September 6, 2015

Having a good terminal console on OS X in 2015

  1. Installing ITerm2
  2. Adding some colors to the console
  3. Using ITerm2 : panes, tabs, profiles and window arrangements
    1. Organizing
    2. Having a ready-to-use terminal with profiles and window arrangements
  4. Wrapping up

As a programmer, your terminal console is part of your everyday life. That's where you launch your local server, start your database, see your heroku logs, try out that mysterious command you found on some forum, etc. Don't try to escape it; instead, learn to master it and make it comfortable enough that you feel at home using it.

My current choice for a terminal on OSX is ITerm2 (official website).

Installing ITerm2

Nothing tricky here, just download it from the official website. What you get is a zip archive that unpacks to a .app file. All you have to do is move that file to your Applications folder.

Adding some colors to the console

I like my console to have a dark background because it's easier on the eyes and environment-friendly. Also I want to see some relevant information like current *nix user and current directory.

For this I use a little shell script :

  # uncomment for a colored prompt, if the terminal has the capability; turned  
  # off by default to not distract the user: the focus in a terminal window  
  # should be on the output of commands, not on the prompt  
  if [ -n "$force_color_prompt" ]; then  
    if [ -x /usr/bin/tput ] && tput setaf 1 >&/dev/null; then  
      # We have color support; assume it's compliant with Ecma-48  
      # (ISO/IEC-6429). (Lack of such support is extremely rare, and such  
      # a case would tend to support setf rather than setaf.)  
  # ANSI color codes  
  RS="\[\033[0m\]"  # reset  
  HC="\[\033[1m\]"  # hicolor  
  UL="\[\033[4m\]"  # underline  
  INV="\[\033[7m\]"  # inverse background and foreground  
  FBLK="\[\033[30m\]" # foreground black  
  FRED="\[\033[31m\]" # foreground red  
  FGRN="\[\033[32m\]" # foreground green  
  FYEL="\[\033[33m\]" # foreground yellow  
  FBLE="\[\033[34m\]" # foreground blue  
  FMAG="\[\033[35m\]" # foreground magenta  
  FCYN="\[\033[36m\]" # foreground cyan  
  FWHT="\[\033[37m\]" # foreground white  
  BBLK="\[\033[40m\]" # background black  
  BRED="\[\033[41m\]" # background red  
  BGRN="\[\033[42m\]" # background green  
  BYEL="\[\033[43m\]" # background yellow  
  BBLE="\[\033[44m\]" # background blue  
  BMAG="\[\033[45m\]" # background magenta  
  BCYN="\[\033[46m\]" # background cyan  
  BWHT="\[\033[47m\]" # background white  
  #variables pointing to ANSI color codes  
  USER_CLR="$RS$HC$FGRN" # the color of the user name, e.g 'val'  
  HOST_CLR="$RS$FYEL" # the color of the host, e.g 'VVV-SATELLITE-P850'  
  LOC_CLR="$RS$FGRN" # the color of the location, e.g '~/Documents'  
  MISC_CLR="$RS$HC$FYEL" # the color of other symbols  
  if [ "$color_prompt" = yes ]; then  
    #PS1='${debian_chroot:+($debian_chroot)}\[\033[01;32m\]\u@\h\[\033[00m\]:\[\033[01;34m\]\w\[\033[00m\]\$ '  
    # primary prompt : contains special characters an sequences for additional info about a session.  
    #PS1="$HC$FYEL[ $FBLE${debian_chroot:+($debian_chroot)}\u$FYEL: $FBLE\w $FYEL]\\$ $RS"  
    # secondary prompt shows just '>'  
    PS2="$HC$FYEL> $RS"  
    #PS1='${debian_chroot:+($debian_chroot)}\u@\h:\w\$ '  
    # primary prompt : contains special characters an sequences for additional info about a session.  
    PS1="[ \u: \w ]\\$ "  
    # secondary prompt shows just '>'  
    PS2="> "  
  unset color_prompt force_color_prompt  

To use it, I created a file with the above content which I put in a ~/.mybashconfig directory, then called it from my ~/.bashprofile file (which is in charge of initializing my terminal) by adding these lines to it:


  # enable colorful prompt  
  source ~/.my_bash_config/

You can do it all with a simple text editor like TextMate. Don't hesitate to change the colors to your liking, it should be easy from the above code. Note that this also works on other *nix operating systems, not just OSX.

Now you have a pretty terminal, which is the first step towards loving to work in the command line. Next step is to make it more ergonomic.

Using ITerm2 : panes, tabs, profiles and window arrangements


The first thing I find practical in ITerm2 is the possibility to have several shell sessions open next to each other in the same window. When using ITerm2, you can have several windows, each window has several tabs, each tab is split into panes.

I recommend using only one window, making it full-screen, and having many tabs each split into a few panes. It all looks like this :

In this window, there are 6 tabs, and the current tab has 3 panes

I'll typically have one or two tabs per project; for example, for a web development project, I'll have a tab for the frontend and one for the backend. On the backend tab, I'll have a small pane for my local database server, one for my backend server, and a large one for git commands and and other command-line stuff.

To achieve such a layout, use the Shell menu of ITerm2, where you can see options to create new tabs (CMD-T) and split them into panes (CMD-D, CMD-MAJ-D). You can navigate across tabs with CMD-LEFT and CMD-RIGHT.

Having a ready-to-use terminal with profiles and window arrangements

You don't want to have to re-create this arrangement every time you start ITerm2. This is why there are profiles and window arrangements.

A profile is essentially a pre-defined file system location for a shell session to start in.
If you want to always be in the same location in a certain pane, you'll have to create a profile for it.

To create a profile, do Profiles > Open Profiles > Edit Profile, then +, then you enter the name and file system location for this profile and you're good to go.

To have a pane with a specific profile, it's a bit tricky. Place yourself in a pane, click Shell > Split Vertically, then you will prompted for a profile for the newly created pane. After that, you can close the older pane. I haven't found a more direct way.

The last thing to do to save your beautiful tabs/panes layout is to save it in a window arrangement. To do so, go to Window > Save Window Arrangement. If you want to start ITerm2 with always the same window arrangement (which you probably do), you can set a default window arrangement in the Preferences.

Wrapping up

I hope this will make your relationship to terminal consoles happier. As Obi-Wan Kenobi said to Luke in the Millennium Falcon, this is your first step into a larger world. I was actually pleasantly surprised to discover ITerm2 for Mac, I haven't found something as ergonomic for Ubuntu.

Tags: tools tutorial