Day 14 - cursive

My first programming IDE back in the 90s was Borland Turbo Pascal. Since the PC that I used at that time was running MS-DOS, it meant no graphical interface. I was so surprised when I ran turbo.exe for the first time and saw complex menus, dialog windows and an editor with code highlighting.

But the world of TUI (text-based user interfaces) doesn't mean only IDEs. Midnight Commander is a very popular and feature-rich file browser. There are even text-based web browsers, such as Lynx or ELinks.

TUI applications tend to use ncurses as the abstraction layer over different terminals. While there are Rust bindings to ncurses, there's another cool library built on top of them. Cursive provides high-level building blocks such as views, menus and layers. It also works on Windows, when built with features = ["pancurses"].

Application setup

Every application using Cursive needs an event loop, implemented as the Cursive::run() method. The example below shows a simple "Hello World" program with Cursive:

extern crate cursive;

use cursive::Cursive;
use cursive::views::TextView;

fn main() {
    let mut app = Cursive::new();
    app.add_layer(TextView::new("Hello Rust"));
    app.add_global_callback('q', |a| a.quit());;

The TextView is one of the simplest views in Cursive. You can set the text directly in new() or later with set_content(). To quit our program, the user has to press the q key which triggers a global callback (the argument passed to callback is the Cursive object itself).

Let's run it!

File browser

We're going to build a very minimalistic file browser with preview for text files. Let's start with describing a general layout of the interface:

extern crate cursive;

use cursive::Cursive;
use cursive::traits::*;
use cursive::views::{Dialog, DummyView, LinearLayout, SelectView, TextView};

use std::fs::{self, DirEntry, File};
use std::io::Read;
use std::path::Path;

fn main() {
    let mut app = Cursive::new();
    let mut panes = LinearLayout::horizontal();
    let picker = file_picker(".");
    panes.add_child(picker.fixed_size((30, 25)));
    panes.add_child(TextView::new("file contents")
        .fixed_size((50, 25)));
    let mut layout = LinearLayout::vertical();
        .fixed_size((80, 1)));
    app.add_layer(Dialog::around(layout).button("Quit", |a| a.quit()));;

Here's our file browser displaying contents of Cargo.lock:

The app consists of two vertical panes with a status bar below and a Quit button in the bottom right corner. Left pane contains a file picker. On the right there is a TextView to show preview of the selected file. The DummyView acts only as a separator. Note the with_id() calls. We give textual IDs to some controls so that we can find them later from inside the event handlers.

And now the directory listing:

fn file_picker<D>(directory: D) -> SelectView<DirEntry>
    where D: AsRef<Path>
    let mut view = SelectView::new();
    for entry in fs::read_dir(directory).expect("can't read directory") {
        if let Ok(e) = entry {
            let file_name = e.file_name().into_string().unwrap();
            view.add_item(file_name, e);

The file picker returns a SelectView which is a list of items (directory entries in this example). There are two events that can happen here. The user can select an item (by navigating with arrow keys) or they can press Enter to run the callback registered in on_submit. Here are the event handlers for both of these events:

fn update_status(app: &mut Cursive, entry: &DirEntry) {
    let status_bar = app.find_id::<TextView>("status").unwrap();
    let file_name = entry.file_name().into_string().unwrap();
    let file_size = entry.metadata().unwrap().len();
    let content = format!("{}: {} bytes", file_name, file_size);

fn load_contents(app: &mut Cursive, entry: &DirEntry) {
    let text_view = app.find_id::<TextView>("contents").unwrap();
    let content = if entry.metadata().unwrap().is_dir() {
    } else {
        let mut buf = String::new();
        let _ = File::open(entry.file_name())
            .and_then(|mut f| f.read_to_string(&mut buf))
            .map_err(|e| buf = format!("Error: {}", e));

When the user selects a file, the status bar updates to show its name and size. If the user presses Enter on a file, the preview pane changes its contents. Each of the callbacks takes a Cursive object and an item from the SelectView which caused the event. We're using Cursive::find_id() to find controls by their IDs defined in the application layout.

There are several possible things to improve here:

  • change into selected directory instead of showing <DIR>
  • skip preview for binary files
  • avoid panics on errors - most of these unwrap() calls should be replaced with proper error handling. load_contents() attempts that when reading file contents, but not anywhere else.

Further reading