The Chronicle

of a ColdFusion Expatriate

Dmenu Plus Xft Equals Awesome

March 12, 2013

Though I love my Macs, I often use Ubuntu. I have an old laptop running Ubuntu (which I’m typing this on right now) and I occasionally run Ubuntu in VMware Workstation or VMware Fusion just as an efficient alternative to Windows or when I’m doing something that is particularly Linux-friendly.

My favorite window manager right now is Xmonad, a tiling window manager written in Haskell. I know very little of Haskell, which makes navigating its configuration files, which are Haskell scripts, somewhat daunting, but the window manager itself is simple and incredibly fast.

There are two tools that everyone who uses Xmonad comes to love: xmobar and dmenu. The former places a persistent status bar at the top of the screen, which of course you can customize, and the latter is triggered by a keyboard shortcut and opens a one-line menu of programs in your path that is filtered as you type. The ultimate no-frills launcher.

This is the story of how I finally got Xft (anti-aliased TrueType fonts) working in dmenu. It makes it look amazing. Seriously.

In order to get dmenu to use Xft, you need to patch the source and compile it. Fortunately, the patch is provided for you. Download the dmenu source and the patch for the same version from the links below:

Then all you have to do, in theory, is extract the source, apply the patch, and compile dmenu. Something like this:

$ tar zxvf dmenu-4.5.tar.gz
$ cd dmenu-4.5
$ mv ../dmenu-4.5-xft.diff .
$ patch -p1 < dmenu-4.5-xft.diff
$ make
$ sudo make install

The third line is assuming that the dmenu-4.5.tar.gz and dmenu-4.5-xft.diff files were downloaded or moved to the same location before you began. There are other ways to do it, but you get the idea, I hope.

When I attempted to run this, in Ubuntu, it complained that it couldn’t find freetype.h (or one of the other headers in the Freetype package). Funny, I’m sure I installed it.

Make sure that you do install the Xft libraries themselves:

$ sudo apt-get install libxft-dev libxft2

Once you’ve done that, you may still get an error because dmenu doesn’t ship with a configure script that scours around to find the various dependencies, and on top of that, dmenu doesn’t have an Xft dependency… Until you patch it. Then it does, but it doesn’t know where to find the headers.

Easily fixed!

Edit the file in the dmenu package and find the line that looks like this:


And amend it so that it looks like this:

INCS = -I${X11INC} ${XFTINC} -I/usr/include/freetype2

If you are running Ubuntu I am 99% sure this will work, but you should do a sanity check to make sure that /usr/include/freetype2 exists and contains the freetype headers (like freetype.h).

If you are certain you installed it but can’t find them there, an easy way to sniff them out is:

$ sudo updatedb
$ locate freetype.h

Just replace my path with yours if it’s different. Then you’re on your way!

$ make
$ sudo make install
$ dmenu_path | dmenu -fn 'Inconsolata-10'

That’s assuming you have installed the wonderful Inconsolata typeface. If not, you should try it!

$ sudo apt-get install fonts-inconsolata

Now you’re in dmenu anti-aliased font nirvana! Just add some colors and you’ll feel even better:

dmenu_run -i -nb '#282b57' -nf '#eeeeff' -sb '#555a9e' -fn 'Inconsolata-10'

Beautiful. Pat yourself on the back, that was great.