Managing downloads from the command line

Posted on March 17, 2016

I use the shell for (almost) all my file management. The shell excels at flexibility at the cost of some time spent reading man pages to sometimes get it to do what you want. There’s one thing that I found particularly unpleasant to do with the shell, and that’s managing downloads.

Listing downloads

When I used to use Windows, my downloads folder would quickly climb into the gigabytes of disk storage and was simply an utter mess. The first thing I’d do to keep it organized is to always keep it sorted by date, most recent files first. Thankfully, listing files by their last modified time (mtime) is easy with ls -t. However, this puts the most recent files first, so in large directories, we can’t even see the files. Seems like the coreutils developers thought of everything though; we can reverse the ordering of ls’s listing with -r, giving ls -tr. Combining with with -l so we get one file per line with the full information gives a pretty good human-readable listing of a downloads folder. Of course, we can make a script (or alias) out of ls -ltr followed by the path to our downloads folder in order to conveniently get the listing of downloads from anywhere.

Manipulating downloads

But we don’t only look at downloads. We want to do things with them. In particular, the most common use I have for files I’ve downloaded is to move them into some other folder, e.g. for school assignments. Typing out mv ~/downloads/ followed by a bunch of tab-completes just to get the most recent file is inelegant and slow – let’s make a script.


We know how to get the most recent downloads with ls -t. It suffices to just pull out the first entry and move it. Let’s assume for now that we always want to move files into the current directory.


mv -v "$(ls -t "$DOWNLOAD_DIR" | head -n 1)" .

Since mvdl is meant to be used pretty much always interactively, it seems fine to bake in a -v so we can see what file we moved.

Let’s examine the main part more closely.

ls -t "$DOWNLOAD_DIR" | head -n 1 fetches the most recent file in the downloads directory. Although ls displays entries in a paragraph-filling kind of way when used interactively, when its output is not a tty (i.e. not interactive), it displays one entry per line. head -n 1 then takes just the first line.

What if we want to move more than one file? It suffices to make our mvdl script process some switches, in this case -n, and forward the result to head.

There’s a little problem with this script though. ls doesn’t write out the full path to the files it lists! It writes out a path that’s relative to the provided path. To fix this, we now have two options.

  1. We can prepend $DOWNLOAD\_DIR to each line produced by ls.
  2. We can use find.

Both strategies will require us to iterate over the list produced by the command, so it doesn’t really matter which we choose. Let’s see how we can implement both.

# Getting the full paths with ls
ls -t "$DOWNLOAD_DIR |
while read line ; do
    echo "$DOWNLOAD_DIR/$line"

# Getting the full paths with find
find "$DOWNLOAD_DIR" -maxdepth 1 -type f |
while read line ; do
    eval "$(stat -s "$line")"
    echo "$st_mtime $line"
done |
sort -rn |
cut -d " " -f2-

The ls case is pretty straightforward, but whoa, what happened with find there? The problem with find is that there’s no built-in way to control the order of the output entries. We use find only to produce the list of all files immediately in the downloads directory. For each file listed, we get its mtime. The stat command with the -s switch produces on a single line a string consisting of words like X=Y separated by spaces. This is exactly a valid sequence of bash variable assignments, so we eval it to get access to the information produced by stat in our script. Then we output the mtime of the file followed by its name. At this stage in the pipeline, we have text of the form N FILE on each line, where N is the mtime in seconds-since-epoch format. A descending numeric sort of this text gives us almost what we’re after. It suffices finally to chop off the mtime from each line, leaving us with a listing of files, most recently modified first.

Let lsdl be a script that generates precisely this listing, using either the ls strategy or the find strategy. Then, we can write mvdl as follows.


mv -v "$(lsdl | head -n 1)" .

So simple!


Deleting downloads is another big one. This crops up when we want to delete a document we’ve finished reading. The script is essentially the same as for mvdl:


rm -v "$(lsdl | head -n 1)"

Of course, it can be extended with a -n switch in the same was as mvdl.

Other manipulation commands

It would be easy to similarly implement cpdl, rsyncdl, ffmpegdl, etc. but that’s honestly getting out of hand. Instead, we can implement lastdl to print out the path of the last download and use command substitution on the command line to do these things. Of course, lastdl is simply lsdl | head -n 1, which we’ve seen twice already in mvdl and rmdl.

For example, suppose we’ve downloaded a wav file. Here’s how we can reencode it as an mp3, rsync it to another machine, and clean up.

ffmpeg -i "${lastdl}" "${lastdl/%.wav/.mp3}" &&
rsync "$(lastdl)" my_server:music &&
rmdl -n 2

First we fetch the last download’s path and store it in a variable. This allows us to use bash’s built-in variable substitution syntax to compute the new path of the file with the extension changed. This will create a new file in the downloads directory that is newer than the old one, so when we come to use rsync, we’ll need to use $(lastdl) rather than ${lastdl}. Finally, we delete the top two items from the downloads directory.


Good luck doing stuff like this as flexibly and quickly with a GUI – ’nuff said.