A Toolbox for the X User

An introduction to several small graphical tools for the daily work of system administration.
Managing Files

At first glance, the wide variety of file managers (xfilemanager, xdtm, mfm, xfm, xgroups, et. al.) that comes with every Linux distribution seems to be promising. However, almost all of these tools are either very basic, very ugly or both. TkDesk by Christian Bolik is the only exception I have encountered.

Actually, TkDesk is much more than a simple file manager (see “Introducing TkDesk” by John Blair in LJ, March 1998). By default, it even starts a separate button bar that reigns over the desktop. This obtrusive behaviour is easily turned off via the menu “TkDesk”->“Toggle Appbar”. When I started using TkDesk, it often stuck for indefinite intervals with no obvious reason. It took me some time to realize that it was trying to create sound effects not supported by my system. If this default setting causes trouble, it can be turned off in the menu “Options”<->“Use Sound”.

I use TkDesk primarily for browsing files that are buried deep in my system directory trees. This can be done very fast, since TkDesk has a built-in file browser/editor. Moreover, it displays files in three directory list boxes, making it easy to change directories back and forth. Three is the default, but you can change it to any number you wish.

Comparing Files

Often, there is a need to check the differences between two versions of a file. You can use the shell command diff for this purpose, but the output of the graphical tools mgdiff or tkdiff is much easier to read.

mgdiff by Daniel Williams can be invoked like diff with two file names as command-line parameters. Alternatively, it allows interactive file selection from the “File”->“Open” menu; hence, it is possible to invoke mgdiff from your window manager's program menu. mgdiff displays the selected files in two boxes and shows an overview of differences in a small bar on the right (see Figure 3). Changes, insertions and deletions are highlighted in different colors, which can be customized by the corresponding X-resources in your .xresources or .xdefaults file; see mgdiff's man page for details. Moreover, you can easily merge the compared files into a new file simply by clicking on the respective versions of the differences and saving the result with the “File”->“Save As” menu.

Figure 3. Differences Made Visible with mgdiff

For programmers using a version control system, tkdiff by John M. Klassa is another useful difference tool. In contrast to mgdiff, tkdiff can be invoked only from the shell prompt because it requires file names as command-line arguments. tkdiff has an internal help function but no external man page, which occasionally makes it inconvenient to get usage information. Beside these trifles, tkdiff offers the same functionality as mgdiff. Moreover, you can check a file versus different versions of that file registered in a version control system (RCS, CVS or SCCS). For example, the command tkdiff -r filename compares filename with the revision most recently checked in.

Managing Archives

The standard data exchange format between different UNIX computers is the tape archive format (tar). Additionally, these archives are often compressed with compress (commercial UNIX systems) or gzip (Linux), resulting in tgz files. You can use the shell command tar to create, extract or list the contents of a tar file. Alternatively, xtar and tkzip provide graphical front ends to tar.

xtar by Rik Turnbull can only list and extract archives, but normally that is all you need. When you open an archive with xtar, it displays a list of all files in the archive. A double click on a file in the list starts a built-in file browser. This is very useful for new software packages, because you can read the installation instructions and README files before unpacking the archive.

If you prefer a graphical tool for creating archives, you need a more elaborate package such as TkZip by Robert Woodside. In my opinion, TkZip is too elaborate: each mouse click opens a new window, which quickly becomes confusing, and my eyes cannot get accustomed to the colored frames and buttons.

When fired up, TkZip displays a list of the files in the current directory; archive files can be opened with a double click on the respective file. As with xtar, you can browse text files by clicking on the files in the archive list. However, you must first specify a graphical viewer (e.g., xless) from the viewer list; otherwise, TkZip will write the contents of the file to standard output.

Creating archives with TkZip is a bit more involved, since it requires hopping through a suite of file selection dialogs:

  • From the main window, select “File”->“New Archive”.

  • Enter the archive type and the archive file name and choose “Create”.

  • Click on “Add” in the pop-up archive-list window.

  • Select single files for the archive by clicking on files in the next window and choose the “Add” button.

  • Clicking on “Close” in the archive-list window eventually writes the archive file.

Compared to the tar shell command, creating an archive with TkZip is much more intricate and can save time only in the rare situation when you want to pack several files from different ends of your file system into one archive. In the more common case, when you simply want to pack files from one or two directories, the shell command is both faster and easier to use.


Christoph Dalitz received a Ph.D. in physics at the University of Bielefeld and is currently designing optical archiving systems for the Comline Company in Dortmund. While on his job, he has to work primarily under Windows NT beside some hours of recreation under HP-UX. He enjoys using Linux exclusively on his home PC. He can be reached at dalitz@infotech.de.