Getting Started With ZSH

a read

The following is a small story of my switch to zsh, followed up by my dotfiles management. I decided I needed to upgrade my terminal experience and make it consistent between my main machine and any other machine I regularly use such as the servers at University. To start, I decided to take the full plunge and give my terminal a makeover starting with ripping out bash and replacing it altogether.

What is ZSH?

zsh is a shell similar to bash with many powerful plugins and features. Getting started is easy. It it available on homebrew, or through most package managers. Now, to use it as your default shell either:

a) edit /etc/shells and chsh -s

This option directly changes the shell your user loads into.

echo $(which zsh) >> /etc/shells
chsh -s $(which zsh)

b) add zsh to your .profile

This snippet checks for the existence of zsh and runs it meaning it can be synced across machines and run when zsh is available. Useful for situations where you don’t have priveleges.

cd ~
echo "[ -x "$(command -v zsh)" ] && exec zsh -l" >> .bash_profile


With zsh enabled, you can now start to get acquainted. One of the great things of zsh are the many package managers available for it, some examples of which being oh-my-zsh, prezto and antigen. My personal favorite is antigen, because of how easy it is to define packages, and how unobtrusive it is. To get started with antigen you simply have to download the script and source it from your newly created .zshrc.

curl -L > antigen.zsh
echo "source PATH_TO_ANTIGEN/antigen.zsh" >> ~/.zshrc

With antigen added to your zshrc, you can start using antigen packages. Antigen lets you download packages straight from github, simply by running the command antigen bundle USER/REPO. Additionally, antigen can use all the packages from oh-my-zsh as well such as git, heroku or pip. For example, to load a github bundle try running the following code:

antigen bundle MichaelAquilina/zsh-you-should-use

or, to use an oh-my-zsh package:

# Load the oh-my-zsh's library.
antigen use oh-my-zsh

# Bundles from the default repo (robbyrussell's oh-my-zsh).
antigen bundle git
antigen bundle heroku
antigen bundle pip

The package will download (unless already cached) and will be applied immediately. To automate this when we start the terminal, it makes sense to add these declarations to the .zshrc file as well. Here are some useful zsh packages that antigen can install for you:


This plugin is fairly straight-forward. It simply reminds you when there is an already existing alias for the command you are typing.


This plugin adds nifty autosuggestion to your prompt, which suggests a completion for the current command based on your history. Pressing the left arrow will then fill the command for you, saving time for repeated commands (such as in my case source venv/bin/activate).


The last plugin on in the list brings syntax highlighting to the terminal which (amongst other things) lets you visually see if a command exists before even running it. Very useful.

Wrapping Up

A final feature antigen boasts is the ability to apply themes, through the antigen theme command. The theme I use is spaceship which is a fairly robust 2-line command line with a whole load of features. Its quite straight forward, and needs a bit of tweaking and testing to see what you like. When you have chosen your configuration of choice, the last command to run is antigen apply.

Here is my complete configuration:

# --- ANTIGEN ---
source $HOME/antigen.zsh

# Load the oh-my-zsh's library.
antigen use oh-my-zsh

# Bundles from the default repo (robbyrussell's oh-my-zsh).
antigen bundle git
antigen bundle heroku
antigen bundle pip

# Bundles from elsewhere in git.
antigen bundle zsh-users/zsh-autosuggestions # autosuggests
antigen bundle chrissicool/zsh-256color # sets the $TERM correctly
# antigen bundle MichaelAquilina/zsh-you-should-use # reminds you that there is an alias
antigen bundle zsh-users/zsh-syntax-highlighting # Syntax highlighting

# Load the theme.
antigen theme spaceship

# Tell Antigen that you're done.
antigen apply

To start heading down the rabbit hole, have a look at awesome-zsh-plugins which includes an exhaustive list of plugins for zsh, and lastly, happy zsh-ing.