256 colour terminals

Using 256 colours in terminals is well-supported in GNU/Linux distributions these days, and also in Windows terminal emulators like PuTTY. Using 256 colours is great for Vim colorschemes in particular, but also very useful for Tmux colouring or any other terminal application where a slightly wider colour space might be valuable. Be warned that once you get this going reliably, there’s no going back if you spend a lot of time in the terminal.


To set this up for xterm or emulators that use xterm as the default value for $TERM, such as xfce4-terminal or gnome-terminal, it generally suffices to check the options for your terminal emulator to ensure that it will allow 256 colors, and then use the TERM string xterm-256color for it.

An earlier version of this post suggested changing the TERM definition in .bashrc, which is generally not a good idea, even if bounded with conditionals as my example was. You should always set the terminal string in the emulator itself if possible, if you do it at all.

Be aware that older systems may not have terminfo definitions for this terminal, but you can always copy them in using a private .terminfo directory if need be.


To use 256 colours in Tmux, you should set the default terminal in .tmux.conf to be screen-256color:

set -g default-terminal "screen-256color"

This will allow you to use color definitions like colour231 in your status lines and other configurations. Again, this particular terminfo definition may not be present on older systems, so you should copy it into ~/.terminfo/s/screen-256color on those systems if you want to use it everywhere.

GNU Screen

Similarly, to use 256 colours in GNU Screen, add the following to your .screenrc:

term screen-256color


With the applicable options from the above set, you should not need to change anything in Vim to be able to use 256-color colorschemes. If you’re wanting to write or update your own 256-colour compatible scheme, it should either begin with set t_Co=256, or more elegantly, check the value of the corresponding option value is &t_Co is 256 before trying to use any of the extra colour set.

The Vim Tips Wiki contains a detailed reference of the colour codes for schemes in 256-color terminals.

Watching with tmux

watch is one of those Unix tools which does something very simple, but combined with other tools has a myriad of uses. While there are a few useful features or switches for watch, its central concept is simple; it runs something for you repeatedly, and shows the output on the screen.

The reason this becomes so useful in a system administration context is that when used with a terminal multiplexer, watch can be used to track the progress of any particular task, or to monitor system resources, as you work and change things. Some examples of simple but useful monitoring tasks are:

  • Load averagewatch uptime
  • Disk spacewatch df -h
  • Process countwatch 'ps -ef | wc -l'
  • Memory usagewatch free -m
  • Size of a volatile filewatch du -sh filename.sh

Of course, it’s not a terribly good use of an administrator or developer’s time to just sit there and watch these change, particularly if you want to make changes to the system or application and see how they affect the results of your monitoring. This is where a terminal multiplexer like tmux comes in handy, for putting instances of watch and other more complex monitoring tools like htop or tload into independent panes of a terminal window so you can work as you watch them.

Monitoring tasks running in tmux

Monitoring tasks running in tmux

You can set these windows up using the usual key combinations, but if you have a long string of text or a known command that you want to start running in another window, it’s often easier to call the relevant tmux commands directly from the shell:

$ watch uptime
$ tmux split-window -dh "!!"

This will split the window into two parts, and run watch uptime in the new one, while leaving your cursor in the original window.

If you find yourself doing this often, you could make it into a shell function in your .bashrc or similar:

function tmw {
    tmux split-window -dh "$*"

You can then quickly run things like the following, as a kind of general method to background a monitoring or long-running task quickly:

$ tmw watch uptime
$ tmw htop
$ tmw rsync -arvz source::mnt/location /home/tom/destination

Thanks to user WishCow for pointing out an error in the comments.