TouchTerm SSH – Command Line Access Tool for iPhone

TouchTerm SSH iPhone_1

TouchTerm SSH Rating: ★★★☆☆

TouchTerm SSH is a command line access tool which you can use on your iPhone or iPod Touch. If you’ve ever had to use the “Terminal” app on OS X, or an equivalent on a PC, or had to log into a remote server then you should be reasonably familiar with what this app does.

In a nutshell, any SSH client allows you to remotely log into other computers. On the Mac, for example, the entire front end that you use day in day out is simply a facade of pixels giving you a pictorial representation of what is actually going on behind the scenes. Where your computer is actually running a command line based Unix core on which everything, absolutely everything you do with a GUI can be done with text commands. So, in essence, much of what you do with your mouse pointer can also be done with simple text commands in “Terminal” or any “Shell” type interface.

I was originally hoping to do a comparison piece on the various SSH clients available for the iPhone. But the guys at Aji who make TouchTerm SSH were the only people kind enough to get back to us.

A fun command to run on any Unix based device when logged in via a Shell is “top”. This will give you a very informative, constantly updating screen chock full of text about processes, memory usage, and all manner of technical info about your computer.

Here is a shot of me running “top” via TouchTerm SSH remotely on my development Mac… (If that image does not ignite the geek in you, then there is something wrong with you… or perhaps me?)

TouchTerm SSH iPhone_1

For those of you that have no interest in controlling computers using text commands, and are not sure what an SSH client is, then this app probably isn’t for you. Which is a shame, because hacking around on computers and servers using only a text command line is a great way to learn about what really goes on under the hood. And is sometimes essential to get you out of some situations even with todays modern, stable GUI based operating systems. For example : Developing graphics software for OS X I have on occasion crashed my Mac’s screen handling processes, and using an SSH program from another computer in the office was able to get into the “crashed” machine, rescue data, and reboot it without having to power it on and off. Neat eh!

Warning : It is worth noting, though, that logging in as “root” on any computer, which is probably what you’ll be doing with an SSH client, is inherently dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing. So do bear that in mind too.

Among other tasks, I maintain a couple of servers for the company I work for in my day job, and without command line access I would not be able to do any serious work on those beasts. Being able to get into the servers and monitor how they are running, and issue important commands to check on daily backups or simply turn services on and off when on the move is sometimes essential, particularly if a server hits a problem.

Doing that from an internet cafe is not a great idea because of security and convenience, and often I am not able to find one when I need one anyway. The kind of server problems I am talking about always seem to hit late at night when you are in a restaurant, or when you are out in the boonies racing at the weekend! And anyway, in this day and age surely we should be able to do this stuff from our smart phones anyway, right?

So being able to fire up a low bandwidth, text based command line on my iPhone, even over a slow GPRS connection, is essential to my peace of mind. And that’s exactly what TouchTerm SSH for iPhone allows me to do.

Setting up TouchTerm SSH is easy. You can make user accounts for your computers at home, or your servers abroad, and save the log-in details, optionally with or without the password. This makes firing up a connection quick and easy. They even provide a password lock for the app itself, if you are nervous about putting server logins on a device you might lose.

Landscape and Portrait modes are fully supported. As are all the special keys like Ctrl, Esc, Tab etc. that the iPhone’s keyboard does not have, and are essential for special commands in a terminal app. And options for protocols and security settings are all also present and correct. Like OS X and iOS are backed by a proven Unix OS, so too is TouchTerm SSH underpinned by an industry-standard OpenSSH open-source library.

Terminal use is all about using the keyboard, so if that bit doesn’t work then we have a problem! When the keyboard pops up it fills most of the screen on the iPhone (as we all know), and Aji have come up with a neat solution, which is to make the keyboard semi-transparent. This works well and makes you feel like you have more screen real-estate. You can also touch scroll around the large terminal window that the app allows you to work on. But no pinch zoom, or “magnification”, which would be a nice touch. But they did choose the right default “Matrix” style colouring for the text display.

I didn’t feel totally at home with the way that the TouchTerm display stutters and freezes with a spinning indicator as you enter each command and wait for a response from the remote machine. Sure all internet connections lag, and you are always going to be waiting for the device you are connected to complete its task and send the result back to you. But you don’t expect the iPhone interface to stutter and lock up while waiting. The app does have an option to turn that locking off, but that comes with the caveat that your iPhone may become unresponsive if the device constantly receives a lot of data from the computer it is connected to. This needs to be tidied up in my opinion. But marrying text driven interfaces to iOS is not an easy task, especially with all the requirements power users have, and overall Aji have done OK.

TouchTerm SSH hasn’t been updated in a while, which shows with some of the older and more clunky ways that the interface works overall. When doing stuff on the move, on a small screen, it is essential to be able to task switch, and unfortunately TouchTerm SSH does not support multitasking, yet. So if you need to check some information from another app, or copy and paste commands this is quite hard to do.

Aji have addressed some of these issues in their TouchTerm Pro app by having save-able commands to speed up input via the keyboard. But we have not had the chance to review that version, and updating the basic version so that you can task switch would enable you to have commonly used commands in a note pad sheet, and then copy and paste them in.

Using the app over the last 24 hours I have been able to do pretty much anything I needed to do on our servers, which are located in the US and Europe, all from my sofa just outside Bangkok. I have also been able to experiment on my computers at home. It certainly works. And has a lot of customization features to make the app make you feel more at home. I just wish the overall look and feel was more polished.

TouchTerm SSH certainly gets the job done. And it would be nice if the developer updated it to give it some iOS loving. At $3.99 I can recommend the base app, and forgive some of the clunkiness. But if the Pro app is based on the same core GUI model then I think it is probably overpriced, and could do with some refreshing and polishing.

Pros

  • Does what it says on the box.
  • Remembers account details.
  • Transparent keyboard.

Cons

  • Screen updating can stutter.
  • Does not work with multi-tasking.
  • A bit clunky. Needs an update.

$3.99 (View in iTunes)
Category: Utilities
Updated: Jun 24, 2009
Current Version: 2.4.2.1998
2.4.2.1998
1.3 MB
Language: English
Seller: Aji, LLC
© 2009 Aji, LLC
Rated 4+
Requirements:Compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 2.0 or later

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Stephen NorthcottTouchTerm SSH – Command Line Access Tool for iPhone

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