X Terminal Program Comparison

As a result of eye problems, I started to investigate the visual features offered by different X terminal programs, such as support for TrueType fonts or vertical spacing adjustment. This article features a comparison table and some notes about what I have found so far. It may be of particular interest to the partially sighted or anyone who works long hours in terminal windows.

Intro

Since I first installed X in 1994, I’ve always used rxvt. It supported colour, unlike the standard xterm at that time, yet was faster and lighter because it threw away xterm’s extraneous features.

Recently, I developed an eye problem and found that being able to use TrueType fonts in a terminal (with subpixel rendering on my LCD screen) was helpful. However, only xterm and gnome-terminal seem to support this. But they lack another feature that would have made a huge difference: the ability to increase the spacing between lines (leading). This is such an easy and obvious feature I can’t believe so few terminals have it — only two that I have found. Horizontal spacing adjustment (kerning) doesn’t seem to be offered by anyone.

Anyway, as a result I started to pull together this comparison table, looking specifically at features pertaining to appearance which, for anyone who works primarily on the commandline for several hours a day, is one of the most important aspects of their usability, and yet is strangely neglected.

Comparison

Program Version tested TrueType Line Spacing Multi Tabs Transparency 1
rxvt 2.6.4 No No No No
xterm 4.3.0 Yes No No No
Eterm 0.9.2 No Yes No Yes
aterm 0.4.2 No No No Yes 2
mrxvt 0.4.0 Yes Yes Yes Yes
gnome-terminal 2.8.2 Yes No Yes Yes
MGT 1.6.2 No No Yes Yes
  1. Transparency is an odd thing. In theory it’s a bad idea to use it because your eyes and brain have to work harder to extract the text from its surroundings. But I find that sometimes, if I use a background image which is not too busy, and a well tinted window, it can make the text “float above” the window instead of being flat, and occasionally I think my eyes appreciate changing from one to the other. I can only suggest trying it.
  2. aterm offers a choice of methods for determining the colour of each foreground pixel according on the background colour at that point. This can make the text more (or less) readable than using a single colour, depending on how “busy” the background image is and which logical operator you choose.

So mrxvt is the most feature complete on this analysis. It is also rather “unpolished” at the moment, and I strained my eyes further trying to get the required magic incantation of -xft* options right… it does seem to have the most complete control over the freetype font appearance, but some better defaults would be nice.

Annoyances

  • Eterm: I can’t find a way to disable the menubar, which is a total waste of space for short windows such as logtailers. The menubar also features a button which closes the window on a single click, which I dislike as it’s too accident-prone.
  • Aterm: Windows are not restored to the desk they were on by gnome-session — they all pile onto the first desk. I use 9 desks under fvwm and typically have anything upto 40 terminals open when I save a session, so this makes Aterm unusable for me.

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