Frequently asked questions

Hint: Don’t restart

To make changes in your autostart take effect immediately, just type herbstclient reload. There is no need to restart herbstluftwm or X.

Even if you just updated you herbstluftwm-binary, there’s no need to restart anything. Run herbstclient wmexec, which does an exec(3) on the new herbstluftwm version. (You also can use wmexec to switch to another window manager without restarting anything)

Hint: Use scripts!

There are a bunch of scripts coming along with herbstluftwm. Check out the scripts directory in the sources and the examples directory after installing.

Hint: Understanding processes

To understand the relationship between the different processes that running in a typical herbstluftwm setup, consider the following diagram:

                   | f/e
                   | f/e or exec
    IPC-Call       V
    .- - - -> herbstluftwm           __________________
  ."            /     \             | Symbol | Meaning |
  .            /       \            |--------+---------|
  .       f/e /         \ f/e       |  A     | A forks |
  .          /           \          |  | f/e | and     |
  .         V             V         |  V     | execs   |
  .     autostart       xterm       |  B     | into B  |
  .         |             |         |________|_________|
  .     f/e |             | f/e
  .         V             V
   --  herbstclient     $SHELL

As you can see, herbstclient does nothing except sending requests to herbstluftwm. Whenever a process performs a fork-and-exec, the following rules apply:

  • A child process inherits the environment variables of its parent process. If you change an environment variable (like PATH), then it will stay unchanged in the parent process.

    ⇒ If you want to set some environment variables for your complete session (i.e. all processes) then you have to set it in your ~/.xinitrc.

  • If a process spawns a window, then the window will spawn delayed. This delay differs from application to application (and from time to time). So a script like

    herbstclient spawn xterm
    herbstclient spawn xev

    does not guarantee that the xterm window will appear before the xev window! It only guarantees that the xterm is executed before xev will be executed.

    ⇒ If you want to apply some rules only for the next windows, then use a bash-script like the one for temporary rules.

Q: Why is herbstluftwm called herbstluftwm?

I liked the name of the e-mail client wanderlust. Unfortunately I am a happy mutt user, so I needed an other application with a similar name.

Q: Is herbstluftwm a fork of dwm/musca/wmii/…?

No. It was written from scratch, although it borrows some basic XLib function calls (like updating numlock-state, sending a WMDelete-Message to a client, updating the urgent hints, …) from dwm.

Q: If the config is a bash script, does it mean it is called on each keystroke?

No, the configuration file is executed once to set internal settings and keybindings and so on. If a keybinding is registered and its key is pressed, the according (internal) command directly is called.

Q: How can I let single clients float?

You can assign a shortcut for herbstclient attr clients.focus.floating toggle. Also, herbstluftwm floats some clients like dialogs by default (you can disable this with a rule). Single floating clients are supported since version 0.8.

Q: I use GIMP very often, how can I use it without floating?

Load a predefined layout to a gimp tag. Move the GIMP-Tool windows to the left and right border and put the rest in the center. Add this to your autostart:

# ensure there is a gimp tag
hc add gimp
hc load gimp '
(split horizontal:0.850000:0
(split horizontal:0.200000:1
(clients vertical:0)
(clients grid:0))
(clients vertical:0))
'               # load predefined layout
# center all other gimp windows on gimp tag
hc rule class=Gimp tag=gimp index=01 pseudotile=on
hc rule class=Gimp windowrole~'gimp-(image-window|toolbox|dock)' \
hc rule class=Gimp windowrole=gimp-toolbox focus=off index=00
hc rule class=Gimp windowrole=gimp-dock focus=off index=1

Q: What about a layout for Instant Messaging applications (Gajim, Pidgin, …)?

A good layout for Instant Messaging applications looks as follows: One frame on the left displays the buddy list/roster, consuming ~15% of the monitor space, while the right side is used for the conversations. This can be configured easily with herbstluftwm. The following example configures such a layout on tag 7 and creates the rules to automatically move Gajim’s windows to the right frame:

hc load 7 '(split horizontal:0.15:1 (clients horizontal:0) (clients grid:4))'
hc rule class="Gajim" tag=7 index=1
hc rule class="Gajim" windowrole="roster" tag=7 index=0

For pidgin, the setup looks similar. In this case the buddy list is on the right with a width of 20% of the monitor space. In addition to the above, the buddy list will not receive input focus when it shows up:

imtag=7 # just set the name of the tag here
hc load "$imtag" '(split horizontal:0.800000:0 (clients grid:0) (clients vertical:0))'
hc rule class=Pidgin   windowrole=buddy_list tag=$imtag index=1 focus=off
hc rule class=Pidgin ! windowrole=buddy_list tag=$imtag index=0

Q: How can I add rules temporarily for some special clients?

Add a rule for the clients pid, before the client appears. This script creates two xterms with different behaviours:

#!/usr/bin/env bash

# Requirement: bash >= 4.0 (because of the usage of $BASHPID)

spawn_with_rules() {(
    # this rule also requires, that the client
    # sets the _NET_WM_PID property
    herbstclient rule once pid=$BASHPID maxage=10 "${RULES[@]}"
    exec "$@"
    ) &

# spawn an xterm with uname info, but not where the focus is
RULES=( index='/' focus=off )
spawn_with_rules xterm -e 'uname -a ; read'

# spawn an xterm in pseudotile mode
RULES=( pseudotile=on focus=on )
spawn_with_rules xterm

Q: Why doesn’t a new client receive focus?

The reason is the default setting of the focus consequence in the rules. You can change it by adding this to the rules section in the autostart file:

hc unrule --all      # clear rules
hc rule focus=on     # focus new clients by default

Q: herbstclient is too long to type it in the shell

Use tab-completion! her<tab>c<tab> expands to herbstclient. There is also a tab-completion for the herbstclient parameters. After installing herbstluftwm, add this to your .bashrc:

source /usr/share/bash-completion/completions/herbstclient

(The tab-completion in zsh works out of the box with most zsh-configurations).

You also can add an alias for herbstclient:

alias hc='herbstclient'

If you use bash, then also add this to make the tab-completion work for the hc alias:

complete -F _herbstclient_complete -o nospace hc

(For zsh and fish, the tab-completion is inherited by aliases and no further configuration is needed)

Q: My rules seem to be messed up

Clear them with hc unrule -F and start over. It is recommended to do this in the autostart file.

Q: I don’t like that my mplayervideo/inputdialogs get resized to full framesize

Add this to your autostartfile:

hc rule instance=<instancename> pseudotile=on

You can request the instancename with xprop by clicking on the related window. <instancename> is the first string in the line WM_CLASS(STRING) (for mplayer that would be xv, for firefox dialogs it is Dialog).

Q: I set default_frame_layout to my favorite layout but it doesn’t work with the root frame/existing frames

Existing tags are not affected by a change of that variable (only new ones), so be sure to set it before creating any tags.

In order to change the layout algorithm for the existing root-frames on all tags, put the following in the autostart after setting default_frame_layout:

hc substitute ALGO settings.default_frame_layout \
    foreach T \
    sprintf ATTR '%c.tiling.root.algorithm' T \
    set_attr ATTR ALGO

On old herbstluftwm versions, a workaround is to put hc split vertical 0.5; hc remove at the end in your autostart file. You can also cycle_layout in existing tags.

Q: How can I start external panels correctly?

The cleanest solution to start the external EWMH panel (like xfce4-panel) from the autostart and manually reserve some space for it. Also start herbstclient instance that knows when to kill the panel again so that there aren’t multiple instances when reloading the autostart multiple times. Append the following code to your bash autostart (assuming the panel needs 31 pixels at the bottom of monitor 0):

# add an external panel
    pids=( )
    # reserve some space for the panel on monitor 0
    hc pad 0 "" "" 31
    # start the panel itself and remember its pid
    xfce4-panel -d --sm-client-disable &
    pids+=( $! )
    # or start another panel:
    # mypanel &
    # pids+=( $! )
    # wait until the panels should be stopped
    herbstclient -w '(quit_panel|reload)'
    # stopp all started panels
    kill ${pids[@]}
} &

Q: I’m using a compositing manager like xcompmgr and get ugly artifacts when switching tags or splitting frames

You probably have an old version of herbstluftwm and frame_bg_transparent enabled. Disable this setting and use frame_active_opacity and/or frame_normal_opacity instead or upgrade to a current version.

Q: How can I keybind a simple "Run" dialog?

Install dmenu and keybind dmenu_run_hlwm by adding the following line to your autostart file:

hc keybind $Mod-p spawn dmenu_run_hlwm

Note that $Mod-p is bound to pseudotile toggle in the default autostart of herbstluftwm, so you either need to change that binding or use a different one for spawn dmenu_run_hlwm.

Q: How can I have some of the tags on specific monitors only?

For each tag, save the desired monitor name or index in the tag’s attributes. Before switching to another tag, check whether it has such an attribute, and if so, switch to that monitor first. This is accomplished by the following code in the autostart:

# Replace the default section for tags in your autostart by the following:
# This is the default tag section of the autostart, with a single change:
# In the use_index keybinding, check the presence of the my_monitor attribute,
# before focusing the desired tag.
hc rename default "${tag_names[0]}" || true
for i in ${!tag_names[@]} ; do
    hc add "${tag_names[$i]}"
    if ! [ -z "$key" ] ; then
        # first check if the tag is locked to some monitor.
        # if so, first focus the monitor
        hc keybind "$Mod-$key" \
            chain , silent substitute M tags."$i".my_monitor \
                        focus_monitor M \
                  , use_index "$i"
        hc keybind "$Mod-Shift-$key" move_index "$i"

# Add a keybinding for locking the current tag to the monitor it is displayed
# on. This is done by saving the current monitor index in the my_monitor
# attribute of the focused tag. If the monitor has a (nonempty) name, use the
# monitor name instead of its index.
herbstclient keybind $Mod-t chain \
    , new_attr string tags.focus.my_monitor \
    , substitute M monitors.focus.index set_attr tags.focus.my_monitor M \
    , try and \
        . compare != "" \
        . substitute M \
                set_attr tags.focus.my_monitor M

# Add a keybinding for removing the lock
herbstclient keybind $Mod-Shift-t \
    remove_attr tags.focus.my_monitor

# Statically define which tag should be send to which monitor
lock_tag_to_monitor() {
    herbstclient chain \
        , new_attr string"$1".my_monitor \
        , set_attr"$1".my_monitor "$2"
# Already lock some of the tags to a monitor, for example:
# lock the second tag to the monitor with index 0
lock_tag_to_monitor 2 0

The usage is: adjust the lock_tag_to_monitor-lines in your autostart to statically define which tag should be send to which monitor. Press Mod-t to lock the focused tag to the monitor it is currently on. Press Mod-Shift-t to release the locking and to allow the tag to be displayed on any monitor.

Q: How can I have a separate list of tags per monitor?

As a solution: add the desired tags for each monitor and then configure the keybindings s.t. the i’th key references the i’th tag of that monitor instead of the i’th of all the tags. You can achieve this by replacing the section "tags" and "cycle through tags" in the autostart by the following:

# tags
mon1_names=( 1_{1..5} ) # tag names for monitor 1
mon2_names=( 2_{1..5} ) # tag names for monitor 2
fallback_names=( {1..5} ) # tag names for all other monitors
tag_keys=( {1..9} 0 )

hc rename default "${mon1_names[0]}" || true
for tag in "${mon1_names[@]}" "${mon2_names[@]}" "${fallback_names[@]}" ; do
    hc try silent add "$tag"

for i in ${!tag_keys[@]} ; do
    # the keybinding works as follows: the or executes the commands separated by
    # CASE and stops executing them after the first of those succeeds.
    # the first command is: check that we are on monitor 3 and can switch to tag "${mon1_names[$i]}"
    # if only one of these two steps fail, try the second one (and so one).
    # The setup for two monitors is as follows:
    hc keybind "$Mod-$key" \
        or CASE and . compare monitors.focus.index = 0 . use "${mon1_names[$i]}" \
           CASE and . compare monitors.focus.index = 1 . use "${mon2_names[$i]}" \
           CASE use "${fallback_names[$i]}"
    hc keybind "$Mod-Shift-$key" \
        or CASE and . compare monitors.focus.index = 0 . move "${mon1_names[$i]}" \
           CASE and . compare monitors.focus.index = 1 . move "${mon2_names[$i]}" \
           CASE move "${fallback_names[$i]}"

# cycle through tags
# add additional information in order to cycle only through a monitor's tags
# and not through all tags
define-tag-cycle() {
    local n=$#
    local tags=( "$@" )
    for i in "${!tags[@]}" ; do
        local t="${tags[$i]}"
        hc chain , new_attr string"$t".my_previous_tag \
                 , set_attr"$t".my_previous_tag "${tags[$(((i - 1 + n) % n))]}" \
                 , new_attr string"$t".my_next_tag \
                 , set_attr"$t".my_next_tag "${tags[$(((i + 1) % n))]}"

define-tag-cycle "${mon1_names[@]}"
define-tag-cycle "${mon2_names[@]}"
define-tag-cycle "${fallback_names[@]}"

# cycle through tags
# check whether the current tag as a custom "next tag" configured
# if yes, jump to that one, otherwise fall back to ordinary use_index +1
hc keybind $Mod-period or , substitute NEXT tags.focus.my_next_tag use NEXT  \
                          , use_index +1 --skip-visible
hc keybind $Mod-comma  or , substitute PREV tags.focus.my_previous_tag use PREV  \
                          , use_index +1 --skip-visible

You should also set swap_monitors_to_get_tag to 0. Also consider the following hint for shifting windows between monitors:

Q: How to navigate between monitors?

In order to switch focus between the monitors, use the usual direction based focusing (the command focus). It either focuses a window on the current monitor or the next monitor if the boundary is reached. Since version 0.9.3, the same works when moving windows (command shift).

If you’re using an older version you need to configure it in your autostart. In order to shift windows from monitor to monitor, replace the usual usage of shift in your autostart by this one:

hc keybind $Mod-Shift-h or / shift left / \
    chain , lock , shift_to_monitor -l , focus_monitor -l , unlock
hc keybind $Mod-Shift-j or / shift down / \
    chain , lock , shift_to_monitor -d , focus_monitor -d , unlock
hc keybind $Mod-Shift-k or / shift up / \
    chain , lock , shift_to_monitor -u , focus_monitor -u , unlock
hc keybind $Mod-Shift-l or / shift right / \
    chain , lock , shift_to_monitor -r , focus_monitor -r , unlock

(or analogously with arrow keys instead of hjkl). Again, this shifts a window to the next monitor if the monitor boundary is reached.

Q: How do I detect whether it is the first time that autostart is executed?

If you want to actually autostart applications on herbstluftwm startup, one needs to take care that they are not executed on successive reloads. The following command returns success on the first time, autostart is executed, and failure on successive calls:

herbstclient silent new_attr bool my_not_first_autostart

It tries to create a new attribute (on the root object). If it is the first autostart run, then this succeeds. On any successive execution, this command fails, because the attribute my_not_first_autostart already exists. An example looks as follows:

if hc silent new_attr bool my_not_first_autostart ; then
    /path/to/examples/ web firefox &
    pidgin &

Q: How can I unminimize all minimized clients?

The following keybinding unminimizes all clients on the current tag:

hc keybind Mod4-Ctrl-m \
   substitute FOCUS "" \
   foreach CLIENT clients. \
     sprintf MINATT "%c.minimized" CLIENT \
     sprintf TAGATT "%c.tag" CLIENT and \
       , compare MINATT "=" "true" \
       , compare TAGATT "=" FOCUS \
       , set_attr MINATT false

It iterates over all clients, compares its tag attribute sets the minimized attribute to false.