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What is the difference between shell, console, and terminal?

My non-tech-savvy friends unanimously agree that console refers to hardware and terminal refers to software.

A brief discussion in a Stack Overflow chatroom yielded inconclusive results. The terminal-console relationship is reversed, but software is still called a terminal because that's what it's emulating.

What are the differences between consoles and terminals? Where does command line fit in?

marked as duplicate by Journeyman Geek, RedGrittyBrick, Mehper C. Palavuzlar, Sathyajith Bhat Oct 17 '11 at 16:33

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A terminal is a hardware device where a human can interface with the computer.

A terminal emulation simulates a terminal (e.g. a Gnome-Terminal within the X-Session of an X-Terminal). Terminal emulations are mainly used to achieve two tasks:

  1. Simulate a specific terminal on top of annother hardware terminal (to interface with programs that have been written for a specific terminal (for example the command line interface of Stratus systems was heavily dependant on the behaviour of the Televideo 925, but at a certain time that terminal was not manufactured anymore. So they started to sell Qume Terminals that had a builtin Televideo 925 emulation instead).

  2. Run multiple terminals although only one pysical terminal is available.

An X-Windows terminal is a hardware device capable of running an X-Server.

A console is typically a special terminal where the system operator can interface with the system during special tasks like booting or maintenance mode when all other (user-)terminals are unresponsive. Often important notifications from the system are also written to the console terminal.

If one looks at a Linux PC running a graphical user interface, one may find all of the above:

The PC with screen and the keyboard is esentially the console. On the console screen (the PC screen) there are multiple terminal sessions available (accessed typically by pressing Alt-Fn).

Additionally there is a X-Server running which enables the graphical user interface (X11 aka. X-Windows) to run on that Linux box. Within that X-Session the user may call programs like xterm or gnome-terminal which are basically terminal emulations of a DEC VT220 terminal. (xterm is also capable of emulating the Tektronix 4014 graphics terminal, in real life a real HW-monster back then).

  • 1
    Forgot about the command line: That's simple a command based interface of any kind. Examples may be the the DOS-Prompt or the UNIX shell, but also the command interface of tools like ftp (the non-GUI version). – ktf Oct 17 '11 at 14:24

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