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Document last modified: Tue, 15 Jun 2010, 20:05 UTC

Blackbox Migration

This page aims to provide users of various other desktop environments and window managers with ways to relate to the particularities of Blackbox.

We do this in the hope that you will find it attractive and switch over, but you can also just compare it to your favorite environment, and decide what you like, and what you don't.

For what it's worth, remember that you often don't have to give up your operating system in order to be able to use Blackbox because it has been ported to many platforms.

1 Basic concepts
1.1 A warning for beginners
1.2 Window managers vs desktop environments
1.3 The Blackbox way
2 The Blackbox interface
2.1 Desktop icons
2.2 Centralized menu
2.3 Mouse usage
2.4 Keyboard usage
2.5 Taskbar
2.6 Windows
2.7 System tray
2.8 Dockapps
2.9 Clock
3 Migrating to Blackbox
4 Migrating from specific environments

1) Basic concepts

Please read this section if you're new to Blackbox! It helps you to understand why Blackbox does things the way it does and it helps you to get an idea of what a long term relationship with Blackbox would be like.

1.1) A warning for beginners

Before you start, it's important to know that Blackbox, by design and intent, caters to the medium and advanced users. It doesn't mean that it cannot be used by beginner computer users, but its philosophy, methods of configuration and general feeling may seem rather strange at first to a novice.

It is quite possible that you will have to do some searching, tweaking and integration yourself. Its out-of-the-box experience may or may not please you. On the bright side, means are available for you to turn Blackbox into almost any kind of desktop environment you want.

On the downside, you may not like the fact that most of the tweaking involves editing text files with a text editor and that you will need to learn a few things such as which file does what and their internal organization.

If you don't mind this bit of a challenge, please go ahead. There are countless scores of people who think that the speed, light weight and flexibility offered by Blackbox more than make up for the light initial effort.

1.2) Window managers vs desktop environments

In the world of graphical interfaces there are window managers and there are desktop environments, and it's important to know the difference between them.

Blackbox is a window manager at heart, but allows to be used flexibly in a number of alternative ways:

All this is possible because Blackbox was designed following the currently accepted standards and thus will interact well with any software that respects those standards.

PThree has an article* which, although a bit inaccurate, explains the matter in more detail.

1.3) The Blackbox way

Another important thing to know about Blackbox is the way it does things. It has been designed with the traditional Unix philosophy in mind, which says: "do one thing and do it well".

So Blackbox strives to "do" only windows, to do them as fast as possible and without consuming any more resources than are strictly necessary.

Due to this reason, Blackbox doesn't attempt to bother itself with most of the other elements of a desktop environment. It doesn't do taskbars, icons, panels, it doesn't even do keyboard handling, and it definitely doesn't do background daemons, colorful images or any kind of gratuitous resource consumption or pure eye-candy.

What it gives you, instead, is the support and the means to add any of those things yourself, through the aid of third-party tools.

The time has shown that this approach is very succesful in its own way. By sticking to the basics and letting people enrich their desktop experience as they see fit instead of imposing stuff upon them, Blackbox has gained a very happy following of users. And by relying on a multitude of other pieces of software instead of trying to do everything itself, it has tapped into the development effort of those projects and has gained so much more.

On the downside, Blackbox is not famous or "sexy". The kind of out-of-the-box experience it provides does not appeal to the large majority of people. It is the difference between building your own bike and going to the park and renting one. It is alright, because it doesn't aim to be popular. It aims to offer a powerful tool to those who are looking for one.

2) The Blackbox interface

This section introduces you to the Blackbox environment, as compared element by element to the generic desktop interface elements that are most widely used these days.

2.1) Desktop icons

Blackbox doesn't offer icons on desktop. Actually, it doesn't "do" icons of any kind. The default Blackbox desktop contains only a wallpaper or whatever you choose to decorate it. You can add desktop icons if you need them by using a 3rd party addon. It's just not something Blackbox does.

One reason is that Blackbox strives to remain as fast and light as possible. It therefore shuns all graphical image support (save for some very small 1bit bitmaps for the buttons icons) and renders its own graphics programatically, with minimal resource consumption.

Another reason is that Blackbox also strives to be a power tool. Generally speaking, desktop icons are not very efficient. If you want to start an application you can always use a keyboard shortcut, you always have the Blackbox menu within easy reach, and you can even add a 3rd party panel or a toolbar with menus and shortcuts on it.

In order to click on a desktop icon you have to minimize all windows on the screen to get to the desktop, or you have to find an empty desktop. Sure, desktop icons look pretty, and there's some merit to the desktop emulating a real desk, with files on it. Nevertheless, many people (the kind that use Blackbox, anyway) find desktop icons rather awkward and they consider them to be more eye candy than real help.

2.2) Centralized menu

Blackbox acknowledges the need for a centralized menu, much like the "Start" menu in Windows, the "K" menu in KDE, or the "Applications" menu in GNOME. It is a necessary element for constructing a basic, yet fully functional, desktop environment.

You can find a full guide to the main menu here: BlackboxDocumentation/BlackboxMenus.

There are some notable differences between the Blackbox main menu and its counterparts in other desktop environments.

One of them is the fact that the Blackbox menu is reduced to the essentials. It doesn't have icons, contextual administration, tooltips and so on. It does have all kinds of contents, ranging from separators to launching applications, from submenus to dynamic entries used for configuring Blackbox itself. It just keeps everything to the bare essentials.

Another difference is that it is defined using a simple and very successful syntax, which has so far been adopted by most of the projects derived from Blackbox. A menu definition is kept in a single plain text file (no XML or anything), with the ability to include other menu files and even to embed the output of a running program as menu syntax.

Some people may wonder about menus that update automatically to reflect changes on the system, such as application being installed or uninstalled. The Blackbox menu also has this ability (albeit through the use or external tools).

2.3) Mouse usage

FIXME: more content

2.4) Keyboard usage

There is a specialized program, bbkeys*, which handles keyboard shortcuts. You can also modify, and create your own shortcuts with it.

FIXME: more content

2.5) Taskbar

FIXME: more content

2.6) Windows

You can change the look of desktop windows and background with styles. Blackbox doesn't support customizing window buttons with pixmaps.

FIXME: more content

2.7) System tray

Blackbox doesn't have a system tray a.k.a. notification area. However, it supports it, and you can add one through a 3rd party addon.

There are at least two methods you can obtain a working system tray. You can use Docker, which loads in the slit (it's a dockapp). Or, you can use one of the many panels available out there; many of them include a system tray. fspanel has been reported as working well.

2.8) Dockapps

Dockapp is the generic name for small 48x48 pixel applications, used for system monitorization and for all kind of convenient tasks. They first appeared under the WindowMaker window manager, where they were loaded into the WindowMaker "dock". Hence, "WindowMaker dockapps".

Like applets, dockapps need to live in a place of their own on the desktop. Blackbox provides such a place natively, in the form of the slit. The slit is compatible with the WindowMaker dock and generally you'll be able to load a dockapp in it by simply running it.

2.9) Clock

The clock is an important desktop tool. You will find one integrated in the Blackbox toolbar. It's a digital clock, actually it's an area which displays the current time and date. The format can be controlled from the configuration.

A clock is also provided by panels.

3) Migrating to Blackbox

This section attempts to provide comparison between Blackbox and particular desktop environments. The details can describe both technical and look&feel issues.

Please note that some environments are bundled in the same section, because the concepts they're based on are extremely similar.

Please restrict information to details that are very specific to the environment in question. More general interface concerns are better suited in one of the above sections.

4) Migrating from specific environments


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Document last modified: Tue, 15 Jun 2010, 20:05 UTC
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