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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?


1 Answer 1


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, 2011 at 14:24

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