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What admins should know about Microsoft Windows Terminal

There's a new terminal that puts a different spin on the traditional command-line tools used by Windows administrators with extensive functionality and customization options.

While it was trumpeted at a conference for developers, Microsoft Windows Terminal is a step up from the usual management tools administrators use for everyday tasks.

Announced at Microsoft Build in May 2019 and released during Build 2020 in May 2020, the Windows Terminal is a powerful and awesome open source terminal that warrants a closer inspection from IT workers who find traditional command-line tools for Windows lacking.

Get back to basics: What are consoles, shells and terminals?

Some newcomers to the IT world might be confused by the terms console, shell and terminal. The nomenclature comes from the earliest days of computing and some people will use them interchangeably, but it helps to know the terminology to keep everything straight.

Terminal. Closest to the user is the terminal, which originates from mainframe terminology where the terminal -- a physical keyboard and monitor -- connected the user to the mainframe. Today, the terminal, more accurately the terminal emulator, is essentially a wrapper for the shell. A terminal can run several shells. The terminal does not do any heavy lifting; it facilitates the communication between the user and the shell. The terminal listens for keyboard input and ships it to the shell then outputs the shell's response for the user.

Shell. The shell does the actual work derived from the terminal. It takes the commands from the user and executes them. Examples of shells include PowerShell, Bash and cmd.

Console. From the Windows OS perspective, the console performs the same job as a terminal, which is the source of some confusion. The Windows console has been around since the late 1980s, arriving with the Windows NT OS.

Microsoft Windows Terminal features

The release of Windows Terminal 1.0 included the following features:

  • tab layout;
  • more fluid performance due to GPU-accelerated rendering;
  • a new monospaced font called Cascadia Code;
  • many customization options;
  • ability to open different shells such as the command prompt, Azure Cloud Shell, PowerShell and Windows Subsystem for Linux;
  • multiple tabs to run several shells at the same time;
  • ability to create shortcuts; and
  • ability to create different profiles.

How Microsoft Windows Terminal compares to other terminals

There are several shell interfaces available for different systems. The following chart lists a few alternatives to Microsoft Windows Terminal.

Terminal Supports Developer Open source
PuTTY Secure Copy Protocol, Secure Shell, Telnet, rlogin, raw socket connection Simon Tatham Yes
OpenSSH Secure Copy Protocol, Secure Shell OpenBSD Project Yes
Hyper Telnet, Secure Shell, modem, serial port Hilgraeve No
Terminal for macOS Bash, Z shell Apple No
Windows Terminal All of the above Microsoft Yes

As the chart indicates, Windows Terminal covers all the functionality found in other terminal applications.

Should you switch to Microsoft Windows Terminal?

There are several reasons you should try Microsoft Windows Terminal, the primary one being the extensive functionality that supports a wide range of protocols.

This release of this application follows the open source trend from Microsoft -- .NET Core, Visual Studio Code and PowerShell are a few of the more notable examples -- which encourages users to provide feedback, suggest features and report bugs on the GitHub site. This is encouraging and shows Microsoft's willingness to invest in a tool that caters to IT professionals and developers.

The open nature of the project shows which features have higher priority levels in the roadmap section and the milestone release dates. All this effort shows a significant amount of effort from Microsoft, which bodes well for the future of Windows Terminal.

Where do I find Microsoft Windows Terminal?

You can download the Windows Terminal from the Microsoft Store at this link or at the project's GitHub release section where Microsoft keeps stable and preview versions.

I recommend installing Windows Terminal via the Microsoft Store because that will download the new updates automatically. For the same reason, installing Windows Terminal through the Microsoft Store is also Microsoft's recommendation.

How do I open the Windows Terminal in Windows 10?

After you have downloaded Windows Terminal from the Microsoft Store, open it as you would with any other application.

Windows Terminal looks like a mix of the Windows command prompt and PowerShell -- until you see the tabbed layout. You might also notice a slight change with the terminal font, which is a relatively new one called Cascadia Code.

Windows Terminal layout
The default Windows Terminal layout appears similar to the traditional command prompt window.

Customizing Windows Terminal

Windows Terminal provides many customization options in the global and profile settings in the settings.json file. Global settings affect the whole terminal window, regardless of what has been selected with the profile settings.

Some global settings include the option to select a dark or light theme, configure the number of rows to scroll with the mouse wheel, an adjustable tab width mode and automatic launch at startup.

Windows Terminal profiles
Select the different shells using the drop-down menu from the Windows Terminal title bar.

Profile settings refer to the configuration of the available shells available from the drop-down list. If you install the Windows Subsystem for Linux, Windows will automatically create a profile for the installed Linux distribution.

Windows Terminal features granular profile-specific UI customizations to suit your preferences, including the cursor (shape, color, height) and font (face, size, weight) parameters. The JSON configuration file for Windows Terminal will store these settings under the section labeled profiles.

Windows Terminal JSON file
The Windows Terminal JSON file holds the customized settings for the shells you use in the application.

One of the benefits to customizing these profiles is to use the SSH client in Windows 10 to set up an automatic login to frequently used servers or to quickly connect to other devices, such as routers and switches.

Get cutting-edge versions via the Windows Terminal Preview

Similar to Windows Insider, there is a Windows Terminal Preview channel for users who want to try out the latest features. Running this release comes with some risk as some functionality might not be fully developed, but there is the benefit of having more advanced functionality compared to the 1.0 release.

The developers release a new version every month that is available from the Microsoft Store under the name Windows Terminal Preview or from the GitHub site's releases section. It is possible to install and use both the RTM version and the Windows Terminal Preview, which can be useful if you want to test out new features while continuing to use the stable release.

Windows Terminal 2.0 coming in 2021

In keeping with its recent open source efforts and more transparency behind the development of its products, Microsoft provided a roadmap for Windows Terminal 2.0 at this link. At this page, users can see what features have differing priority levels -- from zero for mandatory to two for optional -- to get an idea of what will arrive in the 2.0 release.

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