Desktop annoyances - getting a prompt

December 19, 2007

Continuing my search for the subtle things that have annoyed me for years about my desktop usage, I want to think about shell startup times.

Application startup times have been done to death, I'm sure - it is one of the more obvious areas to work on when improving a desktop application. Evolution's startup time is still appalling, for instance; I count five seconds before I get a GUI, and many more before I see any email. Still, in the case of my bloated email client, it doesn't matter that much - I generally start it once a day, at 9am, when I need coffee anyway. It then proceeds to hang around in the background. It would certainly be nice for applications in general to start more quickly, but it's not the cause of these subconscious feelings of annoyance that I want to pin down.

Far more important than my email client are my terminal windows. One of the attractions of evilwm was that starting a terminal window was the focus of the entire window manager - the design is entirely motivated towards getting that window up as fast as possible, rather than aesthetics like window borders. However, these days I'm typically waiting for over a second to get a shell prompt. This is critical - when starting a terminal window, I'm usually about to perform a series of commands, and will really be paying attention to that lag.

There are two areas to consider: the time to start the terminal itself, and the time to start the shell inside the terminal. The shell startup time has been causing the biggest wait - bash itself starts very quickly, but turning on bash completion routines adds almost a second to the delay. Trying zsh out with completion enabled, it seems slightly better - maybe one-third of a second on a warm start. (Idea: add

PROMPT='%[email protected]%m:%~$ '
autoload -U compinit
compinit

to ~/.zshrc and chsh away from bash. It's pretty similar.) This is the best argument for switching that I have seen so far.

The GNOME Terminal is relatively nice, and recent versions seem fast enough to start that changing terminal isn't going to make a significant difference. (Prove me wrong.) Some things about my desktop habits could be improved, though: I have a tiny icon on the panel to launch a terminal, and must be spending ages in mouse movements to start each instance. This is just lag in a different form. So, I've now deleted the icon and set a keyboard shortcut - GNOME has the option to set one, but none by default. Second, perhaps sometimes I should be using terminal tabs instead of opening more terminals - it depends on the task. I haven't thought of a cunning way to force myself to do that yet.

I'm now down to around a second to get an open shell prompt in GNOME without moving my hands from the keyboard, which is a lot better. I can still manage to start typing in the window before the shell appears, though, so I suspect some further work is needed on this.

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