With the growing popularity of netbooks more and more people are using small screens which support lower resolutions than larger laptops or desktop displays. The most common native netbook resolution is 1024x600 for 8.9" screens and just 800x480 for 7" screens. In addition, in these challenging economic times, more people are stretching the life of older displays which may also only support resolutions of 1024x768 or less. The challenge for those who do a great deal of multitasking and tend to have lots of windows open is finding a good way to manage them on a small screen. One solution is to use multiple virtual desktops which are supported by most Linux desktop environments.
PekWM offers an additional solution: window grouping. It allows a variety of different applications to be grouped together in a single window. Most everyone is familiar with tabbed browsing by now. The same concept has been applied to terminal emulators with different command line sessions accessible via tabs. Window grouping takes this one step further. When window grouping is used in PekWM the title bar in the window manager is segmented with each section effectively acting like a tab.
While PekWM isn't the only manager to offer this functionality it is probably the easiest and most flexible choice I've found so far. PWM was actually the first tabbed window manager but it hasn't been maintained since 2000. It's sucessor Ion, would probably be popular if its license didn't effectively preclude it being packaged for various Linux distributions. Fluxbox, a somewhat more sophisticated window manager also supports grouping/tabbing.
When used stand-alone PekWM is very much a minimalist window manager, offering a menu accessible by right clicking the desktop and configured by editing a text file. It does support theming and multiple desktops using either RandR or Xinerama. PekWM is also NETWM compliant. It can be used as a drop-in replacement for metacity in GNOME.
PekWM can also be combined with components like fbpanel, PCManFM, and VL-Hot to create a custom desktop environment. The photo below shows a custom desktop with those four components on my Sylvania g Netbook Meso running Vector Linux 6.0. The original resolution in the screenshot is 1024x600.
In this image the large window has four tabs: PCManFM, urxvt (a terminal emulator), the HV3 web browser, and the SIAG spreadsheet. The browser window is the selected tab, with the extensive PekWM documentation displayed. The smaller window at left is the PCManFM desktop context menu which has replaced the PekWM menu. PCManFM is used to manage the desktop background and icons as well.
Grouping windows is easy. You open the applications you want. You then place your cursor over the title bar of the first appllication, click and hold the center mouse button (or both buttons on a two button mouse) and drag towards another open window title bar. A small rectangle with the word "Grouping" and the name of the first app will appear (picture below). Drop the rectangle onto the title bar of the second app and the two applications will be in one window. This can be repeated as many times as you like.
Starting components of a custom desktop is simply a matter of adding them to the .pekwm/start file located in a home directory. To create a system-wide default start file on a multi-user system the same commands can be added to the end /etc/pekwm/start The commands I added to create the desktop in the screenshots are:
/usr/bin/fbpanel & /usr/bin/pcmanfm -d &
PekWM is extremely lightweight making it ideal for legacy hardware. I had an old Pentium 133 system with just 32MB of RAM which finally died last summer. It ran a minimal build of Ubuntu with a desktop consisting of PekWM and fbpanel. I used Esetroot launched from the start file to add a background image to my desktop. Performance was surprisingly good in this configuration. I also use the combination of PekWM and fbpanel on my 10 year old Toshiba Libretto SS1010 running Vector Linux Light 6.0 beta 2. That system has a Pentium 233MHz MMX processor and just 64MB of RAM. It's also smaller than most of today's netbooks with a 7" display which only supports 640x480 resolution. Once again performance is surprisingly good leaving most of the little memory that system has for applications. A tabbed window manager is essential to me at such a low resolution.
Tabbed/grouped windows combined with virtual desktops gives me the ability to multitask and move between applications easily on what would otherwise be very cramped screen space on my netbook and on legacy systems. The combination of simplicity, standards compliant design, and low resource consumption make it ideal for those systems.