I first started using Linux and FreeBSD on laptops in the late 1990s. Back then, there were all sorts of hassles and problems, from hangs on suspend to pure failure to boot. I still worry a bit about suspend on unknown hardware, but by and large, the picture of Linux on laptops has dramatically improved over the last years. So much so that now I can complain about what would once have been a minor nit: dealing with external monitors.
I have a USB-C dock that provides both power and a Thunderbolt display output over the single cable to the laptop. I think I am similar to most people in wanting the following behavior from the laptop:
- When the lid is closed, suspend if no external monitor is connected. If an external monitor is connected, shut off the built-in display and use the external one exclusively, but do not suspend.
- Lock the screen automatically after a period of inactivity.
- While locked, all connected displays should be powered down.
- When an external display is connected, begin using it automatically.
- When an external display is disconnected, stop using it. If the lid is closed when the external display is disconnected, go into suspend mode.
This sounds so simple. But somehow on Linux we’ve split up these things into a dozen tiny bits:
- In /etc/systemd/logind.conf, there are settings about what to do when the lid is opened or closed.
- Various desktop environments have overlapping settings covering the same things.
- Then there are the display managers (gdm3, lightdm, etc) that also get in on the act, and frequently have DIFFERENT settings, set in different places, from the desktop environments. And, what’s more, they tend to be involved with locking these days.
- Then there are screensavers (gnome-screensaver, xscreensaver, etc.) that also enter the picture, and also have settings in these areas.
Problems I’ve Seen
My problems don’t even begin with laptops, but with my desktop, running XFCE with xmonad and lightdm. My desktop is hooked to a display that has multiple inputs. This scenario (reproducible in both buster and bullseye) causes the display to be unusable until a reboot on the desktop:
- Be logged in and using the desktop
- Without locking the desktop screen, switch the display input to another device
- Keep the display input on another device long enough for the desktop screen to auto-lock
- At this point, it is impossible to re-awaken the desktop screen.
I should not here that the problems aren’t limited to Debian, but also extend to Ubuntu and various hardware.
Lightdm: which greeter?
At some point while troubleshooting things after upgrading my laptop to bullseye, I noticed that while both were running lightdm, I had different settings and a different appearance between the two. Upon further investigation, I realized that one hat slick-greeter and lightdm-settings installed, while the other had lightdm-gtk-greeter and lightdm-gtk-greeter-settings installed. Very strange.
XFCE: giving up
I eventually gave up on making lightdm work. No combination of settings or greeters would make things work reliably when changing screen configurations. I installed xscreensaver. It doesn’t hang, but it does sometimes take a few tries before it figures out what device to display on.
Worse, since updating from buster to bullseye, XFCE no longer automatically switches audio output when the docking station is plugged in, and there seems to be no easy way to convince Pulseaudio to do this.
X-Based Gnome and derivatives… sigh.
I also tried Gnome, Mate, and Cinnamon, and all of them had various inabilities to configure things to act the way I laid out above.
I’ve long not been a fan of Gnome’s way of hiding things from the user. It now has a Windows-like situation of three distinct settings programs (settings, tweaks, and dconf editor), which overlap in strange ways and interact with systemd in even stranger ways. Gnome 3 make it quite non-intuitive to make app icons from various programs work, and so forth.
I recently decided to set up an older laptop that I hadn’t used in awhile. After reading up on Wayland, I decided to try Gnome 3 under Wayland. Both the Debian and Arch wikis note that KDE is buggy on Wayland. Gnome is the only desktop environment that supports it then, unless I want to go with Sway. There’s some appeal to Sway to this xmonad user, but I’ve read of incompatibilities of Wayland software when Gnome’s not available, so I opted to try Gnome.
Well, it’s better. Not perfect, but better. After finding settings buried in a ton of different Settings and Tweaks boxes, I had it mostly working, except gdm3 would never shut off power to the external display. Eventually I found /etc/gdm3/greeter.dconf-defaults, and aadded:
sleep-inactive-ac-timeout=60 sleep-inactive-ac-type='blank' sleep-inactive-battery-timeout=120 sleep-inactive-battery-type='suspend'
Of course, these overlap with but are distinct from the same kinds of things in Gnome settings.
Running without Gnome seems like a challenge; Gnome is switching audio output appropriately, for instance. I am looking at some of the Gnome Shell tiling window manager extensions and hope that some of them may work for me.