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Here comes your man (viewer)

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Man pages have been around since before I was born (circa 1971, actually). The people who will take an interest in this post are most likely familiar with the 'man' documentation format for most UNIX commands. While little has changed in the form and function of the man page – besides spawning some offshoots like GNU's info – the options for reading them in a more pleasant GUI environment have grown more diverse. Mac OS X users have a few options beyond typing 'man xyz' into the Terminal or using man pages on the web...

There are Cocoa applications like Man Viewer, Man Handler and ManOpen which allow you to search for and browse man pages in a way more familiar to OS X users. They all perform text searches within an opened page, Man Handler having the most Leopard-friendly results. To the best of my knowledge, only ManOpen allows for Apropos searches which allow you to find man pages based on their subject matter. I also like the ability to open several man pages simultaneously, which ManOpen and Man Handler provide but Man Viewer does not. Rather, Man Viewer provides a single-window interface, which has its upsides as well.

Most of the Cocoa viewers do not handle hypertext links within the man pages (ManOpen provides related links). For a fluid solution in that area, there's Bwana or Sogudi (the Safari 3 version of Sogudi is currently a beta), tools that integrate with Safari to allow the opening of man pages right in the browser with code highlighting and links to related pages. While Bwana is an application, Sogudi is an InputManager which allows and both allow you to type man:mdfind in the url field to load a pretty (man2html) version of mdfind's man page (with Bwana, you can also use 'open man:mdfind' from the command line) . And with both you get a tabbed interface and great search features to boot. If you've already got Safari open for other purposes, it's a great way to make use of the browser. By the same token, it's a lot of app to load if you just want to remember an ls switch.

Another option – which may be great in some instances and fairly worthless in others – is Man2PDF. Basically, it produces a well-formatted PDF of the selected man page. Perfect for printing and viewing with Preview, but not the best choice for quick consultation.

Were I asked to pick a winner, and Safari was already running, I'd say Sogudi wins for good looks (inherited, in part, from Safari) and great usability. ManOpen wins in the standalone category with its Apropos search and hypertext links.

Of course, a vanilla man command wins for easy accessibility where you need it most.

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