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Can someone explain to me exactly what gnome-session and gnome-settings-daemon do and how they might be useful to me, as someone who doesn't use GNOME or any of its relatives as a DM (i use i3)?

I've only known that one of the two can be used to automatically set media keybindings but am increasingly bothered that I know neither which one sets the keybindings nor what either of them is really for.

4

gnome-session starts gnome-settings-daemon. The latter manages the data used in a session. The former tells it what to do.

Based on the description, you'll be more interested in the settings daemon than the session manager.

Further reading:

  • Difference between gnome-session and gnome-shell?

    by default gnome.session starts gnome-shell and gnome-settings-daemon,

  • gnome-settings-daemon-3.20.1

    The GNOME Settings Daemon is responsible for setting various parameters of a GNOME Session and the applications that run under it.

  • Package: gnome-settings-daemon

    The daemon sharing settings from GNOME to GTK+/KDE applications

  • gnome-settings-daemon

    This package contains the daemon which is responsible for setting the various parameters of a gnome session and the applications that run under it. it handles the following kinds of settings:

    • keyboard: layout, accessibility options, shortcuts, media keys
    • clipboard management
    • theming: background, icons, gtk+ applications
    • cleanup of unused files
    • mouse: cursors, speed, accessibility options
    • startup of other daemons: screensaver, sound daemon it also sets various application settings through x resources and freedesktop.org xsettings.
  • gnome-session-3.20.2

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