What Is the Windows Terminal & How Does It Work?

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Windows Terminal is a terminal application you can download from Microsoft. It’s not built-in to the operating system and it only works with Windows 10, but it includes unique features not found in Microsoft's other command-line tools.

You might already know about Command Prompt and PowerShell, two command-line utilities that come with most versions of Windows. Windows Terminal is different for multiple reasons, but primarily because it’s a single program that provides developers with quick access to those tools and more.

Windows Terminal cmd application

Windows Terminal Features

Windows Terminal looks pretty basic at first glance, but there are a handful of features that set it apart from other Windows command-line tools:

  • Full screen mode
  • Tabbed interface to open multiple instances of the tools
  • Shortcut keys to quickly open new tabs
  • Zoom with the mouse
  • Unicode and UTF-8 character support permits the use of emoji and non-English characters
  • GPU-accelerated text rendering engine
  • Custom themes and styles can be created
  • Stylus support
  • Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL), SSH, PowerShell, Command Prompt, and Azure Cloud Shell support

How to Use Windows Terminal

  1. Download and install Windows Terminal from Microsoft’s website.

  2. Use the search bar at the bottom of Windows 10 to find and select Windows Terminal.

  3. PowerShell will open. You can enter commands just like you would if you’d had opened Windows PowerShell directly.

  4. To open another PowerShell tab, use the plus sign at the top of Windows Terminal. Or, to launch a different tool, select the down arrow and select cmd or Azure Cloud Shell.

    Windows Terminal menu options

Editing Windows Terminal Settings

There are two files that hold settings for Windows Terminal. The one you can edit is called profiles.json; the other, defaults.json, is used simply as a reference if you need to see the default settings.

To edit Windows Terminal settings, use the down arrow at the top of the program and then select Settings. The JSON file will open in whatever text editor your computer is set up to use that file type with; it’s Windows Notepad by default but could be a different text editor (we used Microsoft's free Visual Studio Code program as you can see below).

Windows Terminal profiles.json file

There are lots of settings you can manipulate in Windows Terminal, like to change the background color, set the default working directory, hide tabs, adjust the window opacity, set the font size, and dozens more. Microsoft lists them all here, and there are examples here.

To see the default settings for Windows Terminal, hold down Alt while pressing Settings from the menu.

Tips for Using Windows Terminal

The default shell is Windows PowerShell, so every time you open Windows Terminal, PowerShell will be the utility you see first. This also means that the plus sign next to the tabs at the top of Windows Terminal will always open PowerShell regardless of the tool you’re currently using.

There are shortcut keys you can use to quickly open an item from the menu. These are the default key bindings for running these actions:

  • Ctrl+Shift+1 opens Windows PowerShell
  • Ctrl+Shift+2 opens Command Prompt
  • Ctrl+Shift+3 opens Azure Cloud Shell
  • Ctrl+, opens Settings
  • Ctrl+Shift+F opens the search box

Windows Terminal requires Windows 10 version 18362.0 or higher. If you can’t install it, update Windows to the latest version.