Hidden gems of xterm

Hey guys. I know I am not good in updating my blog currently, but I have some news to share. I became father few weeks ago. Two months actually. That is the reason why I don’t update my blog so often. Don’t expect a big change in this regard anytime soon :)

But I wanted to write something at least. Last week I migrated from urxvt to xterm, because I noticed that beginning last year (2012), xterm can finally open URLs nicely. This feature was a blocker for me, since I read all my e-mails in mutt and I hate copying links.

During migration, I noticed several nice features of xterm so I decided to write a blog post about some. Let’s start.

Unicode support

Xterm supports UTF-8 by default, you really do not need to do anything except starting it with -u8 option or using uxterm wrapper (which essentially does the same thing).

If you want to start xterm always in unicode, just add this to .Xresources or .Xdefaults (for sake of simplicity I will always refer only to .Xdefaults):

XTerm*utf8: 1

There is one thing, you need to set correct codepage for your font which is iso10646. Google this, if you want more information, but in short - ISO 10646 is “simplified” Unicode.

You can use xfontsel to select appropriate font, just choose the second latest star and set it to iso10646. But if you don’t want to bother with font searching, install Terminus font (every single distribution has this one) and use

XTerm*font: -*-terminus-medium-*-*-*-18-*-*-*-*-*-iso10646-1

Make sure the last part is set to “1”, this makes sure it’s UNICODE font.

256 colors

By default xterm does support 256 colors. In any modern distribution, it will likely start in the 256 colors mode, so you really do not need to change anything. To see what is your status just do this:

# echo $TERM

Note: Never set TERM variable manually, always let your terminal set it. Overriding this variable means there is something wrong with your xterm setup.

Looking for decent colors for xterm? Visit http://web.archive.org/web/20090130061234/http://phraktured.net/terminal-colors/ or use something like:

*background: rgb:00/00/00
*foreground: rgb:ff/ff/ff
*color0:     rgb:00/00/00
*color1:     rgb:d3/62/65
*color2:     rgb:ae/ce/91
*color3:     rgb:e7/e1/8c
*color4:     rgb:7a/7a/b0
*color5:     rgb:96/3c/59
*color6:     rgb:41/81/79
*color7:     rgb:be/be/be
*color8:     rgb:66/66/66
*color9:     rgb:ef/81/71
*color10:    rgb:e5/f7/79
*color11:    rgb:ff/f7/96
*color12:    rgb:41/86/be
*color13:    rgb:ef/9e/be
*color14:    rgb:71/be/be
*color15:    rgb:ff/ff/ff

Comfortable menu

Do you miss menu from Gnome-terminal or Konsole? I don’t. Actually when I was using those, the first thing I usually did was to hide those. Xterm has menu as well!

Just hit Control key and left click, right click or click with middle button and you have plenty of options there. You can toggle scrollbar, redraw window or send signals to the console. There are many options and lots of them are quite useful. I will go through few in the next paragraphs.

Configurable pointer and cursor

You can configure color of your pointer and even cursor (blinking and color):

XTerm*pointerColor: white
XTerm*pointerColorBackground: black
XTerm*cursorColor: yellow
XTerm*cursorBlink: true

Some of these are available in the VT menu (Control + middle click) so you can change them on the fly.

Show Alternate Screen

So you are running a vim or less program and the previous content is all covered. How to show it so you are able to copy something from there? Well, you can use Show Alternate Screen from the VT Menu (Control + middle click) and you are there. Click again and guess what, you are back.

File logging

You can enable logging in the main menu (Control + left click) which saves all the session to a file. Note this feature might not be available on all platforms as it is considered as a high security risk.

Truetype fonts

Xterm does support truetype fonts, although I do not use them. They look ugly in my opinion and rendering of these is slower (you can measure it). If you want to use it, configure Terminus font (see above) and find TrueType Fonts option in the right-click menu. Terminal swaps between bitmap Terminus font and TrueType Terminus font. See the difference? That’s why I recommend bitmap Terminus for everybody.

You have been warned, if you really like to use xft fonts, here is an example:

xterm*faceName: Inconsolata:size=10:antialias=false

If you want antialias, just delete that particular part. But if you like your eyes, please don’t do that.

Copy and paste

Linux geeks already know PRIMARY and CLIPBOARD and how to work with them. New users can be confused. Xterm is a typical X Window application and users are supposed to select text into PRIMARY selection and paste it using middle mouse click (or Control+Shift).

You can also configure xterm to copy text to CLIPBOARD with Select to Clipboard VT menu option, then you can use Control + V in Firefox or Chrome. If you really like this, you can set this permanently:

XTerm*selectToClipboard: true

If you are enabling this, re-think this once again. Having PRIMARY and CLIPBOARD is a good thing and once you get used to it, it’s like having two clipboards.

Left and right selection

Some users prefer to select portions of text using left button for beginning and right button for end. I sometimes use this when I want to be absolutely sure with the selection (selecting e.g. ssh key) or I want to select something really big (click, scroll, click). Learn this, it is nice feature.

Xterm supports that plus you can still use double clicking and dragging which is ordinary behavior. More about that in the next paragraph.

Triple click

This is important thing. By default clicking in xterm works in the following way:

  • one click - nothing (you can drag or use the other button to select)
  • double click - select word (only really something like a-zA-Z and _)
  • triple click - whole line

When working with files (/some/filename) or links (https://www.xyz.com) selecting is difficult. It is easy to change the behavior. The following setting changes what xterm considers as characters:

XTerm*charClass: 33:48,36-47:48,58-59:48,61:48,63-64:48,95:48,126:48

Good complementary configuration is to select links with triple click:

XTerm*on3Clicks: regex [[:alpha:]]+://([[:alnum:]!#+,./=?@_~-]|(%[[:xdigit:]][[:xdigit:]]))+

I usually leave out the protocol part as optional, therefore both filesystem paths and URL links do work.

XTerm*on3Clicks: regex ([[:alpha:]]+://)?([[:alnum:]!#+,./=?@_~-]|(%[[:xdigit:]][[:xdigit:]]))+

And additionally you can configure more regular expressions like:

XTerm*on4Clicks: regex ...
XTerm*on5Clicks: regex ...

Depends on what do you really do in your terminals. But what you definitely want to set is the charClass which helps with selecting links or filenames. We will talk about this down the article.

Open URL

Best feature ever. I was waiting for this one for years. There is new event called exec-formatted which allows you to execute arbitrary commands. If you make a PRIMARY selection before that, you can open URLs in browser easily. Do this:

*VT100*translations: #override Shift <Btn1Up>: exec-formatted("google-chrome '%t'", PRIMARY)

And then select a link and Alt + click on the selection once again. This is important - let me repeat this:

  • hover above a link
  • triple click it to select it (see above)
  • Alt + click it to open it

I recommend to setup word boundaries as described above if you want to use double clicking and dragging to select links. But triple click is the best solution so far.

You can map meta key instead of shift, but I prefer the latter because this is good configuration for both handed people.

Search history

While there is no support for history search in XTerm, it is possible to configure it in a way that when you hit a sequence (in this example Ctrl+/) it will spawn another xterm instance with history of the calling terminal in a less program. The new window is entitled “History”:

XTerm*printerCommand: xterm -T History -e sh -c 'less -r <&3' 3<&0
XTerm*translations: #override Ctrl <Key>slash: print-everything()

Sidenote: If you want to combine multiple translation statements, you need to do something like:

XTerm*translations: #override \n\
  Ctrl <Key>slash: print-everything() \n\
  Shift <Btn1Up>: exec-formatted("google-chrome '%t'", PRIMARY)

Multiple font sizes

You know that - you are presenting some stuff to colleagues on a video conference in your brand-new xterm configuration when somebody asks you to make the font bigger. If you don’t know there is a “hidden” menu using the Control key (see above), you are lost.

XTerm does support several font sizes, it is as easy as configuring something like:

# default
XTerm*font: -*-terminus-medium-*-*-*-18-*-*-*-*-*-iso10646-1
# unreadable
XTerm*font1: -*-terminus-medium-*-*-*-12-*-*-*-*-*-iso10646-1
# tiny
XTerm*font2: -*-terminus-medium-*-*-*-14-*-*-*-*-*-iso10646-1
# small
XTerm*font3: -*-terminus-medium-*-*-*-16-*-*-*-*-*-iso10646-1
# medium
XTerm*font4: -*-terminus-medium-*-*-*-22-*-*-*-*-*-iso10646-1
# large
XTerm*font5: -*-terminus-medium-*-*-*-24-*-*-*-*-*-iso10646-1
# huge
XTerm*font6: -*-terminus-medium-*-*-*-32-*-*-*-*-*-iso10646-1

Now use the right mouse button menu and select desired font. Work done. Applause!

One important note for users with bitmap fonts: Always select sizes which the fonts are prepared for. If you don’t stick with this rule, you will end up with slow and ugly resampled fonts which is something you don’t want to see. In my case, make sure the sizes match installed fonts (the directory can differ in you distribution - this is Fedora 19):

grep medium /usr/share/fonts/terminus/fonts.dir | grep iso10646
ter-x12n.pcf.gz -xos4-terminus-medium-r-normal--12-120-72-72-c-60-iso10646-1
ter-x14n.pcf.gz -xos4-terminus-medium-r-normal--14-140-72-72-c-80-iso10646-1
ter-x16n.pcf.gz -xos4-terminus-medium-r-normal--16-160-72-72-c-80-iso10646-1
ter-x18n.pcf.gz -xos4-terminus-medium-r-normal--18-180-72-72-c-100-iso10646-1
ter-x20n.pcf.gz -xos4-terminus-medium-r-normal--20-200-72-72-c-100-iso10646-1
ter-x22n.pcf.gz -xos4-terminus-medium-r-normal--22-220-72-72-c-110-iso10646-1
ter-x24n.pcf.gz -xos4-terminus-medium-r-normal--24-240-72-72-c-120-iso10646-1
ter-x28n.pcf.gz -xos4-terminus-medium-r-normal--28-280-72-72-c-140-iso10646-1
ter-x32n.pcf.gz -xos4-terminus-medium-r-normal--32-320-72-72-c-160-iso10646-1

Note there are keyboard shortcuts for font size, more about them later on.

Buffer history

The buffer history defaults to one thousand lines, which is a little bit low. To change that, use something like:

XTerm*SaveLines: 9000

By the way, I have 4 gigabytes of memory on my laptop. Quite enough to save even more.


I don’t like scrollbars in terminals, they just eat space. I already know how many lines are scrolled up, because I am working there! You can hide scrollbar and just use Shift+PageUp or PageDown to scroll.

XTerm*ScrollBar: false

If you want your terminal to scroll down anytime you press a key, use this setting:

XTerm*ScrollKey: true

Secure keyboard

If you enable this option in menu (or via command line), xterm will try to do its best to make sure there is no other application trying to log keys. Nifty feature not only for security fans.

Bell blinking

If you want, for some reason, your screen to blink on bell, just find the menu item and enable that. You can even make it urgent. Settings are:

XTerm*visualbell: true
XTerm*bellIsUrgent: true

Fullscreen Toggle

Xterm by default uses Alt + Enter for fullscreen toggle which can conflict with Midnight Commander feature. If you want to disable this, you can simply disable fullscreen mode:

XTerm*fullscreen: never

You can still put the window into the fullscreen mode using your window manager tho.

Rich keyboard shortcuts

I already showed several keys, xterm has some additional keys which you can even remap.

                 Shift <KeyPress> Prior:scroll-back(1,halfpage) \n\
                  Shift <KeyPress> Next:scroll-forw(1,halfpage) \n\
                Shift <KeyPress> Select:select-cursor-start() \
                                        select-cursor-end(SELECT, CUT_BUFFER0) \n\
                Shift <KeyPress> Insert:insert-selection(SELECT, CUT_BUFFER0) \n\
                        Alt <Key>Return:fullscreen() \n\
               <KeyRelease> Scroll_Lock:scroll-lock() \n\
           Shift~Ctrl <KeyPress> KP_Add:larger-vt-font() \n\
           Shift Ctrl <KeyPress> KP_Add:smaller-vt-font() \n\
           Shift <KeyPress> KP_Subtract:smaller-vt-font() \n\
                       ~Meta <KeyPress>:insert-seven-bit() \n\
                        Meta <KeyPress>:insert-eight-bit() \n\
                       !Ctrl <Btn1Down>:popup-menu(mainMenu) \n\
                       ~Meta <Btn1Down>:select-start() \n\
                     ~Meta <Btn1Motion>:select-extend() \n\
                       !Ctrl <Btn2Down>:popup-menu(vtMenu) \n\
                 ~Ctrl ~Meta <Btn2Down>:ignore() \n\
                        Meta <Btn2Down>:clear-saved-lines() \n\
                   ~Ctrl ~Meta <Btn2Up>:insert-selection(SELECT, CUT_BUFFER0) \n\
                       !Ctrl <Btn3Down>:popup-menu(fontMenu) \n\
                 ~Ctrl ~Meta <Btn3Down>:start-extend() \n\
                     ~Meta <Btn3Motion>:select-extend() \n\
                        Ctrl <Btn4Down>:scroll-back(1,halfpage,m) \n\
                             <Btn4Down>:scroll-back(5,line,m)     \n\
                        Ctrl <Btn5Down>:scroll-forw(1,halfpage,m) \n\
                                <BtnUp>:select-end(SELECT, CUT_BUFFER0) \n\

All events and mapping is documented in the manual page. Read it.

Default settings

If you want to investigate what else you can re-configure, make a coffee. Really. Because there is plenty of other things you can do, just browse to /usr/share/X11/app-defaults (this is Fedora 19) and see what you can do. As always, read the man page!

$ rpm -ql xterm

And there’s more. Much more. Why don’t you go ahead and try xterm right now!

17 July 2013 | linux | fedora
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