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Better terminal tab titles

28 May 2021

One of the simplest and subtlest improvements I've made to my shell configuration over the last few years was a tweak to my tab titles.

By default, tabs are titled according to the shell's current working directory. If I find myself working across multiple services at once, it's easy to lose track of what's going on where.

Imagine for example, locally developing a couple of APIs which all need to communicate with one another. Each API runs in its own tab, outputting its logs as the services chatter.
If something goes wrong, jumping between logs in tabs which are all called api can quickly become disorientating.

Within each project, it might make perfect sense to call each of those directories api, but in situations like this I'm missing useful context. Ideally, I'd just like to headline the name of the git repo which each tab is running in.

To achieve that effect, I've added the snippet below to my .zshrc file.

# set iterm2 tab title
is_git() {
  [[ $(git rev-parse --is-inside-work-tree 2>/dev/null) == true ]]
tab_title() {
  local "BETTER_PWD"
  if is_git; then
   BETTER_PWD=$(git rev-parse --show-toplevel)
  # sets the tab title
  echo -ne "\e]1;${BETTER_PWD##*/}\a"
add-zsh-hook precmd tab_title

First, we disable the tab's default title when the tab is created.

Then, in the tab_title() function, we begin by setting a variable called BETTER_PWD. We check whether the current directory is a git repo by running git rev-parse --is-inside-work-tree.
If the current directory is within a repo, we set BETTER_PWD to the repo's top level path; If not, we discard the error message and we set BETTER_PWD as the regular PWD output.

Finally, we select the final node in BETTER_PWD with ${BETTER_PWD##*/}, and set that value as the tab title by echoing it between a couple of special characters.

This little process is run before every prompt, as a zsh pre-command hook.

A terminal window with four tabs open. Each one is titled according to the repo it's running in.

It works! Even though the terminal above is working in the pages/blog/ directory, the tab's title is, ie the name of the repo. More importantly though, it's very easy to parse which project each of the other tabs is concerned with, no matter where they are within that repo.

Obviously, the benefit here is derived from a good separation of services into their own repos - this would be a disaster for monorepo enthusiasts.

Tmux might be suggested as alternative solution to this problem, but personally, I've never enjoyed the experience of using multiplexed terminals.

This is a very straightforward, lightweight solution, and it's worked very well for me over the last couple of years!