The Best Without X

Small computers, especially those with little memory, don't run the X Window System—or any other graphic environment—very smoothly. An intelligent keyboard configuration and use of the gpm mouse server will help you exploit your small Linux box to its fullest.
Tools for the Text Console

The following tools work particularly well on the text console, sometimes even better than in graphics mode.

  • gpm-root: gpm-root is a root-window manager. Its role is to draw menus on the screen background, like you do in the X environment. By default it responds to control-mouse events, since mouse-only is left to the selection mechanism, a vital feature if you work on a text console. The menus drawn by gpm-root are read from a user-local configuration file, and can be tailored to your own preferences. gpm-root allows console-switching, console locking, opening a new console to create a new system login, retrieving system information and executing external commands, as well as recursive menus. The user configuration file is reparsed when needed, to ease trial-and-error menu writing.

  • Emacs The Emacs editor is made mouse-sensitive by loading the t-mouse.el package, which comes in the gpm distribution. All the functionality available under the X Window System is duplicated on the text console, including the scrollbar. The scrollbar acts on the last column of the screen and smooth scroll is accomplished through a variable resolution widget—the more you move your mouse to the left, the less scrolling takes place in response to vertical motions. A meta- mouse button press triggers the scrollbar independently of the position of the mouse.

  • Jed: The Jed editor is mouse-sensitive as well. Mouse support has been developed by Jed's author, and thus is perfectly integrated. Jed is a good alternative to Emacs if you own a small computer—it is considerably smaller, both in disk usage and memory occupation, but offers the same basic commands and interface, as well as its own extension language. Well, if you learned “elisp” to configure Emacs, won't you learn “slang” to configure Jed?

  • dialog: The dialog program is nothing special, except that it runs definitely better on the text console than under an xterm. Managing a Slackware installation with the dialog menus on the console is a breeze, especially if you can interact with your mouse. Under xterm, on the contrary, a dialog menu looks ugly, and available mouse events are limited to button press, so you're almost forced to use the keyboard. Moreover, the curses libraries tend to use the alternate screen provided by xterm, and thus message boxes are simply invisible, and you wonder why the terminal is idling around without any message on it.

  • mc: mc (The Midnite Commander) a powerful file manager, is modeled on the famous DOS command nc, though much more powerful than the original. mc is fully configurable and extendable, and does a good job of managing your file system status. You can use its menus with the mouse as well as the keyboard, while shift-mouse runs selection as usual.

  • screen: The screen utility is a viable alternative to opening a lot of consoles. It manages up to ten terminal sessions running on a single physical connection. screen offers a lot of functionality, and is a must if you use a vt100 or an old PC running kermit to connect to your linux box. It is useful also if you're really console-hungry and you don't have enough consoles. The major drawback of screen is that it emulates a vt100, so you lose all the extra features offered by the Linux console. Specifically, you can't run gpm-aware programs under screen. One really nice feature of screen is the visual-bell facility. It offers a cut-and-paste facility, too, but mouse-based selection is easier to use.

  • minicom: minicom is an easy-to-use communication package resembling DOS's telix with a menu-oriented setup. It offers a good scripting utility, which makes your programs talk directly with the remote end of your serial connections. I use minicom to remotely control a Nicolet oscilloscope, with no concern about communication parameters.

  • gnuplot: Its name says a lot about it. A drawing program that can read external ASCII files, its major advantage is the ability to manage a many different output devices—including a bare terminal. This means you can look at your data graphs without starting X-Windows. The granularity of a tty plot is coarse, but gnuplot does its job well. It has a fairly complete internal help facility, and you can produce nice PostScript (or other graphic format) graphs without entering your graphic environment.

Further Readings

All the tools described above come with manual pages or info files. mc has a good internal help utility. gpm-root and the lisp library t-mouse.el are part of the gpm package.

Text-Only Resources

Alessandro Rubini is taking his PhD course in computer science and is breeding two small Linux boxes at home. Wild by his very nature, he loves trekking, canoeing and riding his bike. He wrote gpm, and can be reached as


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