Why Use the Keyboard with UNIX on Your MacBook?

To begin benefiting from the UNIX underpinnings of Mac OS X, get used to doing things with the keyboard. Although mouse skills can be applied to UNIX, you’ll generally find performing UNIX functions faster and easier with the keyboard.

Why on earth would any red-blooded MacBook owner want to leave the comfort of the trackpad to use a keyboard? After all, the graphical user interface is what made the Macintosh great in the first place. With the Finder, you can navigate and manage the various files on your hard drive with a few clicks. This sounds simple enough, but for some tasks, using the keyboard can be just as fast, if not faster.

By using the keyboard and the power of UNIX, you can accomplish the same task with a one-line command. For some tasks, your trackpad (or a USB mouse) is definitely the way to go, but you can perform some other tasks just as quickly, if not faster, with the keyboard.

Using the keyboard offers some distinct advantages over the trackpad. To allow you to control your computer from the keyboard, all UNIX operating systems offer the command line tool. With this tool, you can enter commands one line at a time: hence, its name. Mac OS X ships with the command line application, Terminal. You can find it here:


When you use the command line, you aren’t limited to entering one command at a time; rather, you can combine commands into a kind of super-command, with each command performing some action of the combined whole. By using the command line, you can string together a whole bunch of commands to do a very complex task.

The Finder is generally a helpful thing, but it makes many assumptions about how you work. One of these assumptions is that you don’t have any need to handle some of the files on your hard drive. Mac OS X ships with its system files marked Off Limits. To secure your system files, Apple purposely hides some files from view.

But what road do you take if you actually need to modify those system files? Yep, you guessed it: The command line comes to the rescue! You can use the command line to peer inside every nook and cranny of your MacBook’s vast directory structure on your hard drive. It also has the power to edit files that aren’t normally accessible to you.

With the command line, you can pretend to be another more powerful user; you can perform actions with the command line that would be impossible in the Finder. (Just remember to make sure that you know exactly what you’re doing, or you’re working with an Apple technical support person — a wrong move, and it’ll be time for an Ominous Chord.)

Not only can you perform complex commands with the command line, you can go even one step further: automation. If you find yourself using the same set of commands more than once, you’re a likely candidate for using automation to save time.

Instead of typing the list of commands each time, you can save them to a text file and execute the entire file with only one command. Now that’s power, right up there with the dynamic duo of AppleScript and Automator! (Granted, it’s not graphical like Automator, but then again, UNIX has been around for decades.)

By using the command line, you can also send commands to another computer anywhere in the world (as long as you know the right login and password). After you log into another computer, you can use the same commands for the remote computer.

UNIX was created with multiple users in mind. Because computers used to be expensive (and honking huge machines, to boot), UNIX was designed so that multiple users could remotely use the same machine simultaneously.

In fact, if Mac OS X is your first encounter with UNIX, you might be surprised to know that many UNIX beginners of the past weren’t even in the same room, building, state, or even country as the computer that they were using.

Not only can you work with a computer that’s in a different physical location, but it’s also very fast to do so. Instead of the bandwidth hog that is the Internet, the command line is lean and mean.

This permits you to use a remote computer nearly as fast as if it were sitting on the desk in front of you. (This is a great advantage for road warriors who need to tweak a web or an e-mail server from a continent away.)

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