Hexadecimal file editors and viewers

Okteta and Hexedit file editing utilities

Okteta and Hexedit file editing utilities

In my last post I talked a little about the numeric base systems of (Binary, Octal, Hex-decimal and Decimal) relating them to both computer machine level instruction code and application data.

However these mathematical concepts are a little hard to become skilled in unless you have some tools at hand to help you. The Linux Operating system can provides two levels of such tools for example a text based utility (Hexedit) and (okteta) a Gui X-windows application, They both help you understand the fact that all system and user files consist simply of Binary values stored in byte’s (8 bits of 0’s or 1’s) and that the complete values they hold can be represented numerically or alphanumerically.

The two utilities I use the most are HEXEDIT – ( a console text based application) and Okteta – ( X-windows GUI application ).

Both these applications are used for editing application or data files and present the content of the files in the form of Hexadecimal and ASCII code. HEXEDIT is limited to Hexadecimal and ASCII code but Okteta can be configures to edit the open file in anyone of (Hex, Octal, Binary and ASCII code) values.

If you wanted to it would be possible to write a full machine code application using these utilities, in the very old days of computing, applications like these ones were in fact the only way of doing so. Programs where written in a computer language such as Assembly language and manually converted into Hexadecimal before being entered and then executed.

One possible use for these utilities today is for checking a file for data corruption , most likely the first few bytes of the file, these are often used to define the file to an application and if these bytes are corrupt the file will not be usable. By checking another file or a backup file used by the same application it could be possible to edit and thus make the damaged file usable once more.

I will look at and review “Okteta” in another post as its is such a powerful tool so below are some basic details on the console editor HEXEDIT…..



Hexedit is a very powerful file editor, in that if can be used to not only edit a file on a file system at byte level (in Hexadecimal or ASCII) but if can also be used to edit the file system itself and in full – using the RAW mount point of the disk, in this way you may be able to recover date from a corrupt or deleted file system.

As such it could be a very basic part of a disk forensics kit!

The program is not standard to most versions of Linux but can be installed as follows :

sudo apt-get install hexedit

The Linux Man page is as follows :

hexedit – view and edit files in hexadecimal or in ASCII

hexedit [-s | –sector] [-m | –maximize] [-h | –help] [filename]

hexedit shows a file both in ASCII and in hexadecimal. The file can be a device as the file is read a piece at a time. You can modify the file and search
through it.

-s, –sector
Format the display to have entire sectors.

-m, –maximize
Try to maximize the display.

-h, –help
Show the usage.

COMMANDS (quickly)
: go to start/end of the file
Right: next character
Left: previous character
Down: next line
Up: previous line
Home: beginning of line
End: end of line
PUp: page forward
PDown: page backward

F2: save
F3: load file
F1: help
Ctrl-L: redraw
Ctrl-Z: suspend
Ctrl-X: save and exit
Ctrl-C: exit without saving

Tab: toggle hex/ascii
Return: go to
Backspace: undo previous character
Ctrl-U: undo all
Ctrl-S: search forward
Ctrl-R: search backward

Ctrl-Space: set mark
Esc-W: copy
Ctrl-Y: paste
Esc-Y: paste into a file
Esc-I: fill

COMMANDS (full and detailed)
o Right-Arrow, Left-Arrow, Down-Arrow, Up-Arrow – move the cursor.
o Ctrl+F, Ctrl+B, Ctrl+N, Ctrl+P – move the cursor.
o Ctrl+Right-Arrow, Ctrl+Left-Arrow, Ctrl+Down-Arrow, Ctrl+Up-Arrow – move n times the cursor.
o Esc+Right-Arrow, Esc+Left-Arrow, Esc+Down-Arrow, Esc+Up-Arrow – move n times the cursor.
o Esc+F, Esc+B, Esc+N, Esc+P – move n times the cursor.
o Home, Ctrl+A – go the beginning of the line.
o End, Ctrl+E – go to the end of the line.
o Page up, Esc+V, F5 – go up in the file by one page.
o Page down, Ctrl+V, F6 – go down in the file by one page.
o <, Esc+, Esc+>, Esc+End – go to the end of the file (for regular files that have a size).
o Ctrl+Z – suspend hexedit.
o Ctrl+U, Ctrl+_, Ctrl+/ – undo all (forget the modifications).
o Ctrl+Q – read next input character and insert it (this is useful for inserting control characters and bound keys).
o Tab, Ctrl+T – toggle between ASCII and hexadecimal.
o /, Ctrl+S – search forward (in ASCII or in hexadecimal, use TAB to change).
o Ctrl+R – search backward.
o Ctrl+G, F4 – go to a position in the file.
o Return – go to a sector in the file if –sector is used, otherwise go to a position in the file.
o Esc+L – display the page starting at the current cursor position.
o F2, Ctrl+W – save the modifications.
o F1, Esc+H – help (show the man page).
o Ctrl+O, F3 – open another file
o Ctrl+L – redisplay (refresh) the display (useful when your terminal screws up).
o Backspace, Ctrl+H – undo the modifications made on the previous byte.
o Esc+Ctrl+H – undo the modifications made on the previous bytes.
o Ctrl+Space, F9 – set mark where cursor is.
o Esc+W, Delete, F7 – copy selected region.
o Ctrl+Y, Insert, F8 – paste (yank) previously copied region.
o Esc+Y, F11 – save previously copied region to a file.
o Esc+I, F12 – fill the selection with a string
o Esc+T – truncate the file at the current location
o Ctrl+C – unconditional quit (without saving).
o F10, Ctrl+X – quit.

For the Esc commands, it sometimes works to use Alt instead of Esc. Funny things here (especially for froggies 🙂 egrave = Alt+H , ccedilla = Alt+G, Alt+Y =

At the bottom of the display you have the modeline (copied from emacs). As in emacs, you have the indications –, ** and %% meaning unmodified, modified and
read-only. Then you have the name of the file you’re currently editing. Next to it is the current position of the cursor in the file followed by the total
file size. The total file size isn’t quite correct for devices.
While in –sector mode, it shows the sector the cursor is in.

You can edit in ASCII or in hexadecimal. You can switch between the two with Tab. When the file is read-only, you can’t edit it. When trying to edit a read-
only file, a message (“File is read-only”) tells you it is non-writable.
The modifications are shown in bold until they are saved. The modeline indicates whether you have modified the file or not.
When editing in hexadecimal, only 0,1,…,9, a,b,…,f, A,B,…F are legal. Other keys are unbound. The first time you hit an unbound key, the help pops
up. It won’t pop again unless you call the help directly (with F1).
When editing in ascii, you can find it difficult to enter characters like / which are bound to a function. The solution is to use the quoted insert function
Ctrl+Q, the key after the quoted insert function is not processed by hexedit (like emacs’ quoted-insert, or like the \ character in C).

You can search for a string in ASCII or in hexadecimal. You can switch between the two with Tab. If the string is found, the cursor is moved to the begin‐
ning of the matching location. If the search failed, a message (“not found”) tells you so. You can cancel the search by pressing a key.
The search in hexadecimal is a bit confusing. You must give a hexadecimal string with an even number of characters. The search can then be done byte by
byte. If you want to search a long number (eg: a 32 bit number), you must know the internal representation of that number (little/big endian problem) and
give it the way it is in memory. For example, on an Intel processor (little endian), you must swap every bytes: 0x12345678 is written 0x78563412 in memory
and that’s the string you must give to the search engine.
Before searching you are asked if you want to save the changes, if the file is edited.

For more sophisticated search, see Volker Schatz’s patch at .

Selecting, copying, pasting, filling
First, select the part of the buffer you want to copy: start setting the mark where you want. Then go to the end of the area you want to copy (you can use
the go to function and the search functions). Then copy it. You can then paste the copied area in the current file or in another file.

You can also fill the selected area with a string or a character: start choosing the block you want to fill in (set mark then move to the end of the block),
and call the fill function (F12). hexedit ask you the string you want to fill the block with.
The code is not tuned for huge filling as it keeps the modifications in memory until you save them. That’s why hexedit will warn you if you try to fill in a
big block.

When the mark is set, the selection is shown in reverse mode.
Be aware that the copied area contains the modifications done at the time of the copy. But if you undo the modifications, it does not change the content of
the copy buffer. It seems obvious but it’s worth saying.

The scrolling is different whether you are in –sector mode or not. In normal mode, the scrolling is line by line. In sector mode, the scrolling is sector
by sector. In both modes, you can force the display to start at a given position using Esc+L.

od(1), hdump(1), hexdump(1), bpe(1), hexed(1), beav(1).

Pixel (Pascal Rigaux) ,
Home page is .

hexedit is Open Source; anyone may redistribute copies of hexedit to anyone under the terms stated in the GNU General Public License.

You can find hexedit at

Anything you think could be nice…

There are problems with the curses library given with Redhat 5.0 that make hexedit think the terminal is huge. The result is that hexedit is not usable.

The shortcuts work on some machines, and not on others. That’s why there are many shortcuts for each function. The Ctrl+Arrows and the Alt+. do not work
work as they should most of the time. On SUNs, you must do Ctrl+V-Ctrl+V instead of Ctrl+V (!); and the Alt key is the diamond one.

While searching, it could be interesting to know which position the search has reached. It’s always nice to see something moving to help waiting.

The hexadecimal search could be able to search modulo 4 bits instead of 8 bits. Another feature could be to complete padd odd length hexadecimal searches
with zeros.

I have an example where the display is completely screwed up. It seems to be a bug in ncurses (or maybe in xterm and rxvt)?? Don’t know if it’s me using
ncurses badly or not… It seems to happen when hexedit leaves only one space at the end of the lines… If anyone has a (or the) solution, please tell me!

If you have any problem with the program (even a small one), please do report it to me. Remarks of any kind are also welcome.

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