Living at the Command Line

The modern computer desktop, irrespective of what software or hardware you are running, is a mostly graphical environment. However there was a time, not so long ago, when the good old text-based command line was every computer user’s best friend (and occasionally worst enemy). While the command line may no longer be in vogue, it is still possible to do most tasks with nothing more than a humble text interface (and a good keyboard of course). Most of this article will be dealing with tools that are easily available for UNIX derivatives (Linux and BSD). If you’re a Mac user, then you’ll be able to find a terminal tucked into your Utilities folder. Most UNIX commands should work without a hitch. You will probably want to use Fink to install the software that I will mention here. For Windows users, Cygwin would be the best bet: it gives you a fully UNIX-like environment including support for most open-source UNIX tools. However you might have to dig through documentation a bit to install everything properly. On the other hand, if you don’t want to turn your Windows box into a UNIX clone, try Windows Power Shell, and if you do, please write back to me about it. Now, on with the show:

File Management: Strictly speaking, your command-line shell provides all that you need for file management. The shell provides you a host of various commands to let you view, search and manipulate files. These commands aren’t actually part of the shell; they are different programs that the shell calls up just like it would call up any other program. In case you do need something more than what the command line can give you, the best option I can give you is Midnight Commander. It has been around for a long time and is often considered a classic. It has two panes, and has a pseudo-graphical look about it thanks to ncurses. It also supports renaming whole groups of files at a time and can work with popular archive formats (such as tar) as if they were normal directories. You can also use it as FTP and SFTP client. It’s available for both Windows and Linux.

Text-editing: The command line is where text-editing is started and it should come as no surprise that you have a multitude of options to choose from. The good old powerhouses of Emacs and Vi are close at hand and though both have a bit of a learning curve (okay, a lot of a learning curve), it’s well worth it if you are determined to become a command line wizard.

Music: Just because you’re hell-bent on living at a command-line doesn’t mean that you have to give up all the pleasures in life. Music is one of the pleasures you get to keep. Most people today have enormous MP3 collections and it would be an awful waste if you couldn’t get to them without a GUI. For a long time, mp3blaster was the program of choice for command-line geeks who wanted to listen to music while their figures were busy tapping away. But now there is something even better: the music player daemon. This relatively new piece of great software sits in the background and will play music irrespective of whether you’re at a GUI or CLI, and is good news if you often switch between the two. If you’re using any well-maintained Linux or BSD distribution, this should be in your software repository. Once you have it installed, you’ll need a frontend to help you actually select and play music. The best one for us would be ncmpc, the feature rich, yet very simple to use ncurses front end. It also supports various formats like MP3, OGG and FLAC, so you aren’t tied to MP3s only.

Internet: The net today is a very graphical environment, but that doesn’t mean that it’s completely inaccessible to command line lovers. There are a number of text-based browsers out there such as w3m, Lynx and Links, you’ll probably want to try them out yourself before making a choice. For email, you can’t go wrong with Mutt, a mail client which depends on other UNIX mail software to give you a very flexible and very efficient mail setup. Once again, there is a learning curve, but if you are a heavy duty emailer (hundreds of emails a day) the effort will be well worth it. As for IM, I recommend CenterICQ. Don’t let the name fool you, it supports multiple protocols like AIM, ICQ, Yahoo, IRC and Jabber (and hence Gtalk) and there is plugin available which allows to use MSN as well.

Living at the command-line isn’t an easy thing to do in today’s world, and quite frankly, I wouldn’t recommend it for a long period of time. But if you just need a break for a while from all the clicking and dragging, give the above programs a whirl. The best part is that even when you have to come back to the world of GUI, you can bring your lessons back with you and use the various terminal emulators around to get some command-line magic to work alongside your daily GUI.

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Published by

Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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