How to Use the Command Prompt

The Windows Command Prompt provides a text-based interface for entering system commands, similar to DOS on older computers. Because Windows primarily uses a graphical user interface, most people will never need to use the Command Prompt on a regular basis: Most of its functions can be accessed through areas such as the Control Panel. Advanced users, however, can find more system details and utilize advanced system tools only accessible through the prompt.

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All versions of Windows since 95 have offered some type of Command Prompt function.
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Accessing the Command Prompt

To launch the Command Prompt, press the "Windows" key, type "cmd" without quotes and click "Command Prompt" in the search results. If you need to run the Command Prompt as an administrator -- also called running with elevated permissions -- right-click "Command Prompt" in the search results and click "Run as Administrator." Very few commands in the prompt require elevated permissions; those that do will inform you when you try to use them. You can start the prompt in a specific folder by shift-right-clicking within that folder and picking "Open Command Window Here."

Finding Info From the Prompt

The Command Prompt provides fast access to some system details. For example, finding your current IP address through the Control Panel requires you to open a series of panels and property windows. With the prompt, it only takes a single command: "ipconfig." The prompt can also provide details not available elsewhere, such as the cause of the computer's last wake from Sleep mode, found by entering "powercfg -lastwake."

Advanced System Utilities

Windows offers a range of utilities accessible only through the Command Prompt. Though none are required for day-to-day computer use, they provide advanced users with ways to save time and perform tasks otherwise impossible without installing additional software. For example, the "robocopy" command can copy files from one location to another with certain conditions, this is used to create backups. Another powerful command, "mklink" creates symbolic links, a type of shortcut that all applications follow automatically.

Learning Command Prompt Commands

To learn how to use a specific command, add a space followed by "/?" without quotes after any command at the prompt. This displays the command's help file, including all of its options. To see a short list of available commands, use the "help" command. Microsoft's website has a complete list of commands (see Resources). Some commands can alter and potentially damage your system if used incorrectly, so do not enter a command unless you know what it does.

Version Disclaimer

Information in this article applies to Windows 8 and 8.1, as well as Windows 7. It may vary slightly or significantly in other versions.