Ten years with the Ratpoison window manager

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I started using Linux in 1996. After having used FVWM, FVWM95, KDE (first generation) and Blackbox, I switched to Ratpoison in 2008. I liked the way it worked, and because I was using GNU Screen for a lot of years and Ratpoison uses similar key bindings, I didn't have a long learning curve.

After switching to Ratpoison I never looked back, and since than Ratpoison has been my window manager of choice.

What I like in Ratpoison:

  • Now mouse needed
  • Every window gets maximized to full screen
  • Very lightweight
  • Extremely efficient

Some people pay money to have a 'no-distractions' editor. With Ratpoison in the default mode (every window gets maximized to full screen) every application is in 'no-distractions'-mode.

Off course it is possible to do a horizontal or a vertical split and have two or more applications on the display. But in day to day use, I never use this option. Neither in GNU Screen of Tmux, by the way. I prefer laptops with small screens, like 11.8 or 12 inch. In Vim I default to a text-wide of 72 characters (:set tw=72), so even on a 11.8 or 12 inch display there is room left for another screen. but I prefer to focus on the window I am working in.


Depending on the OS, I use ratmen or ratmenu. On OpenBSD I use ratmen, on Debian I use ratmenu. On the internet floats a small shell script called windows, that sends the output of ratpoison -c windows to ratmenu. I have made a similar script in awk, that functions both on OpenBSD as on Linux. I only have to make sure the script uses the right menu program (ratmen or ratmenu), everything else works fine no matter the OS.

There are only two menus that I use, a menu to switch to another window (with the awk-version of the windows script) and a small hand made menu, f.e. to show the battery status, to set the volume on OpenBSD (no alsamixer there). Also I have some key bindings to start Firefox, Iridium, to go in w3m to my personal private wiki, to open a favorite Gopher site in lynx, to ssh to some important servers, and so on. Also to make a screenshot through xwd and imagemagick.

I use only a small number of applications, and the most important are started through a Ratpoison key binding, the other from the command line interface.

Lessons from experience

Ratpoison is great. Since I started using Ratpoison I never had the urge to look for another window manager.

Name your windows. When you have a lot of xterm, or rxvt or st lines in your windows menu, it is hard to choose which one you want to switch to. So, either by hand or by scripting, give your windows a name as soon as possible.

Gimp is not a friend of Ratpoison. The only time I make use of the tmpwm command in Ratpoison, is before I start Gimp. Newer Gimp versions can be put in a one-window mode, when you have accomplished this, Gimp can be used in Ratpoison, but a upgrade of Gimp can break this.

I hardly use the split command, either for horizontal or vertical splits. There is a ratpoisonrc-config floating on the internet to show a calendar in the ratpoison bar. In the beginning I did have this in my .ratpoisonrc, but I did use this almost never, so I dropped this.

When I want to see a calendar, I just open a terminal screen and enter cal.

Just use it. What ever you need to learn to work efficient with Ratpoison, you will learn it very quickly by just using Ratpoison. After a small time, you get accustomed to Ratpoison. And if you are like me, you never want to go back to another window manager :)