One shell to rule them all...


I’ve been using zsh for about three years now and continue to be impressed the its immense power and flexibility. Switching from bash to zsh was a decision as good as switching from Windows to GNU/Linux, from vim to Emacs, from Eclipse to IntelliJ IDEA. In other words - it was an extremely good decision.

So I want to finally get the word out, showcase some nice zsh features and probably persuade a couple of bash users to try it. Be warned, however - after you try it there is no going back…

Getting started

Most distros come with bash by default so you’ll probably need to install zsh first and configure it as your user’s shell. On Fedora you’d do:

$ sudo yum install zsh
$ chsh -s /bin/zsh

The next time you login a terminal wizard with start up asking you about some basic zsh options that you might want to enable. I suggest you to enable them all except the beep option. In the end the wizard will save the new configuration to the file .zshrc in your user’s home folder.

Alternatively you may just use a preconfigured .zshrc, like this one:

# Lines configured by zsh-newuser-install
setopt appendhistory autocd extendedglob nomatch notify correct_all
unsetopt beep
bindkey -e
# End of lines configured by zsh-newuser-install
# The following lines were added by compinstall
zstyle :compinstall filename '/home/bozhidar/.zshrc'

autoload -Uz compinit
# End of lines added by compinstall

I don’t like very much the default zsh prompt and I generally change it right away. Have a look at my other short article on the topic.

There a couple of configuration files related to zsh that you should know about:

  • .zshrc - runs for each new shell(roughly equivalent to .bashrc)
  • .zprofile - runs only for login shells(like .bash_profile)
  • .zlogout - runs on logout
  • .zshenv - holds environmental variables

Here’s an example .zshenv file:

export JAVA_HOME=/usr/java/latest

export SCALA_HOME=/opt/

export M2_HOME=/opt/apache-maven-3.0.2

export EDITOR="emacsclient -t"

#needed to properly display complex color-themes in Emacs and vim
export TERM=xterm-256color

typeset -U path
path=($M2_HOME/bin $SCALA_HOME/bin ~/bin ~/Projects/work/bin $path)

Please note the way in which the PATH variable is set in zsh, which differs substantially from bash(it’s just exported there as any other variable).

Playing around

At this point you have the legendary zsh autocompletion configured and you have enabled many of the zsh core features.

autocd allows you to navigate to folders only with their name without the cd command. One of my favourite features. Now you can do things like:

[bozhidar@bozhidar ~]$ Downloads
[bozhidar@bozhidar ~/Downloads]$

Instead of:

[bozhidar@bozhidar ~]$ cd Downloads
[bozhidar@bozhidar ~/Downloads]$

By the way autocd was added in bash 4.0 as well. You can enable it there with:

[bozhidar@bozhidar ~]$ shopt -s autocd

appendhistory all your open shells share the same history which is handy if you want to refer commands from one shell in another with say Ctrl+R(reverse-history-search)

extendedglob allows you to recursive look for files in folders:

[bozhidar@bozhidar ~]$ ls somedir/**/Makefile

is equivalent to:

[bozhidar@bozhidar ~]$ find somedir -name Makefile

Most zsh users never use find for simple file look up. This feature was also added to bash 4.0 but it works in a slightly different manner.

$ shopt -s extglob

correct - autocorrects mistyped commands

[bozhidar@bozhidar]$ cta ~/.zshrc
zsh: correct 'cta' to 'cat' [nyae]?


By default zsh uses Emacs keybindings which is perfect for a long time Emacs user like me. zsh doesn’t use readline, instead it has its own line editing library called zle, which is much more powerful. vi users are not forgotten and can switch zsh to vi keybindings with the command:

bindkey -v

Mind that by default you’ll be in “insert” mode and have to press ESC to go into command mode.

You can also create custom keybindings like this:

bindkey '^[[H' beginning-of-line
bindkey '^[[F' end-of-line

This will bind the Home and End keys to the commands beginning-of-line and end-of-line.


Zsh has three different kinds of shell aliases.

Regular - same as in bash:

alias ll='ls -l'

Suffix - suffix aliases are supported in zsh since version 4.2.0. Some examples:

alias -s tex=emacs
alias -s html=google-chrome

Now when you type in the console

$ somefile.tex

it will be opened automatically with Emacs. Similarly somefile.html would be opened by google-chrome. As you might imagine this feature is quite handy.

Global - global aliases can be used anywhere in the command line(as opposed to regular aliases that can used only in the beginning). Example:

alias -g ...='../..'
cd ...

Some tips and tricks

  • press Alt+q in the middle of a command you’re typing. This will clear the console prompt and allow you execute another command(like a man lookup). Afterwards the things you’ve typed before the Alt+q will magically reappear.

  • Imagine you’re in the folder project/4.0/module. Typing:

cd 4.0 5.0

Will take you to a folder named project/5.0/module(assuming that it exists of course). In general the command has the format cd old new.

  • zsh comes with a built-in pager(similar to less). To try it just type <somefilename. This is more or less equivalent to typing less somefilename.

Useful resources


There is no easy way to sum up everything that makes zsh great in a single blog post. I’ll try to expand and improve it in time. I hope I’ve whetted your appetite to try out zsh. If you like it well enough(of which I’m most certain you should have a look at the resources in the end as well).