Saturday, November 19, 2011

Blackbox. A truly great window manager/shell replacement for Windows.

Blackbox is a re-implementation of a window manager for X11/Xorg, which itself came out as a response to the increasing weight and complexity of Gnome and KDE. The focus from day one was fast and simple, and that has been retained in the several windows versions.  It is well maintained, and fully supports 64-bit oddities such as having two program folders and two collections of control panel applets. It's pretty, but that's not the point. It's fast, and it's out of your way.

Blackbox implements everything you need in a shell, including system tray functionality. It’s astonishingly fast and smooth, without a hint of response lag on even the most antiquated system. Systray apps load in the background. You don’t have to wait for everything in there to load to get a menu and start working. So if you’re removing useful things from the tray not because you’re out of memory, but just out of patience, you can stop now. Or you can kill the tray altogether. You can do anything you want, really. Windows is yours. Welcome home.

Multiple desktops are implemented cleanly in a classic X11 way.  You may or may not choose to skin windows, which both covers the ancient classic window treatment, and also implements more classic X11 behaviors such as window shading, stickiness, and always on top. While skinning may sound bloated, the way it’s done here is not. Styles are described in text files, and rendered on the fly by the same internal mechanism which draws the menus. Fast algorithms take color A and color B, renders a gradient, interlace, or flat surface, bevels the edges, and wraps the windows. It happens so fast and cleanly that you won’t see any tearing or artifacts on an old NetBurst Celeron with embedded graphics, let alone in a modern system. Skinning is optional, it should be noted. If you use aero, with or without uxtheme patches and third party visual styles, you may choose to skip the skinning, though of course you also lose the quick access to shade, stick, and always on top. Skinning can be odd with applications which implement their own management widgets, such as Adobe CS5, latest Firefox releases, and Google Chrome. Firefox can be made to work with skinning with a couple of changes to the arrangement of toolbars, or excluding, and Chrom, Illustrator, and Photoshop can be excluded easily.

Configuration is via some simple text files, which resemble nothing so much as old .ini files from 3.11, for those of you gray of beard enough to remember.  Functionality is completely modular, via a plugin architecture. Not only is it extensible, but if you must, even the core functionality is mostly replaceable. By default, we receive a clean layout in which start menu like functionality is available via a right click on the desktop, window listing via a middle click. A thin system bar offers a clock, tray, and tasks and desktop switching via the rodent.

You can fiddle with it in your spare time for a week, get everything just so, and keep it on a keychain to drop on any new install you may have. It’s a little work to get set up once, but you only have to do it once. If you set up your menus to use proper shell expansions instead of hard paths (%SYSTEMROOT%, etc.) you’ll have minimal work to do to carry it around.

Most of the code is GPL. The rendering engine described above is BSD. The plugin architecture is carefully designed to allow linking into non-free code without license pollution.

Get grischka’s bbLean here.  Get qwilk’s xoblite here. The xoblite site also features a fairly comprehensive list of plugins, which for the most part work with any other >.70 release of blackbox.exe.  The most active forum appears to be, which covers both windows and X11 versions, and various forks. The activity in these communities seems to fluctuate around the need for a new release. I suppose everyone just gets back to their real job once the update is passed around and debugged.  We’ve had to ask a question once that wasn’t covered in the included documentation. It was during the 32->64 transition, years ago.

To give an example of just how light this thing really is, my total installed folder is currently 1.8 MB. There’s some cruft in there, unused plugins, wallpapers. . . if I were to clean it out for only current core functionality, it would fit on a floppy. Even comprehensive documentation is in there.

OK, strictly speaking, Blackbox for Windows is everything but a window manager. While the shell is modular in Windows, just not advertised as such, window management is core, as evidenced by how ‘server core’ comes up to a terminal in a window on a classic aqua background.  Details.

Even as we work on this article, we see announcements that newer code is coming under the name of BBClean at Qwilk is also promising fresh xoblite. Grischka might respond with newer bbLean soon after. This of course, is part of the beauty of an open source shell. Several parties are working on core functionality. When they release, the good stuff quickly makes its way into the other releases. When the various developers drop out for a while, or forever, nothing is lost. But give this a run for a couple hours one evening, and you'll be lost in the box. There is no return. Get a USB keycahin drive to carry it around on, because after a week, you'll never want to see the taskbar again.

In this author's particular configuration, it looks like this:

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