Mastering Linux File Viewing: A Deep Dive for Power Users

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As an experienced Linux user, you know how powerful and efficient working in the terminal can be. But are you truly mastering the art of quickly viewing and manipulating files right from the comfort of bash?

There‘s so much more depth to Linux file handling than just cat and less. This guide will level up your file viewing skills with not just the basics, but advanced techniques and little-known commands used by power users.

Consider this your masterclass in slicing, dicing, filtering, and transforming file contents like a pro. Let‘s dive in!

A Text File Viewer for Every Occasion

The core arsenal of commands for viewing text files includes:

  • cat – simple printing of contents
  • less – interactive scrolling and search
  • head/tail – peek at first/last lines
  • grep – search and filter
  • sed – find/replace text

But which should you use for different situations? Here‘s how I pick the best tool for the job:

  • Quick config peekcat or head
  • Log analysisless, tail -f, grep
  • Search large filegrep or less +/pattern
  • Fix typo in filesed
  • View diffsless or cat -e for line endings
  • Readme/docsless for scrolling, grep to jump to sections

Get to know these commands on a deeper level and which scenarios they each shine in.

less – Your Log File BFF

While less may seem simple on the surface, it‘s incredibly versatile once you master some advanced commands:

  • F – Automatically follow end of file, great for watching live logs
  • &pattern – Show only lines matching pattern
  • /pattern – Search forwards
  • -N – Show line numbers
  • -S – Chop long lines instead of side-scrolling

For example, to follow a log file while filtering debug messages:

less +F -S /var/log/app.log &debug

With this toolkit, less can tackle everything from short configs to 10GB+ log files with ease.

grep – Become a regex ninja

grep is far more powerful than just literal searches like grep "error". With regex knowledge, you can:

  • Match patterns: grep "[0-9]\{3\}-[0-9]\{3\}-[0-9]\{4\}"
  • Group sub-patterns: grep -o "[a-z]\+\|foo"
  • Invert match: grep -v
  • Show context: grep -C5
  • Count matches: grep -c

I highly recommend a regex tutorial to learn patterns that will supercharge your grep skills.

Multiple commands together

The real magic happens when you start piping these viewers and filters together:

cat access.log | grep error | less -S

Or using grep to search gzipped logs:

zgrep error /var/log/nginx/access.log.gz

I often load large JSON/CSVs into less, then /search to quickly navigate.

Don‘t be afraid to chain multiple commands like Unix pipes to manipulate massive files right in the terminal.

Hidden File Viewing Commands

Beyond the usual suspects, there are some lesser known but super handy file viewers:

  • bzmore – View bzip2 compressed files
  • zmore – View gzip compressed files
  • vi – Open in text editor
  • rz – Easily upload files from local machine to remote servers

Also, don‘t forget you can view binary files like images/PDFs with:

xdg-open file.png

Explore your distro‘s packages for niche file viewers like bzmore and image converters that give you even more options.

File Viewing on Steroids

Now that you‘re armed with a Swiss army knife of viewers and filters, here are some advanced workflows:

  • Search across multiple logs: grep -r error /var/log
  • Analyze web traffic: grep -o ‘[0-9]\+\.[0-9]\+\.[0-9]\+\.[0-9]\+‘ access.log | sort | uniq -c
  • See disk usage per directory: du -sh * 2>/dev/null | sort -h
  • Continuously watch live log file: tail -f -n0 -s0.1 /var/log/syslog | grep ERROR

The key is creatively combining these tools to answer questions and solve problems. Don‘t limit yourself to just printing files – mine them for intel!

Read Faster with Automation

An awesome tip is creating "greppers" – custom scripts that extract just the info you need from files.

For example, a web grepper to show top requests:


cat access.log | awk ‘{print $7}‘ | sort | uniq -c | sort -nr | head -n10

Save time by creating mini-tools for your common tasks.


I hope this guide has taken your Linux file viewing skills to the next level! Here are some key takeaways:

  • Know which tool is best for different file viewing scenarios
  • Master advanced options like regex and piping commands
  • Discover lesser-used niche file viewers
  • Combine multiple commands for powerful workflows
  • Automate common tasks with custom "greppers"

The terminal offers incredible speed and flexibility for handling files – but only if you expand your horizons beyond basic cat and less.

Now you have a Swiss army knife of viewers, filters, and techniques at your fingertips. Go forth and access the full power of Linux! Let me know if you have any other favorite file handling tricks.


Written by Alexis Kestler

A female web designer and programmer - Now is a 36-year IT professional with over 15 years of experience living in NorCal. I enjoy keeping my feet wet in the world of technology through reading, working, and researching topics that pique my interest.