blackbox, as seen in the wake of Openbox

I haven’t posted much here lately, and that’s a sure-fire sign that I’ve been quite busy. You probably know what with. ;)

Yes, after literally years of baby-stepping through the alphabet, I finally finished that ginormous list of applications for the console. The one that I discovered four years ago, dragged around for another couple of years, and finally dissected over the course of the last 18 months.

So, yes, in that alone I’ve been quite busy.

On top of that though, there have been some recent hardware adoptions that I’ll show off later. A couple of them are real prizes, and some might be … curses. More on that in the days to come.

Today though, I needed to come to grips with blackbox, for reasons that will be clear in the future. Suffice to say that it was worth learning on my “production machine,” and sounded vaguely like fun after May’s run-in with twm.


That’s Arch Linux again, for no particular reason other than it was easier to strip down my existing Arch-based desktop, and build it back up again with blackbox.

I first remember blackbox from my very earliest days with Ubuntu, and I daresay I tried blackbox before I ever got into Openbox. I even tracked down the original how-to I used to set it up, almost a decade ago.

Some of what’s in that post doesn’t really apply though; there are small changes in what bluevoodoo1 was doing, and what you can do with Arch now, eight years later. Most of those changes are not deal-breakers.

I have to give blackbox credit for being infinitely easier to configure by hand than Openbox. The menu system is strictly brackets-parentheses-braces, for the command-title-executable, and that’s a huge advance over Openbox’s XML-based configuration files. Yes, I know I’m a weakling for complaining about XML. I’ve learned to live with my shortcomings.

Configurations, if you can believe this, are mostly done through the right-click menu. There are quite a lot of settings that will require you to edit your .blackboxrc file — especially the path to your styles (think: themes) — but I’d guess 90 percent of blackbox’s setup is handled through the right-click menu … a la Fluxbox.

And since I mentioned it, blackbox “styles” are fairly easy to handle too. I don’t hold theming against Openbox since that’s generally a single file that needs attention. And part of that can be managed through obconf.

From a ground-zero setup I’d have to say blackbox was quite manageable. I had it up and working in a matter of minutes, and configured to my liking over the course of an hour or so, while I allowed myself to be distracted by events on television.

Once it’s in place, it plays a lot like Openbox, with obvious additions and subtractions here and there. blackbox has its built-in “toolbar;” I don’t recall seeing anything like that in Openbox. blackbox has a “slit” that I generally ignore; I don’t think Openbox uses a slit (Fluxbox did, last time I checked).

Openbox can do a few things blackbox can’t, of course. Most painful to me are the loss of programmable hotkeys — Super_L+1 for alpine, Super_L+2 for Midnight Commander, and so on. If I understand things right, there was a bbkeys utility, a half dozen years ago, that could handle keystrokes like that, but has since faded away. AUR can’t build it, and Debian dropped it.

On the purely aesthetic front, it would be nice to insert proper separators into right-click menus. All my menus in blackbox look like hastily scrobbled lists of programs mashed up against each other. And since I can’t relegate them to key presses, the list is longer and scrobblier than ordinary.

I do admire blackbox’s austere default schemes though. As you can see above I removed some of the frills that remained and came up with a very flat, very rectangular desktop … that springs into life like a 1950s American housewife on prescription methamphetamines.

So in spite of reaching maturity at a time when dual core machines were just mirages in the desert, blackbox has managed to win a few points with me. It definitely shows a degree of greater usability than twm, even if it never approached the feature-completeness of Openbox.

But really: Yes, it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that Openbox has learned over the past decade, but it does manage all the fundamentals without becoming overburdened with XML gobbledygook or bogged down in the need for endless ancillary graphical tools.

I never thought I’d say it, but in that sense, I prefer this to Openbox. :shock:

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3 thoughts on “blackbox, as seen in the wake of Openbox

  1. blinkmemory

    Since you like Blackbox, may I suggest that you try Fluxbox. It is based on blackbox (and supports the same kind of config files) but with more modern features and has better support (last release was Feb 2013). And, perhaps most importantly, it is *extremely light and fast*. To emphasize how light it is, I used it as the window manager in a HP Jornada 690 — that’s an handheld with a SuperHitachi CPU at 133Mhz and 32MB of RAM (I can bet it was slower than your old Pentium 100MHz laptop)!

    I have tried other window managers and I’m yet to find an window manager to convince me to consider to change. To be fair, I have been using Fluxbox for so long that I have it tuned in everyway to the way I like to work and do things. On the other hand, it is good to know that the window manager is flexible and powerful enough to allow pretty much everythin that I want to do. The only thing missing is tiling… but even for that one can use stiler in combination with some shortcuts :)

    1. K.Mandla Post author

      Wow, it’s been a long time since I was a Fluxbox user. I’ll give it a try though. I have a few fond memories of Fluxbox that are worth revisiting. And for as much as I am enjoying Blackbox, it is missing a few small features I am used to. … ;)

  2. joek

    Xbindkeys ( does pretty much the same as bbkeys did, but is WM independent — so works with anything you care to throw at it, including Blackbox.

    You still won’t be able to run window-managment commands such as minimize with it (actually, if you combined it with wmctrl you probably could…) but you can launch applications with it with no trouble — and it has the advantage that its config file is valid with any new wm you care to use…


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