Get IT Done: The command prompt configuration guide

Customize the command prompt in Windows to make it easier to use

It wasn’t so long ago that the only way to effectively configure an operating system was to work from the command line. Over the past several years, Microsoft has done its best to eliminate the need for power users and administrators to work from the command line on an everyday basis. Although we don’t see the command line as much as before, it never really went away—it’s just hiding behind the powerful Windows GUI. For the most part, using the GUI is the way to go—after all, few users would call the command line intuitive to work with. However, there are instances when the command line is your only option for troubleshooting certain tasks, such as ping and tracert diagnostics. This Drill Down will show you what you can do to improve the command prompt experience.

A tale of different build numbers
This article is written for Windows NT, 2000, or XP. Some of the discussion that follows will not necessarily hold true in previous versions of Windows.

COMMAND.COM vs. Cmd.exe
Windows NT, 2000, and XP differ from Windows 9x in that there are actually two different ways to get to the command line. From the Run dialog box, you can type either command or cmd. Both open what appear to be identical windows, but the differences are critical to how you use the command line. COMMAND.COM is the MS-DOS command interpreter that’s been around for ages. Older Windows operating systems require COMMAND.COM to boot, which is not the case with Windows NT, 2000, and XP. These later versions of Windows have a second interpreter that offers additional functionality and environmental variables compared to its older brethren. If you want to run an older, MS-DOS-based application, I recommend using the COMMAND.COM interpreter through the Cmd.exe shell. If you want to perform some power configuration techniques from the command line, you need to use the Cmd.exe shell.

Configuring the Cmd.exe shortcut properties
To access the Cmd.exe shell properties page, simply right-click its shortcut and select Properties from the context menu, as shown in Figure A. You’ll find the Command Prompt shortcut in the following locations:
  • Windows NT, 2000, and XP with classic Start menu: Start | Programs | Accessories
  • Windows XP with updated Start menu: Start | All Programs | Accessories

Figure A
Working with the command shell Properties

Before you begin making changes to the command prompt, there are a few things you should keep in mind. When making changes from the Windows Properties window, the changes will be applied to all command prompts you open with that shortcut. If you make changes from the actual command prompt Properties window, you’ll have the option to set the changes for the current window or for all future windows. Also, if you select the Defaults option by right-clicking the title bar of the command prompt, your changes will be applied to all command prompts you open with that shortcut.

The Shortcut, Compatibility, and Security tabs are only available from within Windows NT, 2000, and XP. The Compatibility tab is available in Windows XP, but it has no configurable options because compatibility mode changes are set by the operating system.

The General tab
This tab allows you to change the name of the shortcut only, as well as perform other general tasks for the shortcut. In addition, you can change the properties of the shortcut file, such as making it encrypted or compressed, by pressing the Advanced button.

The Shortcut tab
The Shortcut tab contains basic configuration items for the Cmd.exe shortcut (and thus the operation of Cmd.exe). These items don’t have any direct effect on the actual behavior or operation of the command shell window itself, but instead they deal with how the shortcut looks and operates:
  • Target: This item is normally not changed. It provides the target location (i.e., the executable program) for the shortcut.
  • Start in: This field allows you to configure the starting directory of the command shell. By default, it’s set at %Homedrive%%Homepath%, which in my case results in C:\Documents and Settings\Will>. If you have a collection of command-line utilities located in one specific folder, you can make them easier to use by changing this field to the location you want the command shell to start up in.
  • Shortcut key: You can configure a key combination to act as a shortcut key for the command shell. Enter the key in the field that you want to use and then use the combination CTRL+ALT+your_key.
  • Run: This field allows you to configure what type of window the command shell opens into. By default, this is set at Normal Window, but you can also configure it for Minimized or Maximized as you desire.
  • Comment: The comment field allows you enter a value for the Tool Tip that will display when you hover the mouse cursor over the shortcut.
  • Change Icon button: The default Windows icon library is available at %SystemRoot%\system32\shell32.dll. Figure B shows how to select a new icon for the shortcut.
  • Advanced button: In Windows XP, you can configure alternate credentials by using the Run As command. Clicking the Advanced button lets you enter these credentials, thus allowing you to execute an application using elevated privileges (this can also be done by holding down the Shift button, right-clicking Properties, and selecting Run As).

Figure B
Changing the shortcut icon

The Security tab
The Security tab allows you to set the NTFS permissions for the shortcut itself. You’ll do this via the same process you’d use for any other file, although I’m not sure why you’d want to set permissions on the shortcut as opposed to the actual executable file. But if you need to do it, here’s the place.

Configuring the Cmd.exe window appearance
You can configure the actual appearance and behavior of the command shell to your liking from Windows or from within the shell window itself. To open the command shell Properties from within Windows, right-click the Command Prompt shortcut and select Properties from the context menu as discussed previously. To open the Properties window from within the shell window, right-click anywhere on the title bar and select Properties from the context menu. The Options, Font, Layout, and Color tabs are available for configuration, no matter which method you choose.

The Options tab
The Options tab (Figure C) contains several options that allow you to configure the basic appearance and operation of the command prompt.

Figure C
Configuring the Options tab

Under the Options tab, you’ll find:
  • Cursor Size: You have three options here to control the size of the command-line cursor: Small is a single blinking underline, Medium is a half-height blinking square, and Large is a full-size blinking rectangle.
  • Display Options: You have the choice of either Window or Full Screen. I recommend avoiding the Full Screen setting in case you need easy access to other applications. However, if you enter Full Screen mode and need to get back to the Window view without closing the command prompt, you can press the Windows key or the [CTRL][ESC] key combination to bring the Full Screen down into the task bar. From there you can right-click the command prompt in the taskbar, select Properties, and change back to Window view.
  • Command History: The Command History section provides configuration options for making use of the DOSKEY functionality of the command prompt.
  • Buffer Size: This value controls how many commands the command prompt will store in memory. You can cycle through these commands by using the Up Arrow and Down Arrow keys.
  • Number Of Buffers: This value determines how many concurrent instances of the command prompt you’re using separate DOSKEY buffers for. With the default value of 4, you can have up to four command prompt instances open, and each will have its own buffer.
  • Discard Old Duplicates: This setting allows Windows to remove duplicate command entries in the buffer, thus freeing up space for new entries.
  • Edit Options: These options allow you to make editing the contents of the command prompt easier and quicker.
  • QuickEdit Mode: Selecting this option will allow you to use the mouse to highlight text for copying, as shown in Figure D. Once you’ve highlighted the text you want to copy, press [Enter] to commit it to memory.
  • Insert Mode: Selecting this option allows you to insert text at the point of the cursor by right-clicking your mouse.
  • AutoComplete: This option is only available from the Windows XP Defaults window by right-clicking the command prompt title bar and selecting Defaults. It allows you to quickly complete typed commands by pressing [Tab] to cycle through the available items in the current working directory.

Figure D
Using QuickEdit Mode

The Font tab
The Font tab (Figure E) has two very simple controls for configuring the font style and size. If you’ve selected the Raster Fonts (default), you’ll be able to select a font size by its X by Y size. If you’ve selected the True Type Lucida Console font, then you’ll only be able to select standard font sizes (8, 10, 12, etc.). You can also configure the Lucida font in bold style if you desire. You can see the relative effects of your font face and size selections in the Windows Preview and Selected Font areas of the tab.

Figure E
Configuring the fonts

The Layout tab
The Layout tab shown in Figure F has three fairly simple items that you can configure to change the size of the command prompt and lines of text within it.

Figure F
Configuring the Layout properties

Items in the Layout tab are as follows:
  • Screen Buffer Size: The Width value configures how many characters are displayed on a line in the command-prompt window. The Height value configures the number of lines that are stored in memory. If this Height value is greater than the Height value for the Window Size control, then scroll bars will be displayed as required.
  • Window Size: The Width value configures how many characters wide the command-prompt window will be. The Height value configures how many lines high the command-prompt window will be.
  • Window Position: You can configure the command-prompt window’s distance from the left and top edges of the display if the Let System Position Window check box is not checked.
  • Let System Position Window: This is pretty self-explanatory. If it's checked, you won’t be able to configure the Windows Position settings.

The Color tab
The Color tab (Figure G) is also straightforward and easy to configure. The best way to find your "ideal" settings is to play with the available options by changing the colors as needed until you’re satisfied.

Figure G
Configuring the Color properties

The four items that you can configure colors for are as follows:
  • Screen Text: This is the color of the text displayed in the main command-prompt window.
  • Screen Background: This is the background color of the command-prompt window.
  • Popup Text: This is the color of the text displayed in a pop-up window.
  • Popup Background: This is the background color of a pop-up window.

Last thoughts
This list summarizes just a few odds and ends you should be aware of when working with the command prompt:
  • You should make multiple command prompt shortcuts. This lets you completely customize more than one shortcut and configure each for a specific task.
  • Pressing [F1] or the Right Arrow key will retype the last command, one character at a time.
  • Pressing [F3] retypes the entire last command entered.
  • Pressing [F7] opens the pop-up menu, from which you can select the commands in the buffer.
  • Pressing [F9] allows you to select a command by number. The numbers are the same as seen in the [F7] pop-up.

That's just about all there is to configuring the command prompt to work your way. Now, go forth and command in style!

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