I have come across the use of the term terminal, virtual terminals/consoles, real-text terminals but do not understand what terminal refers to. Does it refer to the screen that is in-front of me whilst I post this question or does it refer to something specific?


I came across a similar post at What is the difference between shell, console, and terminal? and it seems to be similar to the one I posted although am still confused about the use of the sentence Decades ago, this was a physical device consisting of little more than a monitor and keyboard. What does this device look like and how is different to a monitor?

I am happy for a moderator to close or delete this post.

  • A terminal is an application which gives you a command-line interface. – pavium Jul 23 '11 at 5:10
  • @pavium - Thanks. Does that mean that a terminal is a piece of software and not hardware? If that is the case what is the difference between a terminal and a virtual console? – PeanutsMonkey Jul 23 '11 at 5:12
  • I've never used the expression 'virtual console' but it sounds like a terminal giving access to a virtual machine. – pavium Jul 23 '11 at 5:20
  • A virtual console is accessed when connecting remotely to a machine via SSH (as an example). – h0tw1r3 Jul 23 '11 at 5:22
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    Linux has terminal emulation built-in called "linux" which is similar to VT100. The F-keys are configured by default to switch between pseudo-terminals. By themselves, pseudo-terminals do nothing, they allow programs to attach to them so you as the user can interact with the computer through the terminal. – h0tw1r3 Jul 23 '11 at 5:38

Historically a 'terminal' was a dumb terminal connected to a mainframe - such as the VT100.

You run a "shell" on a "terminal emulator" to get a CLI interface to a system. "Terminal" in a modern context is shorthand for all this.

  • Thanks Journeyman Geek. So if I am running a bash shell, what is the terminal emulator? Sorry I had a read of what was written at Wikipedia however do not quite understand what it means exactly. – PeanutsMonkey Jul 23 '11 at 5:18
  • @Thomas - Great. Can you explain to a newbie what it means exactly? – PeanutsMonkey Jul 23 '11 at 5:36
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    A Terminal that talks VT100 is not a dumb terminal. Dumb terminals are really dumb. – h0tw1r3 Jul 23 '11 at 5:40
  • the terminal emulator is what the shell runs on. In effect its a 'dumb terminal' written in software - it in essence is a virtualised video output that the shell outputs to - this is then in a window (for xterm, konsole etc) or to framebuffer (for full CLI systems) which is what you see. – Journeyman Geek Jul 23 '11 at 5:43
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    @PeanutsMonkey I'm a noob, so I'll take a shot at explaining and hope @Journeyman Geek corrects it. In the beginning, there were mainframe computers; and to control them you needed to connect terminals (hardware) like the VT100 to the mainframe to get a CLI to input commands. Today you have GUI to control the machines, but when you do need CLI, you use a terminal emulator (get it? emulator; it emulates the hardware), which you could call a software that primarily lets you input text to control the OS or apps. Just like back in the day. – Thomas Jul 23 '11 at 6:16

In most documentation and write-ups you read today, it is liberally interchanged with command line interface, shell, or command prompt.

Over the years its implied meaning has changed with the gradual disappearance of the physical hardware device.

  • Computer console, a text output device for system administration messages
  • Computer terminal, a hardware device for data entry and display in a computer system
  • Dumb terminal, a computer terminal that has limited functionality
  • Terminal emulator, an application program replacing a computer terminal

Wikipedia has a good amount of information on computer terminals.

  • Thanks if the meaning has changed over the years how do I know what it refers to exactly i.e. software or hardware. Journeyman Geek mentioned that I must run a shell on a terminal emulator to get the command line interface but what is the terminal emulator then? Another piece of software that the shell runs on top of? – PeanutsMonkey Jul 23 '11 at 5:20

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