This is a read-only archive. Find the latest Linux articles, documentation, and answers at the new!


Top 10 Linux console applications

By Michael M. Murphree on April 26, 2005 (8:00:00 AM)

Share    Print    Comments   

System administrators regularly work from the command line, but there's more to the console than managing servers. You can do most desktop work from the console, and generally faster than you can accomplish work from a graphical user interface. You can even have a basic office suite, complete with a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation program, all in the absence of a GUI. Here are 10 applications to try.


It may seem like cheating, but think of GNU Screen as a window manager for the console. I found it to be much more usable than the multiple TTYs normally spawned by Linux. Unlike the default virtual terminals, Screen allows you to begin with one shell or application and spawn new ones on demand. You can also start with a dozen or more predetermined applications as soon as you log in. Screen allows you to page between running shells and applications, cut and paste between them, log input and output from any session, and share consoles with other users or groups. When running locally, Screen can password-lock your console. Best of all, you can detach a shell or application running from Screen. As an example, using Screen I start with a top session. I then press Ctrl-a and then the d key. This detaches the top session. If I log out, then log in again a day later, my top session is still running. A simple screen -r is all it takes for me to bring it back to the foreground. That alone is reason enough for me to use Screen -- particularly for systems that I administer remotely.


Long before Outlook and Evolution there was Pine for handling email. This console-based email application was conceived in 1989 at the University of Washington in Seattle. It now supports LDAP searches and address books, exhaustive mail filtering and highlighting (with color coding), multiple POP and IMAP accounts, spellcheck, and MIME attachments through configuration of helper applications. The keystroke commands, though simple, may seem daunting at first, but the speed of the application makes mastering them well worth the effort. One of my favorite features is the default signature: "This message was written with Pine. Yes, that Pine."


Lynx is a straightforward text Web browser that many Linux distributions include by default. It supports bookmarks, image viewing through helper applications, and color highlighting of URL links. Although Lynx does not display frames, it will allow you to select one frame from a frameset for viewing. I use Lynx in an xterm on my desktop for reading news and other interesting articles for which I don't have the patience to put up with popup ads, bad graphics, and moving advertisements.


I must admit that for console or xterm text processing I much prefer vi or Vim to any other CLI editor. In fact, I prefer Vim to many GUI-based word processors, and just as many people prefer Emacs. If, however, you would like something simpler, Zed is not a bad choice. It is small, fast, and provides many functions. Zed supports search and replace, multiple windows, macro programming, word wrap, text justification, and more. Although the default key sequences seem obscure, Zed provides for easy configuration of both menus and key sequences. I'd suggest it if you'd rather not learn vi or Emacs.


I was frustrated with the Oleo spreadsheet application on more than one occasion. Some of that frustration was due to my own ignorance, as the key sequences are Emacs-based. As a Lotus, Excel, Gnumeric, and Calc user I had expected Oleo to be more intuitive, but I needed multiple sessions with the info file before I could use it proficiently. Even cell reference syntax was not what I had expected. As I became more familiar with it, however, I found a lot to recommend about this application. Oleo does not support the display of more than one file at a time, but Screen gives you a nice workaround for that limitation. It does support multiple windows of the same spreadsheet. It also supports macro programming, plotting through GNU plotutils (under X only) ASCII and PostScript output, and MySQL queries. A Motif GUI interface is available under X. Although it does not yet support most spreadsheet file formats, it works well on its own. If you are setting up a console office suite, it's an application that's well worth having.


The Text Presentation Tool (or Text PowerPoint) is an impressively flexible console-based application. It supports execution of external programs, background and text colors, ASCII text borders, and automatic page numbering and date display. Special effects such as fly in, fly out, slide in from right/left, and, to some extent, variable font sizes are also available. Each presentation comprises a plain ASCII text file consisting of text and simple commands. TPP also supports TeX conversion for printing. Even if you don't need it to round out your console office suite, you should try TPP as a means of annoying anyone who's ever sent you a 24MB PowerPoint file.


MySQL ships with many versions and flavors of Linux. Although many X and HTML front ends are available for MySQL, it's just as easy to create and maintain a database from the command line. You can script commands and queries and call them with mysql < scriptname. This makes it easy to automate operations such as data imports and report generation. MySQL supports multilevel queries, output sorting and grouping, arithmetic operations, and much more. If you haven't used MySQL, you've overlooked one of the most powerful applications on your system.

Midnight Commander

Midnight Commander is a file manager and FTP client that looks and works much like Norton Commander for DOS. The two-panel interface can display two local directories, a local and remote FTP directory, a directory and file specifications, or a directory and file preview. File attributes and permissions are color-coded, and you can change them through Midnight Commander. In addition, MC supports file undeletion on ext2 filesystems. Although MC is not my personal favorite for file management at the command line interface, it is probably the most powerful.


ZGV is an image viewer. Strictly speaking it is not console-based, as attempts to run it through an SSH session will display only on the remote system. In addition it requires the SVGA libraries, and does not work well with Screen, as it tends to take over the entire shell. As a standalone application, however, it is handy and powerful. It supports auto zoom, thumbnails, and slideshows. For work in the CLI it's possibly the best image viewer you can find. When exiting ZGV, however, the virtual terminal will sometimes stop responding. In these cases I've been able to fix the shell by switching to another virtual terminal and back.


Nethack is a single-player multi-level dungeon exploration game. You must make your way through an enormous maze of enemies and monsters to find the Amulet of Yendor. It's possible to play for several hours a day for at least a week without completing this quest. You arrive in the dungeon as one of 13 characters with a faithful animal companion that will help you fight orcs, were-rats, and hundreds of other creatures. If you lose your companion, it may become feral and kill you later. Although there are hundreds of dungeon-crawl adventure games, Nethack is one of the best. It is possibly the most fun you can have without a graphics card, and its use of the vi key bindings make it an excellent training resource for vi and Vim.

Other programs

These applications are enough to get you started on your CLI-based system. If you enjoy the experience, here are a few more applications to try:

X-Chat-text -- IRC client
Tethereral -- front end for TCPdump
GNU Chess -- a chess game
Vlock -- a clock for the CLI
Halibut -- converts text to manpage, PDF, PostScript, and other formats
Cmatrix -- a screen saver
vifm -- my favorite file manager
ncftp -- FTP client
antiword -- converts Word .DOC files to text

Share    Print    Comments   


on Top 10 Linux console applications

Note: Comments are owned by the poster. We are not responsible for their content.

some additions

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 27, 2005 05:53 PM
With reduced graphics, you need enhanced tunes.<nobr> <wbr></nobr>:)

CLI audio: mpg321 (or madplay; can never make up my mind), ogg123, cdparanoia, etc.
Console audio: mp3blaster!

As far as console browsers, lynx is correctly The Standard, but w3m rocks.

Screen absolutely. Agree with previous commentator about mutt (though not for the license but just because it's good). mc and zgv, definitely. But vi/vim for editor. Joe or mc's own mcedit is the thing if vi freaks someone out. If oleo's emacs-isms are bothersome, there's good ol' sc. And ncftp should have been promoted to the top 10 list. Fantastic app.

Nice survey.


a few more

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 27, 2005 08:38 PM
e3 - small and easy to use text editor

units - converts between measurements

xaos - fractal zoomer that includes a console mode

if you're on a debian-based distro, you should be able to 'apt-get install' these



Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 27, 2005 09:21 PM
I love twin as a text mode window manager.
See <a href="" title=""></a>


command line interface

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 27, 2005 10:39 PM
I've found that the CLI is much easier on the eyes.Setterm allows a wide range of foreground and background colors (white on blue is likely the most eyeball friendly), and most distros, to my knowledge, provide a range of console fonts.

Also, there is no annoying flicker at the CLI level, even if X strobes like a 60s rock concert on your machine.

If you're new to Linux, the Pilot and Pico file manager and editor that come with the Pine package
are easy to figure out and use. Also, the spreadsheet program SC, although not as sophisticated as some of the X apps, is sufficient for most basic accounting and math uses.


I also like:

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 28, 2005 09:25 AM



Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 28, 2005 10:57 PM
there's mutt<nobr> <wbr></nobr>:)



Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 29, 2005 03:38 AM
isnt vlock a program to lock the console in linux?
i think i remember typing vlock -a to do just that...
I certainly wasnt starting a clock.


Zed? Use Nano!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 29, 2005 07:43 PM
I can't believe that you included pine, and not pico/nano for an editor. Nano is an FSF enhanced clone of pico. Nano has become one of my top CLI programs, maybe the one I use the most. It has syntax highlighting and many other cool features.

Some great network utilities:


Torrent and MSN

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on April 30, 2007 06:35 AM
Two applications that I find useful are rtorrent (<a href="" title=""></a>) and the MSN messenger client tmsnc (<a href="" title=""></a>).

I would also like to thank you for recommending Zed. It is the most useful program I have ever used!


Comments on your first few choices

Posted by: Administrator on April 26, 2005 10:20 PM
Agreed--best program ever.
I used Pine exclusively until a year ago. It is still in my toolbox, but I don't use it much. It is true that Mark Crispin & others have worked to make one of the best IMAP clients ever. But the license is restrictive & this slows development. <A HREF="" title="">Mutt</a> is now my preferred CLI-based client.
Some like links or links2. I like <A HREF="" title="">ELinks.</a> This does display frames & even some CSS and javascript. My favorite thing about it is that it is a tabbed browser!


and even more

Posted by: Administrator on April 27, 2005 08:53 PM
I'm still a lightweight user, but I do agree highly
with Pine, Lynx, MC, antiword. Not unusually, I've
never heard of some of these.

Two that I stumbled across and use all the time:

Might seem like trivial programs, but I really like


Thank you letting me know about screen

Posted by: Administrator on November 01, 2005 08:09 AM
I came across this list yesterday while digging around for a CLI audio program, any that would play the podcasts I've downloaded. I recently upgrade my Ubuntu installation to Ubuntu Server, and I've decided not to install a GUI for the time being. So I'm forcing myself to see how far I can get on this old Mac Powerbook G3 of mine, using the command line and all it has to offer.

I've probably heard of screen, but I don't recall it. So after reading about it here I installed it, and what can I say but it's brilliant. Love it! Thanks for letting me know.

I also install madplay, which works like a charm. So now I've got bashpodder to download my podcasts, screen to provide me with multiple views, and madplay to listen to my audio as I'm working or surfing. Righteous.


I like pinfo

Posted by: Administrator on May 04, 2006 06:38 AM
pinfo, a GNU-info browser, as easy and intuitive as a netscape-like webbrowser, but for th CLI. It certainly deserves a place in this gallery.
<a href="" title=""></a>


Top 10 Linux console applications

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on August 20, 2007 09:43 AM


Top 10 Linux console applications

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on March 08, 2008 02:28 AM
Talking about no X-Windows browsers: lynx is O.K., links is too. But I like links -g
Like ZGV it is not exactly of CLI, but is of no X-Windows environment also.


This story has been archived. Comments can no longer be posted.

Tableless layout Validate XHTML 1.0 Strict Validate CSS Powered by Xaraya