Exploring the i3 tiling window manager with Regolith Linux

Timely Tiling

Article from Issue 231/2020
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The i3 window manager organizes applications in a flexible grid. Regolith is an Ubuntu-based Linux alternative that makes it easy to explore i3 and window tiling.

Operating a computer is a bit like driving a car. You sit behind the wheel (in front of the keyboard and mouse) and drive off. You know what to do regardless of the car's manufacturer or model. With a computer, users are accustomed to a similar operating experience regardless of the manufacturer or even the operating system. Central elements such as the desktop, windows, folders, and files are largely the same, whether you are working in Linux, macOS, or Windows. This dominant style of user interface is known as the WIMP format (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointer), and it was originally developed by Xerox Corporation, which had a GUI-based computer operating system as early as 1973 and released the commercially viable Xerox Star in 1981 [1].

Although mouse pointing and window pushing are standard practice around the world, a defiant minority of users seeks to keep mouse interaction to a minimum. Many of these users swear by command-line tools like the Vim editor or Emacs, file managers like Ranger, or text-based mail clients like Mutt. But you don't have to do without a graphical desktop environment. Tiling window managers organize application windows without the need to continually resize them and move them around. You can navigate to applications on the screen by means of intuitive keyboard shortcuts – without reaching for your mouse. Proponents of tiling window managers believe that, with a little practice and dedication, you can work far faster with a tiled desktop than with a conventional desktop environment.

Tiling Options

Window tiling is not a specific product or a tool but is more like a philosophy. Many different operating systems support tiling in a number of ways. Several versions of Microsoft Windows have a built-in option for tiling. Both KDE and Gnome provide a number of different extensions that offer tiling support [2] [3].

Or, if you'd rather avoid the bloat of Gnome or KDE, the Linux environment supports a number of other desktops and window managers that were designed from the ground up to support tiling.

i3 [4] is a classic tiling window manager for Linux. You will find i3 in the package sources of all common Linux distributions. The current version at the time this article was written was 4.17.1, which was released at the end of August 2019. i3 offers many advanced features, such as virtual workspaces. In addition to basic tiling, i3 also lets you stack windows or bundle them into tabs.

You can install i3 on your Linux system anytime and configure your X-based Linux graphics environment to support tiling. (Another window manager called Sway bills itself as a "drop-in replacement" for i3 in Wayland graphics environments [5].) However, many users would prefer to avoid the complication and disruption of reconfiguring, adapting, and optimizing a new window manager on their existing system.

The success of Ubuntu, with its many flavors (Kubuntu, Lubuntu, Xubuntu), is an indication of the public's preference for systems that just work with the desired desktop environment already built in and optimized. Why not a full-featured Ubuntu system that supports tiling out the box?

Introducing Regolith

Regolith [6] jumps into the breach, offering a fully equipped Ubuntu-based system preconfigured for tiling with i3. The current version of the Regolith R1.2 system is based on Ubuntu 19.04. The Regolith developers have successfully combined i3 with the graphical system tools of Gnome, resulting in a lean desktop with keyboard-optimized controls and convenient tools for system administration.

If you're considering making the switch to a tiling environment, or if you are just curious about how tiling would look with the familiar Gnome/Ubuntu toolset, try Regolith.


To install Regolith on your computer, download the 2.1GB ISO image [7]. Since Ubuntu no longer offers a version for 32-bit computers, Regolith cannot offer a 32-bit version either. Burn the image on a DVD or put it on a USB stick with at least 4GB capacity. At boot time, you can choose whether to explore the system in live mode or install the operating system on your computer's hard drive. The Regolith developers also offer another interesting option: You can convert your existing Ubuntu system into Regolith by installing a predefined collection of additional packages (see the box entitled "Ubuntu Roots").

Ubuntu Roots

Calling Regolith an independent distribution is an exaggeration: The system relies entirely on the Ubuntu repositories and includes only one additional PPA with the system configuration and a few additional packages [8]. In fact, it is possible to convert an ordinary Ubuntu system into a Regolith system. The developers support Ubuntu 18.04 "Bionic Beaver," as well as Ubuntu 19.04 "Disco Dingo."

To turn your Ubuntu system into Regolith, open a terminal window on "Bionic" or "Disco" and type the commands from Listing 1. The first command integrates the PPA package source provided by the Regolith developers. Then refresh the package manager and install the software packages required for Regolith. The system automatically retrieves the i3 window manager from the Ubuntu repositories. After the install, log out and, in the gear menu, select Regolith as the desktop to load in the login manager.

Listing 1

Converting Ubuntu


Regolith installation is similar to Ubuntu installation. Access partitioning tools as needed and choose whether to install a minimal or complete system. The easy installation ensures that even newcomers can set up the system without difficulty. Thanks to the solid Ubuntu underpinnings, Regolith reliably detected all the hardware in our tests. After completing the initial installation, you will need to reboot. After you log in, you are taken to a welcome dialog in the Gnome login manager, where you can set up the keyboard layout, enable positioning services, and integrate existing online accounts with Google, Nextcloud, Microsoft, or Facebook.

Regolith software is much like the typical set offered with other Linux distributions. You'll find the Firefox web browser, along with LibreOffice, the Shotwell photo manager, Simple Scan, and other favorites. You have a choice of two terminals: Simple Terminal (aka st) is the default terminal, but you can also choose the Gnome terminal (dubbed Regolith Terminal in Regolith).

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