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Windows 10 command prompt: What is it and how does it work?

We take a look at one of the most basic - and most powerful - features in Windows 10

Windows 10

The command prompt function on Windows is a powerful tool that lets users action a number of tasks with ease - provided they have the technical know-how, that is. IT professionals and software engineers swear by it and so should you if you want the best user experience.

It's often referred to as 'CMD' and it is one of the most basic features available in Windows 10 and Windows 11. Users can create shortcuts to pin to the taskbar or pull up all kinds of information about their computer. The best way to think about it is as a more powerful alternative to the graphical user interface (GUI), but one that doesn't hide many of the functions or bury them under layers of menus.

The love for the command prompt is also shared by Microsoft, which left it virtually untouched in recent design overhauls of Windows, keeping its original rough and ready look and feel.

If you want to be an IT professional, or at least call yourself one, then you need to find the time to master the Command prompt.

What is the command prompt?

As explained above, the command prompt isn't the most aesthetically pleasing tool. It looks and works like an advanced navigation tool - which is partly why the uninitiated fear it - but it just takes a little trial and error to get you comfortable. The prompt is great for actioning a variety of commands, like automating scripts or finding batch files, and it also comes in handy when you're trying to fix your Windows 10 device.

How do I open the command prompt?

There are many different ways to open the program, the simplest of which involves simply typing 'command prompt' or 'cmd' into the Windows 10 search bar and it will be the top result. If you like your keyboard shortcuts, Windows+X will open the Power Users menu from which command prompt can be launched with one click.

If you want to make serious changes to your system using command prompt, you'll most likely have to run as administrator. This can be done in either of the previous two methods by either right-clicking the icon in search or by selecting the admin option from the Power Users menu.

It can also be done through Task Manager: simply open it up, open the 'File' menu and CTRL+click 'Run New Task' to immediately launch command prompt as administrator.

How does the command prompt work and why would you use it?

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The command prompt works at a more basic level than Windows, but that's is not to say it isn't powerful. It means you gain more control over the PC and communicate with it in a more direct way. Aside from common commands (dir, cd, copy, del), it can be used to access parts of the operating system that are not available through the graphical user interface.

It can also be used to perform a variety of functions, sometimes using it is quicker or even the only way to access certain information or functions.

In addition to the commands mentioned above (which show file directory listings, changes file directories, copies files, and delete them.) There are a number of other useful commands such as ipconfig (which shows what IP address a computer has), Tracert (which shows information on each step between the computer and a target host elsewhere on the internet such as a website), and the system file checker (sfc), which finds any corrupt or missing files, and automatically replaces them using cached copies kept by Windows.

What about Windows PowerShell?

Command Prompt has been a Windows staple for decades, having first been introduced in December 1987. However, since the Windows 10 release, Microsoft has been attempting to get users to abandon the legacy command shell and opt for a new alternative – PowerShell.

First released as an optional component in 2006, PowerShell boasts an abundance of useful commands, also known as cmdlets, which were designed to be better integrated with most Microsoft offerings. As functions that exist inside compiled DLLs on a system, the main purpose of cmdlets is to not only become a more modern substitute for the Command Prompt, but also batch files and VB scripts. 

More information on how PowerShell compares to CMD can be found here.

When images of Microsoft's Windows 11 were leaked online in June 2021, the significant changes in the visual elements of UI design – including a repositioned Start menu – raised questions about how Command Prompt would fit into the latest iteration of the flagship operating system. In fact, many stipulated that, with the release of Windows 11, the legacy command shell would be fully replaced by PowerShell.

Although this theory has since been disproved, Microsoft announced in December 2021 that, over the course of 2022, Windows Terminal will become the default command-line experience on Windows 11 devices. This means that, in the next few months, developers attempting to launch the command prompt will be met with Windows Terminal instead.

However, not all is lost: command prompt fans will likely be able to change their default command shell in the system settings, and Microsoft isn’t completely dropping the tool from Windows 11 any time soon.

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