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Quality character cell graphics since 1982. NCURSES is an implementation and extension of SUS4-2018's X/Open Curses API, and is installed on pretty much every Linux machine in existence.


By either defining the symbol TRACE during compilation or linking against libncurses_g, tracing functionality becomes available to an Ncurses application (see trace(3NCURSES)). Either calling the trace() function or defining the NCURSES_TRACE environment variable is sufficient to initiate tracing, which will be logged to the file trace in the current directory (this file must not already exist).


You can get Escape with no delay by using notimeout(3ncurses), but this eliminates use of the function and arrow keys on terminals where those sequences are composed with Escape. You probably don't want that. You can use the ESCDELAY environment variable (see ncurses(3ncurses)) to change this (ncurses also provides a global of the same name). In a threaded environment, set_escdelay() ought be preferred. Vim uses a 25ms default. The ncurses default appears to be 1s (1000ms), which makes one's application feel kinda seasick when running on any reasonable connection (not to mention locally). This seems difficult to manipulate programaticly, though. :/

Escape codes

The primary means of communicating with terminals is via escape sequences. The terminfo library, shipped with ncurses, allows these sequences to be looked up based off the terminal type (usually encoded in the environment variable TERM). The infocmp program dumps terminfo entries. Many terminals and terminal emulators support only some escape sequences, and they are not effectively standardized across terminals. Embedding hard-coded escape sequences into your program is a recipe for pain.

The "termcap" library is obsolete, superseded entirely by terminfo, and ought not be used in new programs.


  • When modifying the palette via init_color(), this only affects the normal form of the color. Using A_BOLD with the color, for instance, will not reflect palette changes.
  • Modifying the palette requires a terminal that supports it, like "linux" or "xterm-256color"
    • The latter can be had from the ncurses-term package on Debian.
  • ncurses will need have been compiled with --enable-ext-colors
Terminal emulator Default terminfo 256-color terminfo Debian package
xterm xterm xterm-256color ncurses-base
Gnome-Terminal gnome gnome-256color ncurses-term
Konsole konsole konsole-256color ncurses-term

Color attributes

Using color pairs beyond 256 requires a 16-bit attribute. By default, only 8 bits are provided (see A_COLOR). Thus for instance wattron(w, COLOR_PAIR(260)) is equivalent to wattron(w, COLOR_PAIR(4)). In order to use pairs above 256, drop COLOR_PAIR, and always refer to the pair via pointer using the void* opts parameter to functions like wattron. What, there is not such parameter? Ahhh, of course; you need to use wattr_on. Note the underscore, and hate life.

As of 2019-11, here are the relevant definitions from my installation of ncurses:

#ifdef __cplusplus
extern "C" {
#define NCURSES_CAST(type,value) static_cast<type>(value)
#define NCURSES_CAST(type,value) (type)(value)
#define NCURSES_ATTR_SHIFT       8
#define NCURSES_BITS(mask,shift) (NCURSES_CAST(chtype,(mask)) << ((shift) + NCURSES_ATTR_SHIFT))
#define A_COLOR   NCURSES_BITS(((1U) << 8) - 1U,0)
#define COLOR_PAIR(n) (NCURSES_BITS((n), 0) & A_COLOR)
#define PAIR_NUMBER(a)  (NCURSES_CAST(int,((NCURSES_CAST(unsigned long,(a)) & A_COLOR) >> NCURSES_ATTR_SHIFT)))

The default colors built into ncurses can be dumped with color_content -p.

True Color

Test for terminal support (courtesy XVilka:

awk 'BEGIN{
    s="/\\/\\/\\/\\/\\"; s=s s s s s s s s;
    for (colnum = 0; colnum<77; colnum++) {
        r = 255-(colnum*255/76);
        g = (colnum*510/76);
        b = (colnum*255/76);
        if (g>255) g = 510-g;
        printf "\033[48;2;%d;%d;%dm", r,g,b;
        printf "\033[38;2;%d;%d;%dm", 255-r,255-g,255-b;
        printf "%s\033[0m", substr(s,colnum+1,1);
    printf "\n";


  • You need use ncursesw, which ought have been built with --enable-widec
  • _XOPEN_SOURCE_EXTENDED must be #defined prior to including any ncurses headers (use -D_XOPEN_SOURCE_EXTENDED with gcc)
  • setlocale() needs have been called prior to calling any ncurses functions
    • ncurses assumes that the locale does not change once started