The terminal is the beating heart of Linux, no matter how hard today’s user-friendly graphical distros might try to push it into the background. If you need something done quickly and efficiently, chances are the best way to do it is with some complex keyboard wrangling. Exactly what to type is beyond the scope of this article – check out our guide here to get yourself started.
The key, if you’re a terminal-slinging Linux badass, is making sure you type those commands with as much style and panache as possible. And while you’ll likely never be in a position where you’re not able to drop to a straight full-screen shell, having a quick window to the command line on your desktop is always handy.
Of course, you have one already – be it xterm, Gnome Shell, Konsole, or whatever ‘Terminal’ application your chosen distro has bundled in – but this probably isn’t as good as your terminal emulator could be. So let’s refresh your view of those plain old white-on-black characters, as we point out our top six Linux terminal emulators.
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1. Cool Retro Term
Who needs system resources anyway? If you have a bunch of CPU cycles and graphics processing power that needs using up, you’re sure to get a kick out of Cool Retro Term. It emulates the look of a really old-school cathode ray screen, complete with phosphor glow, burn-in, and bloom around the characters. If you cut your teeth with the monochrome screens of the early eighties, this is a nostalgic (and highly customisable) trip back to the past.
You can even select between a number of character sets, evoking memories of (for example) the all-caps Apple II, as well as selecting between a number of colours to replicate the amber warmth of classic Zenith monitors, or a rarely-used but nonetheless beautiful cyan.
While the usefulness of some of its features is questionable – particularly the optional screen jitter replicating a slightly dodgy signal cable, and some of the older fonts – Cool Retro Term (or CRT, get it?) is a beautiful toy to play with.
This terminal emulator, crafted specifically for Gnome, takes inspiration from classic shooter Quake. You might have inferred that from its name – but it doesn’t throw Shamblers in your path, offer you quad or mega-health power-ups, or even come branded with Quake’s classic brown-on-brown colour scheme, thankfully. Instead, it apes the behaviour of Quake’s console, un-hiding itself and dropping down from the top of the screen when you hit a hotkey.
This behaviour is immensely useful, particularly when you’re not working with a huge amount of screen real-estate. There’s no need to keep a window open, or indeed hunt around for the Terminal icon when you need to type something useful or check your performance in htop. Just tap [F12] to bring it down, or [F11] to make it full-screen, and you’re away.
How much street cred does a single terminal window actually afford you? Every command line warrior worth his or her salt is jumping between a number of different sessions for different tasks, has one eye on htop (or similar) at all times to manage system resources, and so on.
There are actual shell-based options for this – GNU Screen, for example, or tmux – and Gnome Terminal allows you to open extra tabs and flick between them as you wish. But Terminator, which borrows much of its code from Gnome Terminal and tends to update as soon as its parent does, splits up your different sessions into individual panes within a single terminal app.
This means you can have everything open and available at one time – keep an eye on stats, watch a text-mode clock like vtclock, edit docs in nano, run whatever commands you need, all in an interface which can be tweaked and added to as your needs require.
Some people lean on the terminal as their default method of Linux navigation, but that can be a little restrictive. Normally you’d hunt down a file, then have to jump to another desktop app to preview it unless it was a plain text document. Not so with EFL-based Terminology, an app which celebrates the terminal while doing away with its more irritating old-school features.
Files, URLs and email addresses are automatically made mouse-able in Terminology’s window. Click an image, or a video, and you’ll be shown a preview within the terminal itself. It supports panes (known here as ‘splits’) in much the same way as Terminator, and can be infinitely customised. Why not apply an individual background image or colour scheme to each split? Why not fiddle with the transparency for that late nineties ‘look what Linux can do’ vibe?
The options are all there, with text mode triggers and a vast number of options tucked away in its context menus.
5. st (simple terminal)
One of Linux’s big issues is that it sometimes does slightly too much. That terminal emulator you’ve been using, whatever it might be, is probably compatible with a whole raft of obscure, archaic or simply never-used protocols.
It might also be a bit of a mess – Linux code tends to pass through a lot of hands and get ingredients sprinkled in by a number of different cooks before it hits your plate. It doesn’t have to be that way, though: st is a simple meal, good old rustic home cooking, a terminal emulator that does precisely what it’s meant to do and little else.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s all that simple, though, despite the name. There’s still support for all the colours you could ask for, clipboard handling, a full UTF-8 character set, and a lot of font customisation options including antialiasing. If you’re not one for terminal frippery and would prefer a more straightforward environment, this is the one for you.
Also known as urxvt, this is the terminal emulator which many veteran Linux users end up using. Not because of pretty graphics or gimmicks, but because it’s absolutely rock solid and free of glitches. When what you need is a terminal, and you need it fast and solid, rxvt-unicode is where you turn.
That’s not to say it doesn’t do fancy things: it supports colours, unicode, customisable fonts with italics and bold if required, and even transparency. The main program runs as a daemon, meaning it cleverly conserves system resources when you’re running multiple windows over multiple desktops.
But it’s very difficult to cause rxvt-unicode to crash, and that’s its main selling point – even if you’re playing with a more visual example, having this installed when it’s time to get serious is a clever choice. As long as you don’t mind a bit of hardcore configuration file editing to get it precisely how you like it…