Open Source Subnet An independent Open Source community View more

The Linux desktop-a-week review: ratpoison

I spent a week running ratpoison and I lived to tell the tale...barely.

090914 ratpoison

Near the beginning of my adventure through every Linux Desktop Environment on the planet, I spent some time with Awesome, a minimalist (to say the least) environment that, while I had mixed feelings on, ultimately proved true to its name.

With that experience fresh in my mind, I had high hopes for the environment selected for me to live full time in for this last week – ratpoison.

Normally, I'd make you wait for the end of the article to discover my ultimate conclusion. But I just can't do that this time. You see... I hated it. No. That doesn't do my feelings on ratpoison justice. The heat of my hatred burned hotter than a thousand suns. Ratpoison should be sent to The Hague and put on trial for crimes against humanity.

But what is ratpoison? It's a tiling window manager (read: no overlapping windows) with a heavy emphasis on using the keyboard and not the mouse. Hence the name “ratpoison.” Get it? Because you can use it to kill mice.

It is stable, light on resources, and lightning quick. Sounds pretty good, right? On paper, ratpoison sounds like the ultimate uber-nerd nirvana, the perfect antithesis to the bloated, slow desktop environments so many of us use today.

But when you actually sit down to use ratpoison as your day-to-day environment, you quickly realize a cold, hard truth -- it wasn't created to kill mice. No sir. It was created to kill your very soul. I managed to live in ratpoison as my only desktop for an entire week. And while I was able to get my work done, ratpoison did its damnedest to slow me down at every turn.

A simple example -- the hotkeys. In ratpoison, everything is done via keyboard, so there are lots of hotkeys, which normally is something I like. A good hotkey lets you perform a task quickly. But in ratpoison – I assume because they want to destroy my will to live – you have to hit a hotkey. Then you can hit another hotkey.

Want to switch to another workspace? Expect to be able to hit something like “Ctrl-2” or “Ctrl-RightArrow”? Nay. First you hit Ctrl-T, then ratpoison says “Oh, gee! You want to hit a hotkey? You can hit a hitkey if you want to!”... then you can do a “Ctrl-2” to move to the second workspace. Is this a little thing? At first glance... yes. Then, around, day two of using ratpoison full time I realized that I was hitting Ctrl-T about 50 bajillion times every day. And the “T” key is just far enough away from the Ctrl key to make my hand damned sore by the end of the day.

That is a perfect example of what I like to call “The Worst Design In Human History.”

Want to know what the many different hotkeys do? Tough. Because, while bringing up a little cheat-sheet is easy (Ctrl-T, ?), you then need to learn what each option does by way of the most frustrating game of trial and error ever devised by a human mind. That cheat-sheet is about as helpful as a donkey with a semi-automatic rifle. Sure, it looks cool in a picture... but you don't want it on your desk.

Case in point: “Ctrl-T, colon” does “colon.” Don't blame me for the aneurism that sentence just gave you. That is exactly what the ratpoison cheat-sheet tells you. Oh, or “Ctrl-T, F20” does “other.” It goes on and on like that. Needless to say, the number of head-shaped holes in my wall has multiplied considerably over the last week.

Need to type a “Ctrl-T” in the application you're currently working in? “Ctrl-T... then type T again.” Again, a little thing... but a nuisance.

Resizing and managing frames/application windows within ratpoison works similarly to most tiling window managers. I found it a bit less intuitive than, say, with Awesome, but the functionality was similar and I was able to adapt in order to get my windows laid out properly.

Running applications that had multiple floating windows proved to be challenging, far more so than with Awesome. The default window layout for The Gimp, for example, made ratpoison choke. But I was able to fuddle my way through (and, luckily, Gimp now has a “single-window” mode that helped things tremendously).

Here's the real problem with ratpoison -- it really seems to have two different goals.

The first is to make a lightweight tiling window manager. In this regard, ratpoison accomplishes its goal. It's not the best at what it does, but it pulls it off.

The second goal seems to be to rebel against any technology made after the invention of the mouse (aka “1946”). In this goal it succeeds just enough to make your computer borderline unusable, which means it's not retro enough to be “cool,” but it's not modern enough to be...modern.

In short: I see absolutely no value in ratpoison existing. It does a few things well, but not better than other window managers/desktop environments. And it does a few things so badly that running it makes you feel like someone must be playing a practical joke on you.

Normally, I would feel a little bad giving such a scathing review of a piece of software that someone, clearly, poured a great deal of time and dedication into, especially when that software is completely free and Open Source. But not for ratpoison. If it is possible for a small piece of software to be one man's nemesis…I have found mine.

Phew. I can now finally put this dark period behind me. Time to spend a full week using an entirely different kind of desktop environment. One with lots of icons and a fair dash of visual fancy-pants. Time to install Cinnamon.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.
Must read: 10 new UI features coming to Windows 10