Exploring the Utilities Folder, Part One: The Terminal

by James R. Stoup Oct 24, 2005

Anyone who has ever gone poking around in Applications might have come across the Utilities folder. If you take a look inside you will find some interesting applications with names like “Activity Monitor”, “Disk Utility” or “Directory Access”. And immediately after reading these less than intuitive names many people will quickly back out of this folder and return to more familiar surroundings.

However today, I am going to try and dispel some of the mystery surrounding the Utilities folder by introducing you to the Terminal. More applications will follow but for now we can start with this one.

The Terminal is a way to bypass the GUI (graphical user interface) of OS X and directly explore UNIX the way it was meant to be used, via the command. The Terminal is a very powerful tool. Now, before we get too excited let me give you this very important warning, don’t delete files if you have no clue as to what they do. When you using the Terminal it will display files that would otherwise remain hidden in the normal GUI windows. So, if you should come across a file or folder that you don’t recognize DON’T DELETE IT. I can’t stress that enough. Bad things will happen. Ok, so, I assume you got the point, let’s move on.

Please begin by opening the Terminal application. If you can’t find it please look in your Applications folder and scrolling down till you see the Utilities folder. In that folder you will find the Terminal application. It looks like a gray window with a text prompt inside of it.

Once you open the Terminal you will be greeted by a line of text that looks something like this: james-r-stoups-powerbook-g4:~ jrstoup$
Your screen will vary according to what username you are currently running.

Ok, so you have opened the application and are staring at your user name. Now comes the most important part of this process, customizing your window. Click on the Terminal menu and select Window Settings. . . A new window will appear with lots of preferences in it. Click on the drop down menu to select the color setting. This will allow you to customize the color of the text, window and set the opacity. Once you are done playing with all of these cool setting you can move onto the real lesson of learning how to use the Terminal. Be sure to click the bottom button if you want your settings to be saved as the default.

We are going to start off with some basic commands that will allow you to navigate your way through the command line. To execute a something type in the correct command and press return. The text in the [] are examples of what you need to type in before hitting return.

ls - This will provide a list of everything in the folder you are currently in.
cd - This allows you to change the directory or folder you are in. [cd Documents]
mkdir - Use this command to make a new folder. [mkdir newfolder]
cd / - Move to the root folder (your default folder that the Terminal opens to is your home folder)
cd .. - Move up one directory.
rm - Remove a file [rm junk.txt]
rmdir - Remove a folder [rmdir stuff] (but remember, the folder has to be empty before you do this)
clear - Clear everything from the screen (don’t worry, it doesn’t delete anything)
mv - Move files [mv filename location]

Ok, that should start you off. Of course there are lots more commands and many of these commands have modifiers to them to increase their functionality. For instance, if you type [ls -F] that will add a / to every listing that is a folder. Try typing in [ls -G] and see what happens. Aren’t colors helpful?

Hopefully you now have a general idea of some of the commands. So, we are going to do a simple example to get use to the Terminal. Once the window opens and you have changed the colors to your heart’s content please type [cd /] which will bring you to the root folder. Now, type [ls] to see what is in your root folder. You should see some familiar things plus a few new entries like: tmp, var, usr, mach

When you are done looking around type [cd] to return to your home directory.

We are now back in your home directory. Type [ls] again to see what is there. You should see a folder named Desktop. We want to move into that folder. So, to get there you are going to type [cd Desktop]. We want to see what is in this folder (or what is on your desktop) so we will type [ls] to see what is there.

Now, why not make a new folder to store some stuff in? [mkdir “new folder”] will create a brand new folder named new folder. Of course you can name it anything you like but I just chose new folder.

Of course now we need something to put into that folder. If you don’t have a file handy you can make one by pressing Apple-Shift-3. This will create a screenshot named Picture 1 and guess where it will appear? Yep, you guessed it, on the desktop. We are going to move that file into the folder that we just created. To do that type [mv “Picture 1” “new folder”]

Just to be sure that everything worked open this new folder on the desktop by double clicking on it and you should see the file you just moved. Isn’t that spiffy? That is going to end this tutorial but more will follow as I try and educate you in the in’s and out’s of the Terminal.


  • If you’re a novice user who knows little about the command line, I’d not mess around too much unless you read a much more in-depth guide to the command line, like these:

    Learning Unix for Mac OS X Tiger
    The Mac OS X Command Line: Unix Under the Hood

    Stay away from rm and rmdir… Far away… unless you know what you’re doing. They are not “move to trash” commands. They delete files and folders completely with no way to undo it.

    Anyway, I’m not trying to spread too much fear, but if you really want to know more about the power of the command line, a much longer article is required.  : )

    vb_baysider had this to say on Oct 24, 2005 Posts: 243
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