Midnight Commander HowTo

An Introduction to the Midnight Commander

by John M. Fisk <fiskjm@ctrvax.vanderbilt.edu>
October, 1997
Nashville, TN

(minor editing by Darrell May)


The Midnight Commander is a directory browsing and file manipulation program that provides a flexible, powerful, and convenient set of file and directory operations. A sophisticated Virtual File System (VFS) supports directory-like browsing and file operations for a variety of common archive formats as well as FTP and network connections. Its basic operation is easily mastered by the novice while providing a rich feature set and extensive customization.

The Midnight Commander Tour

Without trying to be exhaustive I'd like to touch on the following topics:

and we'll finish with some closing remarks and suggestions. My aim is to cover the salient features and give you a feel for what mc is able to do.

The mc Interface

While mc has a number of command line options, in normal use simply login as root and type mc at the command prompt to start it.

[root@e-smith /root]# mc

At this point, you should see something like:

This main screen is similar to what you'd see at the console (the window has been sized to 80x24). It's main components are:

To activate one of the menus hit the F9 key and use the arrow keys to move the desired menu item. This brings up one of the important features of mc: almost all operations can be performed via keystrokes.

The directory panels are where most of the action takes place. mc is normally run in this two-panel mode although single panel mode is also supported. The panels provide a view of two directories at once with one of them being the "current directory." Most all file operations are performed on files in this current directory (although copy, rename, and move operations default to using the non-current directory as the "target" directory). Use the TAB key to switch the current directory from one panel to the other.

The command line at the bottom functions just as you'd expect: simply type the command to execute and mc runs it just as if you'd entered it at the shell prompt. Just above the command line is the hint line (at the console; in an xterm it uses the title bar) which displays a series of hints and suggestions.

Finally, the bottom line of the window display the function key mappings. Pressing F1 brings up the Help menu, F2 brings up the User Menu, F3 let's you view a file, and so forth. Note that clicking on any of these with the mouse results in the same action.

In addition to this main window there are a number of popup dialog boxes which are used for specific operations. I'll cover several of these shortly. For now, let's turn to issues of navigation.

Directory Navigation

Moving from one directory to another is quite simple: in the current directory panel you can either: Any of these methods will cause the directory you've selected to be listed in the current directory panel. Note that the cd command understands "tilde expansion" which is a shortcut for referring to your home directory -- i.e., entering cd ~/bin would change to the bin directory in your home directory. Also, clicking on the ".." entry will move to the current directory's parent as will entering cd .. on the command line. There is also a Directory Hotlist which we'll look at shortly that helps speed directory navigation.

One other navigation aid to keep in mind is that movement within the directory panels can be accomplished using a variety of keystrokes, many of which are modeled after the emacs text editor. These include:

Note that Ctrl-n means "hold down the control key and hit the letter n." There are a few other movement keystrokes available, but these are the most commonly used.

Once you know how to move from one directory to another the next thing to do is learn how to perform basic file operations. But before doing that we'll need to take a quick detour.

File Selection Mechanisms

Most of the time you'll be copying, renaming, deleting, or moving single files and doing so is quite straightforward. However, there will assuredly be times which you'll want to do something to several files or a group of related files. Maybe you'll want to find an delete all the *.rej files after you've run the patch program; or you want to find and move all *.tar.gz files to a separate directory; or you want to copy selected documentation from a source distribution to a /usr/doc directory for future reference. All of these require selection of a group of files.

First, we need to make a distinction between the currently selected file or directory and marked or tagged files. The currently selected file is simply the one that is highlighted in the current directory panel. If you want to delete foo.txt simply move the highlight bar to that file and hit F8 to delete it. However, if you want to delete a group of files then you'll need to tag them.

Tagging can be done by moving the highlight bar to the file and hit Ctrl-t (that is, hold down the control key and hit t). In this way you can tag any number of files for copy, deletion, moving, and so forth.

If the files you want can be specified by a shell pattern (such as *.tar.gz for all the gzipped tar files or foo_??.txt for foo_01.txt, foo_02.txt, foo_03.txt, etc., then you can use the following shortcuts:

To select a group of files by pattern hit the "+" key
This will cause a dialog box to appear in which you can enter the search pattern. Note that entering the "*" wildcard will select all the files in the directory.

To select all the files in the directory hit the "*" key
This has the same effect as using the + key and then entering "*"

To unselect a group of files hit the "\" key or the "-" key
A dialog box similar to that with the + key will appear; if you want to unselect all files then enter "*"

Using pathname expansion (also known as filename globbing) is a fast and powerful way to select a group of similar files. Having now selected your files, let's see what you can do with them.

Basic File Operations

The Midnight Commander provides all of the basic UNIX file system operations including copy, delete, move, rename, link, symbolic link, chown, view, and edit. One of the nice features of mc is that it defaults to asking for confirmation before taking destructive actions such as file deletion or overwriting.This feature alone can save you a good deal of agony.

Below is a short summary of the file operations. In the next section we'll look specifically at file viewing and editing. Keep in mind that while the summary below indicates the keystrokes for the various operations, all of these can be accessed using the "File" menu.

copy: F5
Normally, to copy a file from one directory to another select or tag the file(s) to copy in the current directory panel and change to the target directory in the other directory panel. Hit F5 or click on the Copy function at the bottom. Doing so brings up a dialog box:

If you want to use a different directory than the one in the other panel or if you want to change the file name then you can use the to: entry box to do so.

Also, when you perform a copy (and move or delete) operation mc displays a dialog box with a progress meter indicating the progress on the current file as well as the overall progress if a set of files has been selected.

delete: F8
After selecting or tagging a file or set of files hit F8 to delete them. Note that you'll be asked for confirmation. Also, mc is able to recursively delete a directory, but this, too, requires confirmation. If you're having to clean out a directory then I'd strongly suggest your using mc. It makes selecting files very easy and helps prevent costly accidental deletions.

Note that at any time you can cancel an operation by hitting the Escape key twice.

move/rename: F6
These are very similar to the copy operation described above in that the destination directory defaults to the non-current directory in the case of the move operation. Note that renaming a file entails "moving" it to another filename. In this case, use the to: entry field in the dialog box to enter the new filename.

(hard) link: Ctrl-x l
To create a hard link to a file, select that file and enter Ctrl-x followed by the letter "l". A dialog box will prompt you for the filename for the newly created link.

symbolic link: Ctrl-x s
This is the same as that for a hard link except Ctrl-x is followed by the letter "s".

chown: Ctrl-x o
To change the owner or group of a file hit Ctrl-x followed by an "o". A dialog box is presented that will allow you to select owner and group from a list of valid values.

Note that an "Advanced Chown" facility is available under the "File" menu. Until you're rather sure of what you're doing, this is probably best left alone.

mkdir: F7
While not a file operation per se, the MkDir command allows you to create a new directory in the currently active directory. A dialog box is presented that will prompt you for the new directory name.

With these basic facilities you'll be able to do a good deal of day to day file system maintenance. To round things out, though, we'll need to add a couple other features.

File Viewing and Editing

The Midnight Commander comes with a very functional built in file viewer and text/hex editor. To view or edit a file hit the F3 or F4 key respectively. Of particular note is the fact that mc provides formatting support for several common file formats including manual pages, HTML, and mail file. That is, that rather than viewing the raw file, mc will format the file according to the file format.

For example, to view a manual page (even a gzipped page!) simply select the file and hit F3. If you have the mc source distribution handy, change to the doc directory and select the mc.1 file. Hit F3 to see:

You can do similar things with HTML or mail files. In the case of HTML files it is worth noting that "viewing" the file is probably not what you expect as mc will strip out the hypertext tags leaving just the text. If you want to view an HTML file it is best to select the file and hit the RETURN key. Doing so "opens" the file and automatically executes (by default) lynx if you are at a console or netscape if you are running under X.

The internal file view allows you to view files in one of two modes: ASCII or hex. When using the file viewer you'll notice that the function keys at the bottom change to a new set which are specific to the viewer. These include:

In addition Ctrl-s and Ctrl-r can be used for normal or reverse searches. Once you've started a search, hit the letter n to find the next match. Ctrl-l will repaint the screen; Alt-r will toggle the display of a ruler.

In terms of moving around the viewer, mc has a rather egalitarian attitude and will accommodate almost any set of movement keystrokes that you've gotten used including those for emacs, less, and even some vi. Some of these are:

One very handy feature is that, if you are in View mode and hit Ctrl-f then the viewer will move to the next file in the directory and display it. In this way you can easily move through a set of files, viewing one right after the other.

The internal file editor provides a full set of editing features and can be used to edit both text and binary files up to a size of 16 megabytes. As with the Viewer, function keys have been remapped to provide common file editing functions. In addition, a popup menubar provides extensive editing operations including file insertion, save, copy, and load; block operations (copy, move, etc); search/replace functions; command macro recording and execution; and the capacity to pipe selected text through various shell commands such as indent or fmt. When not active, the menubar is hidden and file information is displayed in the topmost line. Here's a screen dump of the editor in action:

Both the internal Viewer and Editor are designed to be fast and easy to use. You may, however, wish to use an external viewer (such as more, less, or most) or editor. To do so, you'll need to set your PAGER and EDITOR environment variables to the appropriate program and then use the Options->Configuration menu to unselect "use internal edit" or "use internal view". If you were using the bash shell and wanted to set the pager to "less" and the editor to "emacs", then use something like:

	$ export PAGER=less
	$ export EDITOR=emacs

To make this change permanent you'd probably want to add these lines to your ~/.bashrc or ~/.bash_profile file. Having looked at the basic file operations let's return to mc itself and take a look at some of its other features.

Using mc's Panels

We've already noted that the directory panels are where most of the action takes place in terms of file operations. Accordingly there are a number of keystroke shortcuts that quickly let you change the panel view. In addition to directory listings, the panels can be quickly changed to display directory trees, quick file views, or extensive file information. If you spend much time at all working with files these features are invaluable.

Basic Panel Operations

As previously noted, you can quickly switch from one panel to the other using the TAB key (or Ctrl-i). You can also swap panels using Ctrl-u; note that the currently active directory panel does not change. Use Ctrl-r to refresh the directory display.

To change the sort order of the files being displayed, use the (Left|Right)->Sort Order... menu item. This allows you to sort files by name, size, various time stamps, inode number, and so forth. You can also specify whether sorting should be case (in)sensitive or reversed. Sorting by size is very useful when trying to cull out files to recover disk space; sorting by date is useful when you are searching for a recently installed, created, or modified file in a directory with many files or are looking for ancient files that can safely be warehoused.

As with sorting, use the (Left|Right)->Filter... menu item to filter the directory listing using shell patterns. For instance, suppose that you wanted a listing containing only files with a .c extension. In the Filter dialog simply enter "*.c" and all other files are removed from the listing. This is very useful when you wish to work with only a subset of files in a directory in an uncluttered setting.

You can also cycle from two-panel to single-panel modes using Alt-t. This is particularly useful when you need to see the full directory information for a particular file. Note that you can also use the (Left|Right)->Listing Mode... menu item to customize what file information the panel lists. In addition, resize the panels using the Options->Layout... menu item. This allows you to split the panels either vertically or horizontally as well as set the number of columns for each panel using the ">" and "<" keys.

Panel Modes

Here's where the power of mc becomes apparent. The panels can be used in one of four modes which can be switched using the (Left|Right) menus:
Listing Mode...
This is the default directory listing mode. As noted above, you can customize what file information (name, permissions, time stamps, etc) is displayed

Quick View...
Provides a quick file viewer; it displays the file which has been selected in the other panel. This is very handy if you need a quick preview of a set of files. Note that the function key mappings at the bottom of the window display the usual viewer operations: all of the viewer features and keystrokes are available here. When previewing a set of files try increasing the size of the viewing panel using the Options->Layout... menu item.

This works in a manner similar to Quick View: it displays a wealth of file or directory information.

As with Quick View and Info, the Tree view works with the other panel: it allows you to quickly navigate through the entire directory tree. By double clicking on a directory (or selecting it and hitting RETURN) its contents are displayed in the other panel

One final shortcut to be aware of is Alt-o which makes use of both panels: by selecting a directory in the active panel and hitting Alt-o, its directory listing is displayed in the other panel. Hitting Alt-o repeatedly lets you quickly preview through a series of directories.

Another powerful feature of mc is its ability to handle a multitude of archive types: this feature alone makes it a "must have" utility!

VFS Coolness!

VFS refers to the "Virtual File System" which mc implements. It is a powerful abstraction that allows you to view archives as though they were a directory: all the basic file manipulation operations can then be applied. The VFS file system handles an extraordinary number of archive types including tar, gzipped or compressed tar, RedHat's rpm package archives, Debian's deb package archives, gzip, zip, zoo, cpio, rar, and lha.

To use it either select the file and hit RETURN or double click on the file. It's contents are then displayed as a directory listing. Navigation through the archive is the same as you'd use for a directory. This is a very useful feature when you need a single file or set of files from an archive. Note that if the archive is a compressed single file -- i.e., a gzip, zip, zoo, or lha compressed file -- then it is uncompressed and displayed.

The VFS also supports its own FTP capacity which allows you to transparently manipulate files via FTP as though they were local to your machine. To log into an FTP server use the (Left|Right)->FTP Link... menu item and enter the URL or simply enter cd ftp://"URL" at the command line. For example, to ftp to the Linux Incoming directory at sunsite you would enter:

	$ cd ftp://sunsite.unc.edu/pub/Linux/Incoming/
The hintbar at the console or the title bar under X will display progress information (e.g., logging in, retrieving directory listings, and so forth). You can now view and copy files just as you would using ftp. On file transfer (use F5 to "Copy" the file to your local machine) a progress meter displays percent transfer completed, ETA (estimated time of arrival), transfer rate, and the now commonplace "stalled" flag. Use the Options->Virtual FS... menu item to customize the VFS features such as anonymous login name and so forth.

Note that mc also provides FTP service via a proxy server as well as network VFS. Having no experience with either of these I'll defer comment and simply refer you to mc's manual page if you are interested.

Popups, Shortcuts, and a Few More Tricks...

In this last section let's look at a few more shortcuts and suggestions for using mc effectively.

A number of popups are built into mc that considerably speed up various operations. These include:

Directory Hotlist: Ctrl-\
Use this to create a popup hotlist of frequently accessed directories. The hotlist keeps a list of "alias-directory path" pairs. For example, if you use /usr/local/projects/C++/personal/ to store your personal programming projects then you could create an entry using the "New Entry" option and alias it to something like "Personal C++ Projects".

If you use mc as an ftp client then you can use the directory hotlist to keep the URL's for your frequented sites! To edit (add, modify, or delete entries) the list type in Ctrl-\ and then use "New Entry" to create a new entry: enter the URL for the site, including the path to the directory that you're interested in and then fill in the alias. Now, anytime that you need to ftp just popup the hotlist and select the site!

Filename Search: Ctrl-s, Alt-s
At the bottom of each directory panel is a mini-status box which lists the currently selected file or directory name. By hitting Ctrl-s or Alt-s the status box becomes an entry box in which you type in a file or directory name to search for. As you type, mc does an incremental search and automatically selects the file which matches the search. This is very handy when searching for a particular file in a large directory.

Find File: Alt-?
Find File provides an exceptionally fast and useful means of searching for a particular file based on a filename pattern, its contents, or both! For example, suppose that you kept a directory with USENET postings that you wanted to save and you're now looking for information on mysql. Use Find File with the "*" pattern for the filename and "mysql" for its content. It will then grep through the files and create a list of files containing "mysql". Clicking on one of the files in the list selects that file.

Alternatively, if you were looking for all files with "announce" in the filename simply enter "*announce*" in Filename: (and leave the Content: entry box empty).

Active VFS Directories: Ctrl-x a
This pops up a dialog box listing all of the active VFS directories including those associated with FTP, archives, and so forth. When mc creates a VFS directory for an archive, network, or ftp connection, when you leave the directory the connection or resources are not immediately freed. So, for example, if you created an ftp connection to some host, you "close" it simply by changing back to a local directory. Until the connection times out (which you can set using the Options->Virtual FS...->Timeout for freeing VFS's menu item) you can reestablish the connection once again. This also works for archives (in this case, after the timeout, the memory resources are deallocated).

Background Jobs: Ctrl-x j
mc allows you to put copy and move operations into the background (select this option from the Copy or Move dialog box) which allows you to immediately return to mc. This is useful when you are copying/moving a large number of files or for ftp. Use the Background Jobs popup to quickly see what jobs are running and stop, restart, or kill them

Another very handy feature which mc provides is subshell support. The way this works is by hitting Ctrl-o which creates a non-login interactive shell. This works for bash, tcsh, and zsh shells. Use this shell just as you would any ordinary shell. To immediately switch back to mc hit Ctrl-o once again, which allows you to toggle back and forth easily.

If you are using the bash shell, keep in mind that non-login interactive shells only source your ~/.bashrc file (and not the ~/.bash_profile file) which means that if you have aliases or other customizations that you want to use then you should put these in ~/.bashrc. For example, if you use color-ls and find that file listings are not colorized, then you'll need to add alias ls='ls --color=tty' to your ~/.bashrc.

One way to quickly create the "all-in-one-command-center" is execute mc and then start a subshell. From here, you can execute your favorite editor (emacs, xemacs, vim, etc.) and hit Ctrl-z to stop its execution and put it in the background. This returns you to the shell. Now, if you need to run mc then hit Ctrl-o; if you need to use your editor, type in fg which will resume the stopped program; and if you need to run any other program then use the shell as normal. This is a powerful means of keeping productivity tools readily available.

One last feature I'd like to mention is mc's ability to help you sync the contents of two directories. This is particularly useful if you are keeping a backup set of files on another partition, a floppy, zip drive, etc. To use this list the "source" directory in one panel and the "target" directory in the other then hit Ctrl-x d. This will pop up a dialog box that allows you to select the type of directory comparison: Size simply compares files by size; Quick compares files by size and date; and Thorough does an exhaustive byte-by-byte comparison. After the comparison operation is complete (and after ensuring that the source directory is in the active directory panel) hit F5 (Copy) to copy files from your source directory to the target (backup) directory.

Closing Comments and Suggestions

I'd be remiss if I did not mention that mc comes with a very complete online help system which is accessed using F1. All of the information presented above, and a good deal more, can be accessed at any time from within mc using the help facility. Additional information can be found in the source distribution for mc: read the README, FAQ, and documents in the /doc directory.

While I've attempted to cover most of the important features which mc offers there are many more that I've not had time to cover that I'll leave for you to discover! One suggestion would be to print out a copy of the mc manual page:

	man mc | col -b | lpr -


	man mc | col -b > mc.txt
will print a copy of the manual page or save it to a text file which can be further processed. Since the manual is quite long you might want to use a program such as a2ps which converts ASCII files into Postscript. As with most UNIX-type programs, a2ps has a slew of command line options including the -f option which lets you specify the font size: select something in the range of 7.0 to 9.0 to get a small font which cuts down on the number of pages and leaves large margins in the sides for you to scrawl notes in.

Also, while you are exploring, look through the Options menu for various items which will let you customize mc. Menus are a great place to poke around and see what facilities mc offers: most of the shortcut keystrokes I've mentioned are menu items (so you don't have to memorize the entire list of keystrokes!). For the adventurous:

Finally, enjoy mc! As with many powerful programs, you'll most likely learn it incrementally, often just through the process of exploration and "playing with it." I've found mc to be indispensable and, with a bit of experience, I suspect that you will as well. Have fun!

Date Last Modified: $Date: 1997/10/19 01:33:27 $