Consoles/Terminals: Why Do Some Computers Only Show Text?

If you’re unfamiliar with computers, it can be overwhelming when you’re given a black screen with something like “C:\Users\Bob>” and a blinking cursor.

However, unless someone takes the time to specifically program a visual interface, a “command-line interface” (CLI) is the easiest way to work with computers. It’s usually called a shell, a terminal (on Linux), or command prompt (on Windows). It’s called a terminal or shell because it historically once was opening to a host mainframe or “mini”.

At first, command interfaces sound daunting. However, once you have experience with terminals/command prompts, you’ll actively want that sort of interface, for several reasons:

  1. Typing in a console gives immediate feedback. Mice and touchscreens don’t always indicate when you clicked something, and moving your hand to the mouse is time-intensive when you’re doing lots of computer work.
  2. Almost everything you can do by typing into the computer can often be automated. Mouse clicks and touches, by contrast, are very difficult to automate. If you have to do something 3,429 times (which is often the case with tons of computer data), the less physical labor for yourself the better.
  3. Many of the most powerful and versatile tools in computing are CLI-only, since it’s easy for software engineers to visually design. Sometimes, they’re elegantly simple compared to a visual interface (e.g., the “ping” command).
  4. If you’re working on a large-scale system like a web server or a very tiny system like a a Raspberry Pi, extra graphics can be clunky and slow everything down, and can be another possible thing that could break down.
  5. Text output can display a lot of information at one time, without the risk of rich text cluttering the flow of information.
  6. Text output is very easy to copy-paste in a CLI for diagnostic reasons, emailing your boss, capturing what happened, print to a file/paper copy, or simply for posterity.

On many consumer-targeted operating systems, the console is hidden or nonexistent, though you can often see the console blink for a half-second when a console-based program activates, especially when booting.