Above, Below, and Beyond Tech Talk

by Rahel Lüthy

November 16, 2010

Mac Tips & Tricks #3: Terminal

One of the reasons I really love the Mac as a development machine, is the fact that it has a real terminal. As much as I appreciate the nice Cocoa GUI, the command line interface (CLI) is often the most efficient way to control files and directories, especially for bulk operations.

The default shell on Mac OS X is Bash, and it comes equipped with a variety of commands and utilities. However, the way it is initially configured on the Mac is quite disappointing. Thus, here are a few simple tweaks to improve it:


The first weakness becomes visible after a simple ls command: The default Terminal is not colored. I am not referring to the simple background/foreground themes that are easily controllable from the settings, but I’d like directories to be displayed in a different color than files, symbolic links, etc. On the Mac, the best place to control bash settings is ~/.bash_profile. Open it with any editor an add the following two lines to it:

export CLICOLOR=1
export LSCOLORS=dxfxcxdxbxegedabagacad

You will then need to issue a source ~/.bash_profile for your changes to take effect – tada!


Another simple improvement is the configuration of a better prompt (the text to the left of your blinking command line cursor). This is controlled via the PS1 environment variable (again in ~/.bash_profile). A good start could be

PS1='u@h:w$ '


Whenever you catch yourself repeating lengthy commands, consider adding an alias configuration to ~/.bash_profile. A standard one covers the “show a long listing of all files (including hidden ones) in the current directory”:

alias ll='ls -al'

Open Files & Directories

The Terminal comes with an open command which does exactly what it says on the tin (do a man open to read the fine print). The two variants I use most are open . to open a Finder window for the current directory, and open -a TextMate.app foo.txt to edit a text file in my favorite editor (no, it’s not vi nor emacs). Again, this command is way too long, so I mapped it to e (like edit) in my ~/.bash_profile:

e () { open -a TextMate.app $*; }


And finally, my personal faves among bash shortcuts:

Ctrl-a – go to the start of command line
Ctrl-e – go to the end of command line
Meta-f – go to next word in command line
Meta-b – go to previous word in command line
Ctrl-k – delete from cursor to end of command line
Ctrl-u – delete from cursor to beginning of command line
Arrow Up – insert previous command in history
Ctrl-r – reverse serach in history file
Meta-. – insert last argument

Don’t forget to map the Terminal itself to a handy Quicksilver shortcut. As mentioned already, mine is launched via Ctrl-Esc.