Sunday, May 18, 2008

Bending the Command Prompt to your will and why I don't use Microsoft's PowerShell

I'm a Windows guy for sure, but I bought a MacBook because they are kind of cool. And I occasionally write code for both OS X (BSD) and Windows and often so use command line tools.

One thing that Windows kind of have been missing is a terminal, with capabilities more similar to that what you get from Unix/Linux (from now on referred to as -nix) based operating systems. Microsoft has noticed this and they believe PowerShell is the one solution to all your scripting and terminal needs. I have a couple of problems with Microsoft's PowerShell and that is why I write this.

PowerShell auto-completion is completely subpar, not only does it fail to recognize aliases or commands in your path environment variable, it rewrites partial paths to full suggestions which covers your prompt. You end up cycling several suggestions before you run into the right one, or the completion in the worst-case will suggest a complete name, while you only want part of that. It makes me think that the guys who wrote PS did not have any background experience in NIX based operating systems #!/bin/bash.

PoweShell does have a somewhat nice way of pretty printing output from different commands, but it's bloated by too much white space. I'm not very keen on output that will take up my whole screen, I want something which is mean and lean as often as possible. PS fails to achieve this with several commands, such as the basic ls or mkdir commands.

That Microsoft currently does not support SSH is just sad, but if you want to be able to SSH to your Windows computer you can always rely on Cygwin (though, Cygwin is bundled with so much more). Anyhow, this post is about making the good old fashion Command Prompt behaving more like a terminal you're familiar with if you know -nix based operating systems. The Command Prompt itself is actually alright.

Some sugar

Font-rendering capabilities are getting better in Windows, with ClearType you get true subpixel rendering which makes things more readable, so why don't apply this to your terminal. All you need is a TrueType font face with ClearType support. A monospaced font you might know of which is excellent for terminals and code is Consolas. I use it for everything code and it is freely provided by Microsoft.

  • Install this font on your computer and fire up the registry editor.
  • Goto HKLM\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\Console\TrueTypeFont
  • Add a string value "00"="Consolas"
  • Reboot (you'll have to reboot for the font to be available in the command prompt settings dialog)


What I do is that I, set up a PATH variable to point out a bunch of batch files that reminds me of -nix. I create a file ls.bat and put a single line: "@dir /w" in that file. This way the DOS command ls, will actually give something which is more similar to ls. You can tweak around with this to get everything you might need. (I find "dir /w" a lot more useful than just "dir")

This is just a few tricks I ended up using after realizing Microsoft's PowerShell annoyance. The main reason why I "downgrade" is that the auto-completion in PS truly is worse than the old fashion cmd.exe way. I'm quite certain that there is a way to just replace the way this is done in PS but I will not waste my time pursuing it. Cygwin does come with almost everything you need but if you don't want to install Cygwin, you could make do with these tricks.

I primarily use the Command Prompt for svn, because I loath TortoiseSVN. And I wrote this in hope of some realization from people using PowerShell, in that it falls short on some very basic things.

Happy prompting!

In response to Jeffrey Snover's comment

The above mentioned problems can be further exemplified by the following:

C:\Users> ls

    Directory: Microsoft.PowerShell.Core\FileSystem::C:\Users

Mode                LastWriteTime     Length Name
----                -------------     ------ ----
d----         5/15/2008   1:07 PM            leidegre
d-r--         11/2/2006   1:49 PM            Public
d----          3/1/2008  10:45 PM            sshd_server
d----          3/1/2008   9:35 PM            SvcCOPSSH


leidegre@monkey-intel /c/Users
$ ls
All Users/   Default/  Default User/  Public/  SvcCOPSSH/  desktop.ini*  leidegre/

leidegre@monkey-intel /c/Users

The above output illustrates the vast differance in PowerShell and Cygwin running bash. The Directory: followed by a CLR type? I definitively don't need to know when the directory was last modified, nor what attributes are set (if I was I would set a flag for that), moreover the second example is from Cygwin using bash, and it uses colors to show that file actually is folder. The old DOS command "dir /w" used square brackets around the [file name] both are fine mean and lean ways of displaying the appropriate information.

Here is more examples from that horrible output formatting, the pwd command in PS. Yeah I'm well aware that it's a path.

..\ItemTemplates\CSharp\Data> pwd

C:\Program Files\Microsoft Visual Studio 9.0\Common7\IDE\ItemTemplates\CSharp\Data


leidegre@monkey-intel /c/Users
$ pwd

leidegre@monkey-intel /c/Users

There is an excessive amount of line breaks taking place almost everywhere, hold back on a few, you don't need to feed the prompt that much. It's nice to not have to scroll a lot within the terminal itself.

I'm using the Windows PowerShell V2 (CTP) and I can't say that it any better with the tab completion.

C:\Users> S<TAB>
C:\Users> .\sshd_server

And the obvious problem here is that S would first of all match SvcCOPSSH due to case and secondly is ambiguous. Also note how S is not transformed into .\sshd_server\ which instead necessitates an every so annoying extra slash as sshd_server is a directory. So if I where to cd into leidegre/Documents I'll have to write cd leidegre<SLASH>Documents. On top of this, the second completion will turn leidegre/Documents into cd C:\Users\leidegre\Documents which is longer. Not that big of deal, right? Well, let's look at another example:

..\ItemTemplates\CSharp\Data> cd 1033/D<TAB>
is auto-completed into
..\ItemTemplates\CSharp\Data> cd 'C:\Program Files\Microsoft Visual Studio 9.0\Comm

Note that my prompt is different from the default PS prompt in that it only shows the top 3 directories. The full prompt running the defult PS installation is...

C:\Program Files\Microsoft Visual Studio 9.0\Common7\IDE\ItemTemplates\CSharp\Data> 
cd 'C:\Program Files\Microsoft Visual Studio 9.0\Common7\IDE\ItemTemplates\CSharp\D

That is quite a lot. Now take into consideration the fact that the terminal most likely is more narrow than you're currently set browser/window and that people more than so will be running several instances of PS. And what about white space in file names? I'd prefer the old fashion programming style of just \  escaping the white space. Mean and lean does have it's benefits. And so, terminals are not mean to be used by just anyone.

bash will suggest the longest match which is not ambiguous, any ambiguity is solved by putting in more input. That's i very important in auto-completion. I'm expected to put in some text, but I will be able to rapidly get exactly what I want.

Things like being able to press CTRL+D or <TAB><TAB> to get an auto-completion list on current input is also welcome. And note that if the list is very long, you'll be prompted that you will be shown +100 items or so.

If you can't unite on any of the above stuff, make it easily configurable. So people can use it however they want.


Anonymous said...

RE: Auto-completion.

Agree completely. We fixed much of this in our Community Technology Preview (CTP) release for V2. Give it a try and let me know if we still have more work to do there.

BTW - if you don't want to kick the tires on our V2 stuff. MOW has a fantastic tab completion utility which works with V1. You'll be shocked by what he is able to do.

> Bloated output

I didn't follow that one. Could you give a couple of examples of where you think we got it wrong. That would be really helpful.

Thanks for pointing out where we are falling short. I REALLY appreciate these blogs. They help me prioritize where we should be investing.


Jeffrey Snover [MSFT]
Windows Management Partner Architect
Visit the Windows PowerShell Team blog at:
Visit the Windows PowerShell ScriptCenter at:

John said...

I've updated the post to reflect your comment.