The World Wide Web took off after Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina at the NCSA released Mosaic for X-Windows on Unix in 1993. This was the first browser to support graphics, hence its immediate appeal to a wide audience of users and developers. In spite of the usability and appeal of graphics, text-mode browsers continue to be popular amongst competent users, and for a number of reasons. Firstly, they load and render rapidly, and do not require a mouse, a feature much appreciated by keyboard aficionados. They automatically eliminate the maze of banner ads and other distractions that clutter so many web pages these days. They can save a page as formatted ASCII text, which is better for archiving than a marked-up page. And, once a new keyboard paradigm is understood, they navigate links more quickly than GUI browsers.
The most popular text-mode browser today is Lynx, which is installed by default in many distros. W3m is also popular, but my personal preference is Elinks, available from elinks.or.cz What follows refers directly to Elinks, but can be applied to others. The key to familiarity with text-mode browsing is to understand its origins and history. In the era when the Internet was "text-only", many files were of two main types: one containing mostly content, the other mostly links. In the first case, the reader would scroll slowly down whilst reading the document, and in the second would scan the list of links looking for specific items. This gave rise to a different keyboard paradigm.
As shown in the diagram, Elinks (like Lynx) uses the arrow keys to navigate links, not for cursor movement. Initially this takes some getting used to, but once mastered quickly becomes intuitive. The same paradignm is used by other programs (e.g. Midnight Commander) and is referred to as "Lynx-like motion". It also explains the "Scroll Lock" key that is present on every keyboard, but today does nothing. In the early days of computers, activating Scroll Lock converted the arrow keys from cursor movement to page scrolling, a real convenience that is no longer available, yet previously regarded as so useful that it got its own key and LED indicator.
In order to use Elinks effectively, a few simple configuration changes are necessary. Default keybindings are built-in, but all can be changed using the Keybinding Manager. Those who prefer unshifted keys will want to change the most commonly used, as suggested in the Custom column of the table below. All settings are contained in ~/.elinks/ - that is, the "dot-elinks directory" in the User's Home Directory. Configuration files are "flat ASCII" and can be manually edited by those confident in doing so.
Elinks can be invoked with a URL on the commandline, but for regular browsing it's better to have a page of regularly-used links as the default Home Page. It's also useful to change to a dedicated directory where downloaded files can be stored. Of the several ways of doing this, here is my own. First create the required directory - I've called it "Elinks". Copy into it a simple HTML file such as that available below. Then put an alias in your ~/.bashrc - the Bash runtime configuration file (Use help alias if you're unsure what this is). My own entry looks like this:
alias el='cd /home/user/Elinks; elinks Index.html'
Invoking this executes two commands (separated by the semicolon). The first changes to the Elinks directory, the second invokes Elinks with the Index.html file, and I'm ready to surf. Default keybindings are shown in the table below; duplicates are in faint text, commonly-used bindings are dark. Any bindings in ~/.elinks/elinks.conf will override these.
An Elinks configuration file containing the bindings in the "Custom" column is available here. Don't forget to rename it from elinks.custom.conf to elinks.conf before using it.
A simple HTML links page is available here.
These provide some background for those interested:
- www.linuxjournal.com/article/8148 Roundup of text-mode browsers from Linux Journal in 2005.
- www.livinginternet.com/w/wi_browse.htm History of web browsers.
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