I executed the following command

# top > /home/user/top_output.txt

Nothing Happened for a while and then i pressed Ctrl+C. When i checked the file that was created, it had the contents in it. So i fired cat command on it and it gave me this output.
cat output of the text file

But when i tried the same thing with the less command i got this.

less output of the files

According to this post the job of Cat,less or More is just to display the contents of the file not translating the encoding. Can someone please tell me what's happening here?
P.S: I'm currently using Fedora 19

1 Answer 1


The escape sequences ESC [ ... m are called ANSI Escape Sequences. top sends them to your terminal to make it format output in color, bold, inverted text and so on. You never see these characters when running top but you see the resulting format. You could think of it as looking at a webpage in a browser - you don't see the <html>... formatting the content.

When dumping the output of top into a file, you are saving the non-printable escape sequences with everything else. Think of it as saving view source in your browser.

The default for less is to escape terminal control characters, displaying them in a printable form.

The default for cat is to pass them through to your terminal which interprets them and makes it look "normal".

Try less -r /home/user/top_output.txt

   $ man less ...
   -r or --raw-control-chars
          Causes "raw" control characters to be displayed.  
           The default is to display control characters using the caret
           notation; for example, a control-A (octal 001) is displayed as 
           "^A". Warning: when the -r option is used, less cannot keep 
           track of the actual appearance of the screen (since this depends
           on how the screen responds to each type of control
           character).  Thus, various display problems may result, such
           as long lines being split in the wrong place.

Compare to cat -v /home/user/top_output.txt which will escape non-printable characters.

  • the cat -v command gave me control characters as in ^[(B and ^[m in the output which was pretty garbled Feb 9, 2014 at 11:50
  • 1
    thanks! less -r solved it.now its displaying in proper format. But i did'nt understand why that happened, as you see there are no special characters except % : and commas Feb 9, 2014 at 11:51
  • 1
    When you run top in the terminal, you will see colors and other formatting (inverted text, bold etc). All these formats are caused by non-printable control-characters. So in your file there are lots of non-printable characters. % : , are printable and have nothing to do with it.
    – grebneke
    Feb 9, 2014 at 11:54
  • cat -v: yes exactly, -v makes cat show you all the non-printable characters by escaping them. It is definitely garbled. This garble is what your terminal normally sees and interprets into color/formatting before displaying it to you.
    – grebneke
    Feb 9, 2014 at 11:56
  • When I try less -r on an export of the Windows 10 registry, I still get different looks compared to when using cat. The output from cat is human readable, while the output from less -r is all black and seemingly sporadically prints <FF><FE>W when I press the up and down arrows. Aug 7, 2018 at 10:28

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