Write your own terminal emulator

Vincent Bernat

I was an happy user of rxvt-unicode until I got a laptop with an HiDPI display. Switching from a LoDPI to a HiDPI screen and back was a pain: I had to manually adjust the font size on all terminals or restart them.

VTE is a library to build a terminal emulator using the GTK+ toolkit, which handles DPI changes. It is used by many terminal emulators, like GNOME Terminal, evilvte, sakura, termit and ROXTerm. The library is quite straightforward and writing a terminal doesn’t take much time if you don’t need many features.

Let’s see how to write a simple one.

A simple terminal

Let’s start small with a terminal with the default settings. We’ll write that in C. Another supported option is Vala.

#include <vte/vte.h>

main(int argc, char *argv[])
    GtkWidget *window, *terminal;

    /* Initialise GTK, the window and the terminal */
    gtk_init(&argc, &argv);
    terminal = vte_terminal_new();
    window = gtk_window_new(GTK_WINDOW_TOPLEVEL);
    gtk_window_set_title(GTK_WINDOW(window), "myterm");

    /* Start a new shell */
    gchar **envp = g_get_environ();
    gchar **command = (gchar *[]){g_strdup(g_environ_getenv(envp, "SHELL")), NULL };
        NULL,       /* working directory  */
        command,    /* command */
        NULL,       /* environment */
        0,          /* spawn flags */
        NULL, NULL, /* child setup */
        NULL,       /* child pid */
        NULL, NULL);

    /* Connect some signals */
    g_signal_connect(window, "delete-event", gtk_main_quit, NULL);
    g_signal_connect(terminal, "child-exited", gtk_main_quit, NULL);

    /* Put widgets together and run the main loop */
    gtk_container_add(GTK_CONTAINER(window), terminal);

You can compile it with the following command:

gcc -O2 -Wall $(pkg-config --cflags --libs vte-2.91) term.c -o term

And run it with ./term:

Simple VTE-based terminal
Simple VTE-based terminal

More features

From here, you can have a look at the documentation to alter behavior or add more features. Here are three examples.


You can define the 16 basic colors with the following code:

#define CLR_R(x)   (((x) & 0xff0000) >> 16)
#define CLR_G(x)   (((x) & 0x00ff00) >>  8)
#define CLR_B(x)   (((x) & 0x0000ff) >>  0)
#define CLR_16(x)  ((double)(x) / 0xff)
#define CLR_GDK(x) (const GdkRGBA){ .red = CLR_16(CLR_R(x)), \
                                    .green = CLR_16(CLR_G(x)), \
                                    .blue = CLR_16(CLR_B(x)), \
                                    .alpha = 0 }
    &(GdkRGBA){ .alpha = 0.85 },
    (const GdkRGBA[]){
}, 16);

While you can’t see it on the screenshot1, this also enables background transparency.

Color rendering
Color rendering

Miscellaneous settings

VTE comes with many settings to change the behavior of the terminal. Consider the following code:

vte_terminal_set_scrollback_lines(VTE_TERMINAL(terminal), 0);
vte_terminal_set_scroll_on_output(VTE_TERMINAL(terminal), FALSE);
vte_terminal_set_scroll_on_keystroke(VTE_TERMINAL(terminal), TRUE);
vte_terminal_set_rewrap_on_resize(VTE_TERMINAL(terminal), TRUE);
vte_terminal_set_mouse_autohide(VTE_TERMINAL(terminal), TRUE);

This will:

  • disable the scrollback buffer,
  • not scroll to the bottom on new output,
  • scroll to the bottom on keystroke,
  • rewrap content when terminal size change, and
  • hide the mouse cursor when typing.

Update the window title

An application can change the window title using XTerm control sequences (for example, with printf "\e]2;${title}\a"). If you want the actual window title to reflect this, you need to define this function:

static gboolean
on_title_changed(GtkWidget *terminal, gpointer user_data)
    GtkWindow *window = user_data;
    return TRUE;

Then, connect it to the appropriate signal, in main():

g_signal_connect(terminal, "window-title-changed", 
    G_CALLBACK(on_title_changed), GTK_WINDOW(window));

Final words

I don’t need much more as I am using tmux inside each terminal. In my own copy, I have also added the ability to complete a word using ones from the current window or other windows (also known as dynamic abbrev expansion). This requires to implement a terminal daemon to handle all terminal windows with one process, similar to urxvtcd.

While writing a terminal “from scratch”2 suits my need, it may not be worth it. evilvte is quite customizable and can be lightweight. Consider it as a first alternative. Honestly, I don’t remember why I didn’t pick it.

UPDATED (2017.02): evilvte has not seen an update since 2014. Its GTK+3 support is buggy. It doesn’t support the latest versions of the VTE library. Therefore, it’s not a good idea to use it.

You should also note that the primary goal of VTE is to be a library to support GNOME Terminal. Notably, if a feature is not needed for GNOME Terminal, it won’t be added to VTE. If it already exists, it will likely to be deprecated and removed.

  1. Transparency is handled by the composite manager (Compton, in my case). 

  2. For some definition of “scratch” since the hard work is handled by VTE

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