New desktops

Volume 19, Issue 13; 29 May 2016

Not the physical kind, but a little online workspace tinkering.

For many years, my standard desktop environment has been two Emacs windows (exactly overlapping each otherI run two Emacs processes because I edit most things in Emacs and I read my email in Emacs but I find mixing “working” buffers with “mail” buffers annoying.) on the left, two shell windows on the right.

Old layout
Old layout

So determined have I been to keep this arrangement, that I’ve refused to use any laptop with a horizontal resolution that wouldn’t support it. Having overlapping windows, especially Emacs and shell windows, even with “focus follows mouse” behavior, is a usability nightmare.

One of my colleagues has a completely different strategy. He has several desktops and keeps applications in “full screen” mode in each one. Switching applications effectively slides workspaces back and forth (he’s using OS X).

I decided to give it a try.

New layout
New layout

The little box you see in the center of that screen is the workspace switcher with the second-from-the-left, top-most workspace selected.

In the upper-left workspace, I have my two overlapping Emacsen. To their right (the workspace you can see behind the little box), I have a shell window with a few tabs, to the right of that, a web browser. On the lower left, there’s shell window showing the “tail ‑f” of a MarkLogic error log. (I use that all the time!) The other four workspaces are currently empty. In each workspace, all of the windows are full-screen.

Where I used to use Alt-Tab to toggle between apps, I now use Ctrl-Alt-arrow keys to navigate between workspaces. On any given workspace, I still use Alt-Tab to toggle between apps. Helpfully, Alt-Tab only shows the applications on that workspace.

There are some advantages to this arrangement. First of all, every application has a big, roomy window. For projecting at a conference or WebExing (or as my aging eyes demand) this means you can bump up the font size quite a bit and still have a useful display. The geometry is also interesting, and I may experiment with different ones. Knowing that the tail of my log is “down” from my main Emacs session is (at least sometimes) faster than Alt-Tabbing around to it.

There are also some disadvantages. The whole desktop sliding effect can be a bit distracting (though if I go looking, I bet I can turn that off). There’s also a down side to the geometry. Some windows have to be literally “further away” than others. Getting from Emacs to a terminal is one “hop”, but the web browser is two hops away. If I switch the terminal and the web browser, then the terminal is two hops. I might just get used to that, or I might try to use shell or eshell mode in Emacs more regularly so that I can move the browser “closer” and rely less on the terminals.

At home, I have three displays: a “primary” one in front of me and a slightly smaller one to its right. The third display is the laptop panel located below the primary display. Generally, I have my old layout Emacsen plus terminals on the primary display, browser to the right, and error log tail on the laptop display.

I’m entirely uncertain how this workspace switching approach is going to fit into the multiple monitor scenario at home. Having three displays sliding about might just be too much. But I’ll see, I guess, when I get home again!


In versions previous to el capitan (OSX) it was possible to turn off those annoying screen animation effects ... unfortunately no longer (Apple knows best I guess ....). Was going to take a look at which claims to be able to do it

—Posted by Jim Fuller on 31 May 2016 @ 02:28 UTC #