Friday, April 30, 2010

Alternative Windows Shell: bbLean

I've been wanting to switch away from Window's stupid, crashable shell, and after my little run in with the virus, I decided to look into it again. I found out there's been a port of Blackbox to Windows called BlackBox4Win (or BB4Win for short) and that gave me great glee. Why? Because from the little I've used Fluxbox (I ran fluxflux-eee for a while) I fell in love with how it looked, felt, and how customizable it was and Blackbox seems extremely comparable to Fluxbox. So this is just a little intro for me.

Unfortunately, bb4win is no longer supported, but on the bright side, there are at least 4 spinoffs. The first one grabbed is called Xoblite. Don't get me wrong, it was fine, but it just...didn't click well with me. I really didn't like how everything is set up, specifically the Menus (since that's half of what a shell is), and Xoblite was pretty dang confusing. First off, Windows maximized underneath the toolbar so you couldn't see part of it (the top, in my case). Themes were very confusing (I don't even know if they exist. You actually play with "styles"....), and I was forced to have the Toolbar (where all the programs minimized to) and the Systray (where all the tray icons sit) on two different bars. Does this seem entirely necessary to anyone else?

So long story short, I just switched to bbLean, which looks much more promising. It already has it set up where maximized windows respect the toolbar, the systray sits right next to the toolbar, and the menus are very straightforward. Plus (even though I know to choose styles instead of themes now), it can skin Windows as well, meaning everything matches.

The only thing I never really liked as Fluxbox or Openbox for that matter is that everything was text files. It seems like there were so many config files and everything was so cryptic.....bb4win (both Xoblite and bbLean) seem extremely straightforward to me. There's only two config files that I've really had to delve into, but you can also change things in the menu in bbLean (which I like). That segways into an example: I hate how fast Fluxbox/Openbox menus pop up and it makes it really hard to navigate them, and it makes it just hard on the eyes. bbLean actually has an in menu option to adjust it, so I don't even have to open an RC file. How cool is that?

The only other thing I can think of is workspaces (which -since I'm a Windows nerd- I call Virtual Desktops). Honestly, I don't really use them much, but occasionally I'll start up VirtuaWin. bb4win is nice because it already has a workspace manager built in: you can name them, define how many you want, the whole shebang. The only annoying thing is that -at least with Xoblite- I couldn't figure out a way to remove the Workspace button on the toolbar. Plus, clicking it did nothing, whereas in bbLean, clicking the button cycles through the spaces.

So that again segways into the things I wanted to change with Xoblite that I hope will work with bbLean. If bbLean doesn't work out, I don't know if I'll try one of the other bb4win forks. But anyway, here's the things I want to change:
  • Systray needs to be in Toolbar (Check! Didn't even have to 'fix it', bbLean did my work for me!)
  • Add a "Start button"
  • (Checkish. I had to use bbInterface to create a button to sit right alongside my toolbar, but it honestly looks great and does exactly what I want.)
  • (Able to) Remove Workspace button (Check! Just commented out a few lines in bbLeanbar.rc!)
  • Remove Workspace arrows and Window arrows (Check! Same as above.)
I know, I'm such a Windows nerd...."I needz mah staht button!" But honestly, I don't know how people do it without one. I mean, I get the right click menu on the desktop, I love that and it makes sense, but in order to use that, you have to have the desktop visible, which is bad for people who run alot of apps fullscreen like me. So yeah, I love the menu, but I need access to mah menu that is always on top, and it only makes sense to tag it on the toolbar. But please note, I will not make it say "Start", and it will not have the Windows icon. I haven't had a Windows icon on my start menu for at least 2 years. (The last time I had a start menu that could have a button, it had the Stargate icon.)

So this is exciting for me. I'm hoping that I can get this all set up and then maybe snag a good alternative file manager that suites my needs (so far maybe Explorer++ or QDir). We'll see how it goes.

bry be Lean,

PS - I think I have a theory as to why all alternative Windows shells have horrid starting themes/styles. I think it's because tweaking any shell except Explorer takes getting your hands dirty a little inside some RC files, and the uber-ugly themes are just a deterrent from noobs who would install things like bb4win and then ask questions about everything. Just a theory.

[UPDATE] Ok, I officially LOVE bbLean. I finally cracked open the settings RC file, and I read at the top that all settings can be set by the menu. So I can move the toolbar by Ctrl+Click and access its options by Ctrl+Right Click. Which brings up another good point that I think is valid. The thing I've never really liked about Openbox specifically is that it always provides the ability to change settings right next to your programs. Well that's great, but once I get stuff set up, I really don't change it much, so why should they be as accessibly as things I use multiple times a day? Same with Xoblite. Right clicking on the toolbar brought up the configuration menu....but I just don't see needing to change stuff that much.

Really, I'm just seeing that Xoblite is kind of what scared me away from Crunchbang or DSL: everything is cryptic and counter-intuitive. However, everythign in bbLean so far has been amazingly straightforward and simple. I love this.

One last thing....I'm not sure if I find this good or bad, but in bbLean (or Xoblite, for that matter), right clicking on a task in the toolbar no longer brings up the menu. I guess I've gotten kind of used to being able to close stuff that way, but I'm not sure if I like that. Actually, as I'm thinking about it right this second, I'm sure there's a quick way to close an app via right clicking the toolbar, since right clicking it actually minimizes it, and middle clicking does....something, I'm not sure what. (I think it has something to do with the workplaces.) And checking the readme (which is accesibly via Win+Home [NOT F1, LIKE THE IDIOTS AT MICROSOFT]) confirms that Shift+Right click closes a task. Awesome.

    [UPDATE] Ok, so I might have been a little touchy on Xoblite. It can do almost everything that bbLean can do, it's just not as straightforward. bbLean just has everything arranged in a way that I like already, it just needs tweaking, and you can do that right from the menu. Xoblite may have had a little bit of differences (like having the systray on a different toolbar), but I'm pretty sure you can customize it all, it just takes a little bit more tweaking than bbLean.

    The only other thing I can say is that bbLean really has better support, in my opinion, than Xoblite. For example, Xoblite doesn't even have descriptions for its plugins, so I don't even know what I'm downloading, whereas bbLean does.

    Also, I finally figured out how to edit how big the titlebar is: the style editor. I really didn't want to at first because I was afraid of messing up the style I had found, but then I did, and all it took was literally just pressing a negative to change the height from 14 to 12, and now the skin is practically everything I could ever want. Also, you can edit the font for windows by just cracking open bbleanskin.rc.

    So yeah, I'm pretty much in love with bb4win as a whole. I don't think I can ever go back to Explorer, just like after trying Firefox, I can never go back to IE.


    1. Great article. Saved me the trouble of trial and error. Thanks!

    2. I too praise your article, I enjoy shells and especially bblean even in 2011.

    3. I too still use BBLean 1.17.1 on windows 8 x64 and it works great. I only had to double click it from where I had it saved on my hard from the XP days and it took the nightmare called METRO and Co. away from me.
      Cool article also.
      Something that I thinh bblean could help is a feature to move by hotkey any window to a certain workspace or to open certain windows always in certain workspaces.
      I will research it though.

      1. Hey man, I'm trying to install blackbox in windows 8 x64 as well, and I've come across a problem. I was wondering if you could help me out. When trying to set blackbox as the default shell, the setshell tool (provided at the bblean website) says "blackbox.exe not found". Did you have this problem too?

      2. Nevermind. I solved it. :P