Widget hierarchies in GTK+ 4.0

Today we’re going to have guest author Timm Bäder, maintainer of Corebird and a contributor of GTK+, talk about the changes in store for writing composite widgets in GTK+ 4.0.

(Note: Some of the information here is based on branches that have not been merged into master yet, but I’m confident that they will be in the near future)

In GTK+3, only GtkContainer subclasses can have child widgets. This makes a lot of sense for “public” container children like we know them, e.g. GtkBox — i.e. the developer can add, remove and reorder child widgets arbitrarily and the container just does layout.

However, there are more complicated widgets in GTK+3 which don’t inherit from GtkContainer, e.g. GtkSpinButton or GtkSwitch. These never have real GtkWidget children. Consider, for example, the two clickable areas in a GtkSpinButton. I’m not calling them “buttons” here for a reason, since in GTK+3, they are not actual GtkButton instances, as GtkSpinButton is not a GtkContainer. Instead, GtkSpinButton has to work around that fact, and create two GdkWindows for the up/down areas and then render two icons in there; care about hover and CSS states; various button up/down events; and the GdkWindow lifetime, etc. In order to work around the GtkContainer requirement, in GTK+3 we introduced gadgets (GtkCssGadget). On the styling side, a gadget corresponds to a CSS box and therefore represents one node in the CSS tree. On the widget side they were being used to have “widget-like”, CSS-stylable, children for non-container widgets.

GtkWidget Changes

Of course there were plenty of changes needed to support these use cases in GTK+4. I’m not going to list all of them here (in particular the more ugly ones like focus handling), but I think most of them are quire interesting and important for application developers and custom widget authors. Generally, we’re trying to get a away from special cases and go a more general way by re-using widgets wherever we can. So, instead of using a PangoLayout to display text, widgets should use a GtkLabel. If you have a clickable area with button-like semantics, try to use a GtkButton. If you want to lay out widgets in horizontal or vertical orientation, use a GtkBox. This way we have one widget tree that both input and rendering can operate on. In practice, this means mostly getting rid of all the gadgets used inside widgets, as well as standalone GtkCssNode instances.

Iterating over child widgets

While in GTK+3, every container had to implement GtkContainer::forall and one could easily iterate over all the child widgets using gtk_container_foreach() and gtk_container_forall(), in GTK+4, every GtkWidget can have child widgets, so every widget potentially has a list of children we need to draw, measure, size-allocate, etc. In the widget hierarchy, these children and sibling widgets can be accessed through:
  • gtk_widget_get_first_child()
  • gtk_widget_get_last_child()
  • gtk_widget_get_prev_sibling()
  • gtk_widget_get_next_sibling()
So, the easiest possible way of iterating over the child widgets of a given GtkWidget would be (in C):
GtkWidget *widget;
GtkWidget *child;
for (child = gtk_widget_get_first_child (widget);
     child != NULL;
     child = gtk_widget_get_next_sibling (child))
    /* Do stuff with @child */
    g_assert (gtk_widget_get_parent (child) == widget);

Adding widgets to a non-container parent

Every widget in GTK+ (both 3 and 4) saves a pointer to its parent widget. This parent can be set using gtk_widget_set_parent(), and all the GtkContainer::add implementations eventually had to use this function to set the parent of the given child widget.

In GTK+4, gtk_widget_set_parent() still works and adds the widget to the end of the child widget list of the parent. However, we clearly also want to manage the order of the child widgets, as well as where we add new children in the list, so we have:

  • gtk_widget_insert_before()
  • gtk_widget_insert_after()
to add new child widgets before or after a child widget that’s already in the parent’s list. These can also be used to reorder children child widgets by passing a child that already has the given parent set.
Since lots of widgets inside GTK+ currently use composite widget templates in XML form, GtkWidget now also has its very own GtkBuildable::add_child() implementation to support this use case. This is what e.g. GtkFileChooserWidget uses which is almost exclusively defined in XML.

Widget CSS names

Since we frequently need to use arbitrary CSS node names for arbitrary widgets, GtkWidget now has a construct-only property called GtkWidget:css-name that will be used as the css node name if specified. If not, the one passed to the widget’s gtk_widget_class_set_css_name() call will be used. If none of the 2 have been used, the CSS node will simply be called “widget”.

Examples of Converted Widgets

There are already a few widgets in current master (and side-branches) that were converted from using a variety of GtkCssGadgets, GdkWindows and PangoLayouts to using actual widgets. The end-goal being, of course, to re-use widgets as much as possible, therefore reducing code size and maintenance burden.


In GTK+3, GtkSwitch is a direct GtkWidget subclass (yay!) that uses a GdkWindow for the input (clicking on the switch will enable/disable it), one GtkCssGadget for the widget itself, two PangoLayouts for the ON/OFF text and another GtkCssGadget for the slider.
In GTK+ master, the switch still has its widget-level GtkCssGadget so it supports min-width/min-height CSS properties and CSS margins, but the slider gadget has been replaced by a GtkButton and the two PangoLayouts are replaced with GtkLabels. This way we can save roughly 300 lines in gtkswitch.c. Theoretically we also have more features and can e.g. use the limited support for the text-decoration CSS property that GtkLabel supports, but I’m just going to doubt that this is very useful.


As noted earlier, GtkSpinButton could easily use actual GtkButtons for the up/down areas, and it does so in GTK+ master (which will become GTK+4 at some point). This gets rid of another 300 lines in gtkspinbutton.c. Through using GtkButtons, the old icon helper gadgets also become actual GtkImage instances. Unfortunately we have to implement some of the GtkGesture magic ourselves here since GtkSpinButton also supports middle and right clicks on its buttons while GtkButton::clicked only reacts to single, primary mouse button clicks.


GtkLevelBar manages a set of blocks and assigns different style classes to them. In GTK+3, these blocks are all GtkCssGadget instances. All of them are “dumb” in the sense that they don’t do anything special — they are just CSS boxes and that’s it. That’s why converting it to use GtkWidgets for all blocks didn’t gain much of a reduction in file size.



GtkProgressBar uses gadgets for the trough and the progress nodes. It also uses a PangoLayout to display the percentage or a user-given string.

In master, both trough and progress are widgets and the PangoLayout is a GtkLabel of course. Not having to listen to GtkWidget::style-changed (which gets done automatically for widgets) and not having to draw the PangoLayout ourselves (which the GtkLabel now takes care of) yields a nice code size saving of around 200 lines, however.



GtkExpander is more complex than it looks like. In GTK+3, it consists of 2 GtkBoxGadgets (which is like a GtkBox, but not a widget…), one gadget for the arrow to the left of the title widget, the title widget and the actual content widget. In master, this is done using an actual GtkBox, and a GtkIcon (an internal widget) for the arrow. I’m not sure if this is the best way to express the GtkExpander functionality, e.g. we could also use a GtkButton for the arrow+title widget combination.
Since GtkBoxGadget is already almost a perfect GtkBox clone, the code savings here aren’t very interesting, but not having to listen to GtkWidget::direction-changed once again saves around 30 lines.

Accidental GtkBox & GtkButton subclasses

GTK+3 contains quit a lot of widgets that inherit from another widget for the sole purpose of looking and behaving like them. The problem here is that these widgets also inherit all the API of the parent class, which is only rarely wanted.
For GtkBox, almost all subclasses in GTK+3 are “accidental” in the sense that actually using them as a GtkBox doesn’t make any sense and people usually don’t do it, but they had to be GtkBox subclasses to satisfy GTK+’s GtkContainer requirement. One example of such a widget would be GtkFileChooserWidget. This is already one of the most complex widget to ever exist, but have you ever considered using gtk_container_add() or gtk_box_pack_{start,end}() to add widgets to it? It doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s a closed entity with its own API. So, in GTK+4 it will be a direct GtkWidget subclass that contains a GtkBox. Or maybe not. That’s just an implementation detail you don’t have to care about. (Fun Fact on the side: GtkFileChooserButton is a GtkBox in GTK+3)
The same applies to GtkButton. In GTK+3, GtkButton has lots of subclasses that inherited all the GtkButton API without actually supporting it. What happens if you remove the child widget from a GtkLinkButton? What if you set the GtkButton:label property of a GtkFontButton? Again, these are closed entities that have their own API to set and get various data and change behavior and/or looks based on them, but that doesn’t mean they support all the GtkButton/GtkContainer shenanigans.

General Restructuring Rules and Future

For this refactoring work we try to keep the CSS node structure as it was in GTK+3, i.e. we try not to break the CSS node tests we currently have in testsuite/css/nodes.c.
A few of the more complex widgets inside GTK+ still heavily rely on gadgets and porting them away to use only actual widgets will be quite a lot of work. GtkRange is historically one of the most complex non-container widgets inside GTK+. It’s used both for scrollbars and scales so porting it to widgets might first need another round of refactoring.
Another interesting case is GtkNotebook, which combines gadget and widget usage. Here we could e.g. use a real GtkStack to switch between pages and effortlessly support page switching transitions.
Another exciting look into the future is of course Carlos’ wip/carlosg/event-delivery branch that gets rid of a ton of GdkWindow instances and makes widget input easier than ever before.

5 thoughts on “Widget hierarchies in GTK+ 4.0”

  1. As long as there aren’t useful features being deprecated, i’m all for code simplification.

  2. @Salamandar: It shouldn’t be any difference regarding performance. In the case of a simple text label (no wrapping, links or ellipsization), GtkLabel is basically a wrapper around a PangoLayout.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

  3. If your API is still in flux, it might sense to create an iterator object for iterating over children.
    Since that is likely to be a common operation, and using a custom structure might lead to significant performance improvements, depending on the list implementation.

    But maybe not, just a suggestion :-)

    Something like;
    GtkWidget *widget;
    GtkWidget *child;
    GtkWidgetIterator * iter = gtk_widget_iter_init(widget);
    for (gtk_widget_iter_has_next(iter);
    child = gtk_widget_iter_next (iter))
    /* Do stuff with @child */
    g_assert (gtk_widget_get_parent (child) == widget);

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *