why zsh?

2017-May-11, Thursday 21:21
mindstalk: (Default)
[personal profile] mindstalk
When I got to Caltech and discovered Unix, the default shell on the cluster was csh, with more user features than the sh at the time, but not a lot. If you got the lowdown, you could switch to the far more useful tcsh, but the sysadmin refused to make that the default for resource reasons. There was also ksh, but I never heard people talking about it.

A few years later zsh came along, and the more techie undergraduate cluster largely switched to it en masse. It was even made the default shell there.

Out in the greater world, and in the era of Linux, bash seems the default shell, pretty much incorporating much of what was good about tcsh and ksh, and also displacing any more primitive sh. zsh still is an exotic thing even Linux people may not have heard of... which is a shame, because it's so much better.

Granted, it's also way more complicated, and a lot of its cooler features have to be turned on. If you want a shell that's full-featured out of the box, there's the even more obscure 'fish'.

And bash can approach, though not catch up to zsh, with the "bash-completion" package.

But what's so cool? Well, tab-completion can be far more powerful, working not just on filenames, but environment or shell variables, command options, man pages, process numbers, and git branches. It can also go to a menu mode, for scrolling around lots of options.

(But fish will do the magic of parsing man pages on the fly to display command options. :O )

It's easy to have your prompt display the exit code of the last command, something I find pretty useful; doing that in bash requires writing your own functions.

Likewise, you can easily have sophisticated right-hand prompts.

**/ recursive directory listing, though that is something you can turn on in bash. (shopt -s globstar)

Even more extended globbing, including excluding patterns, or selecting files based on modification time within a window and other criteria.

Redirection tricks, some of which reduce the need for tee. |& pipes stdout and stderr to a program such as less. >! can clobber files even when you have noclobber on.

I'd anticipated sticking to bash for scripting, for better standards compliance/portability, but I realized that I'm not writing a package script, just in-house tools. And zsh scripting has a lot going for it. Arrays just work, while bash arrays were described Sunday as the worst of any language. I'm using the mod time glob mentioned above.

zsh can share history between shells. I find this useful and annoying -- useful now for storing and reusing commands, but also destroys the individual history of a particular window. Oh well. An impressive application was when I found myself reusing history across *machines*, where my home dir was NFS mounted.

"Named directories" mean I can collapse long pathnames in my prompt, e.g. Main/wsgi-scripts becomes just ~WS

Probably a lot more, but those come to mind.

That said, there is one odd lacuna in zsh. bash has --rc-file, to tell it to read in a custom rc (like bashrc) file after everything else. zsh... doesn't. And sometimes I would like to start a shell with a custom additional environment, e.g. from ssh.
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