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Back to Zsh

Leonora Tindall 2020/07/14

I’ve gone back to using zsh1 rather than fish2 as my primary shell, for the same reason I use Vim over Emacs - zsh is lightweight, compatible, present, and (with Oh My Zsh3 and Starship4) very featureful.

First of all, zsh feels snappy. To be totally fair to fish, which is a wonderful project, I did not objectively measure this, but subjectively, zsh starts faster than fish. I tried using zsh without any extensions for a while, but found that a lot of fish features were missing, and I was a lot less productive. In the end, I wound up installing Oh My Zsh! and Starship, but even with the added burden of all this code, tapping Meta+Enter to pull up a terminal feels snappier with zsh.

The big downside of fish is that it’s not anywhere close to POSIX compliant. Of course, that’s one of its stated goals - to build a new kind of shell - but, nonetheless, it really hampers its utility in a lot of situations. While compatibility layers do exist, I found them fiddly at best and hopelessly broken at worst. zsh, on the other hand, does a great job running all the bash and sh scripts and snippets I use to configure machines, most of which I didn’t write, and some of which have been around for nearly a decade.

Of course, it would be possible to take the time to write all of these scripts in fish, or even just port them to nice self-contained shell scripts that can be run using the appropriate shell. On the other hand, this code is usually run at most once every few months, and generally much less. As this excellent comic demonstrates, it’s probably not worth my time.

Presence is something of the elephant in the room - presence, specifically, on Mac OS. I’m beginning a position with CancerIQ, Inc. tomorrow, and their development environment is standardized on Mac OS. I’ve used Apple’s operating system professionally before, but that was back when I, and they, were still blissfully unaware that there were any alternatives to good old5 bash.

With the introduction of Mac OS Catalina, Apple’s default shell is now zsh. 6 This means that, with my GNU stow-based dotfiles,7 complete environment configuration is one simple git clone away. zsh is also available on pretty much every Linux system I’ve ever used, and works alright in WSL.

Of course, zsh is not as featureful as fish - at least not out of the box. With the addition of Oh My Zsh! and Starship, however, it’s both beautiful and information-dense.

For me, case- and hyphen-insensitive tab completion and a context-aware prompt are the most critical components of a productive shell environment. While Oh My Zsh! can provide both, I prefer Starship’s aesthetic and functionality. It’s also extremely fast, taking only about ten milliseconds to generate a prompt in even the most complex environment (git detached head with multiple language environments).

While I loved fish, I feel that zsh provides most of the features I used while being much less in my way - it’s a fast, compatible shell that’s available where I need it and does what I want.


  1. http://zsh.sourceforge.net/ ↩︎

  2. https://fishshell.com/ ↩︎

  3. https://ohmyz.sh/ ↩︎

  4. https://starship.rs/ ↩︎

  5. In their case, quite old. ↩︎

  6. https://www.theverge.com/2019/6/4/18651872/apple-macos-catalina-zsh-bash-shell-replacement-features ↩︎

  7. https://git.nora.codes/nora/dotfiles ↩︎