corner of the screen individually. It then looks at the packed windows, and starts placing them in order of priority, with the lowest priority elements going closest to the corner.

For example, if you have 3 windows:

|  A  |
| C |

With the priorities:

  • A 1
  • B 2
  • C 3

And you want to pack them into the northeast corner, the result will look like the following; A, the lowest priority, is first placed directly into the corner, with B horizontally placed on the side of A opposite the corner, and then C placed on the edge of B.

             | C |B|  A  |

SmallWM currently does not have a way to pack on secondary monitors (it will always choose the primary minitor), or a way to pack vertically.

Keyboard Bindings

Keyboard bindings in SmallWM are almost entirely (except for Super+1 ... Super+9) configurable. The mechanism isn't that sophisticated, so make sure that you have a copy of /usr/include/X11/keysymdef.h or an equivalent file open.

In order to bind a key, you first have to know the name of the "keysym" that the key uses. To do this, search keysymdef.h for your key - the keysym name is the first word after the #define. The text that you put in the configuration file is the keysym name but with the leading XK_ removed. For example, take toggle-stick=asciitilde in the example configuration file. This binds the toggle-stick action to the XK_asciitilde keysym.

The following options can be set under the [keyboard] section to configure SmallWM's keyboard bindings.

  • client-next-desktop, client-prev-desktop
    • These bindings move the current window to either the next or previous desktop
  • next-desktop, prev-desktop
    • These bindings move the view the next or previous desktop
  • toggle-stick
    • This toggles the desktop stickiness of the current window
  • iconify
    • This iconifies the current window
  • maximize
    • This maximizes the current window
  • request-close
    • This requests that the current window close, allowing the application to show save prompts and the like.
  • force-close
    • This forces the current window to close. Only use this is an emergency - most applications will crash after you do this.
  • snap-top, snap-bottom, snap-left, snap-right
    • Snaps the current window to the top, bottom, left or right half of the screen.
  • screen-left, screen-right, screen-top, screen-bottom
    • Moves the current window to the screen to the left of, to the right of, above, or below the current screen it occupies.
  • layer-above, layer-below
    • Moves the current window to the layer above or below its current layer.
  • layer-top, layer-bottom
    • Moves the current window to the topmost or bottommost layer
  • cycle-focus, cycle-focus-back
    • Changes the focused window to the window next (or previous)in the focus list.
  • exit
    • Terminates SmallWM

Note the key binding given for snap-right in the example - the ! that prefixes the 'a' is used to indicate that this key bindings uses a secondary modifier key (Control, by default). In order to activate snap-left, you need to press Super+Ctrl+a rather than just Super+a. Only the key bindings used to move windows between screens use this by default.


  • Support for the EWMH and the _NET* atoms


  • Nick Welch, the original TinyWM author.
  • Myself (Adam Marchetti
  • The author(s) of the inih library.
  • Possibly, you - assuming you make any useful changes and I accept your pull request. Refactorings are welcome, as are those who are actually knowledgeable about Xorg and could spot any obvious mistakes.


SmallWM was migrated to the 2-Clause BSD License on 2013-11-18. See LICENSE.txt for details.

The inih code, included as a part of SmallWM, is available under the New BSD License. See inih/LICENSE.txt for details.


Xlib window manager (at one time based on tinywm, but SmallWM has long outgrown it)








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