The Developer’s Cry

Yet another blog by a hobbyist programmer

Dragging an SDL_NOFRAME borderless window

Despite the curious title of this blog entry, I hope you will keep reading. I ran into a funny problem with SDL (the cross-platform library that is used for cool things like graphics and game programming). In SDL, you can create a main application window using the call SDL_SetVideoMode(). You can pass a flag SDL_NOFRAME to this library function to create a borderless window. Borderless windows are nice for making splash screens and such. There are two problems with borderless windows in SDL:
How to center the splash screen when it appears? In X-Windows, the window manager intelligently places the windows on the desktop, but the splash screen is not automatically placed in the center of the screen.
How do you move a window, when it has no title bar where you can grab it with the mouse to drag it across the screen?
I googled and googled, and I could not find an answer online, especially not to the second issue. So I guess this blog entry will be of value to some, as I did manage to solve it, and I will be giving the answer now.

The answer is: SDL can’t do it. However, Xlib can.

Luckily, SDL has a hook for interfacing with the system’s window manager, and this is what we’ll be using. Mind that portability ends here; Xlib functions work for X11 (UNIX-like systems only, and you might be a little happy to know that MacOS X is derived from BSD UNIX and includes X11 support too) and not for Microsoft Windows or other systems.
Xlib programming is quite hard when trying to build great software, which is why people resort to GUI toolkits like GTK, Qt, KDE, GNOME, or SDL in the first place, but we’re going to stick to SDL as much as possible and do only the missing bits with Xlib.

Centering the splash window

So, you’ve called SDL_SetVideoMode() with SDL_NOFRAME and got a borderless window. Now it’s time to tell X11 to center this window onscreen. The little bit of trouble with this is, X11 works with screen coordinates, so you need to know the display resolution. SDL does not seem to have a way of getting the current display resolution—or did I miss something? Therefore, we ask X11 for the dimensions of the root window. The root window id can be obtained by calling XQueryTree(). After getting the dimensions, we can calculate the desired window position and set it by calling XMoveWindow().

The code looks a lot like this:

#include "SDL_syswm.h"

SDL_SysWMinfo info;

if (SDL_GetWMinfo() > 0 && info.subsystem == SDL_SYSWM_X11) {
    XWindowAttributes attrs;
    Window root, parent, *children;
    unsigned int n;;

    /* find the root window */
    XQueryTree(,, &root, &parent, &children, &n);
    if (children != NULL)
        XFree(children);    /* not really interested in this */

    /* get dimensions of root window */
    XGetWindowAttributes(, root, &attrs);
    printf("debug: display res == %d by %d\n", attrs.width, attrs.height);

    /* center the splash window on screen */
    x = (attrs.width - window_width) / 2;
    y = (attrs.height - window_height) / 2;
    XMoveWindow(,, x, y);

    /* force raise window to top */

Dragging a borderless window

For normal windows, the window manager takes care of window dragging when the user holds the window by the title bar using the mouse. Borderless windows do not have a title bar and it is left up to the application what to do on a mouse click and move.
For dragging a borderless window, we will also be using XMoveWindow(). SDL supports mouse events, and there is a SDL_MouseMotionEvent that we can use.
Sadly, when you try to implement window drag using the coordinates reported by the SDL_MouseMotionEvent, you will fail (or at least, I did). The problem is that SDL reports the mouse coordinates relative to the application window. Next, you are moving the window. This causes ‘jumps’ in the mouse coordinates that SDL reports, which causes the window to jump, which causes larger mouse jumps, which causes a larger window movement, which causes … In other words, SDL’s mouse coordinate system is not good enough in this case. What we need to know is the absolute mouse coordinates on the desktop. The easiest way of getting these coordinates is by calling Xlib’s XQueryPointer():

XQueryPointer(,, &root, &child, &abs_mouse_x, &abs_mouse_y, &win_mouse_x, &win_mouse_y, &modstate);

Rocksolid window dragging is now easily implemented as:

    if (mouse_y < window_height / 8) {    /* only top of window activates drag */
        mouse_drag = 1;
        call_XQueryPointer(... &drag_x, &drag_y, ...);

    if (mouse_drag) {
        call_XQueryPointer(... &new_x, &new_y, ...);

        call_XMoveWindow_delta(drag_x - new_x, drag_y - new_y);

        drag_x = new_x;
        drag_y = new_y;

Naturally, the call_XMoveWindow_delta(dx, dy) calls XMoveWindow() with the current window position plus dx, dy.


Although the X11 code is not very cross-platform, I’m quite happy with it, since it fixes some shortcomings of the SDL. If someone has ported this solution to Microsoft Windows, please send me your code; you never know when it might come in handy.