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Making Your Terminal into a Desktop

The Value of Screen

March 16, 2006

There are several possible reasons why you might choose to use the command line interface (CLI) as your desktop environment. For one thing, it uses less electricity, so you could maximize battery life on your laptop computer. Secondly, it forces you to think about your operating system and directory structure in a totally different way than a GUI does; this could greatly enhance your understanding of GNU/Linux and cause you to be more creative in your technological problem solving. And thirdly, everyone will think you're a supreme computer genius for ditching X11 for the CLI. People passing by your desk will think you're some kind of computer god. Who doesn't want that?

Here's how to set up your virtual terminal to be more productive for desktop work.

If you're going to do any serious work in the command line, the first program you should familiarize yourself with is GNU Screen. Basically it is a window manager for the command line; it allows you to run and manage several terminal instances within one virtual terminal. Sure, you could just use ctrl-alt-F keys to switch to other virtual terminals, but after you memorize two commands in Screen and see how quickly you can jump to other windows, you'll be hooked:

Screen basic commands
Start new window: ctrl-a c
Select specific windows: ctrl-a 0 through 9

Exiting a screen window is as easy as ending a terminal session--just type in exit and press enter, and the window will exit. To quit Screen entirely, exit all of its windows.

Screen takes commands in two sequences, so if you want to open a new window, you would hold down the ctrl key and press a, then release both keys and press c. Those familiar with the "finger yoga" of Emacs commands will be right at home with Screen.

There's much more to Screen than just these commands--these are only the basics, to get you started--see the Screen manual page for more options.

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