Many of the troubleshooting techniques you will find on the internet make use of the DOS or Command Prompt. This is how computers used to work before the mouse became common. You have to type in your commands. This site will give you a quick overview of how the command prompt works. Initially it starts with showing you how to move around your file system. When it comes to running more advanced commands, this basic information will help because different commands need to be run from different directories.

This information was formally on amset.info, but has now been moved to its own separate domain. You may have been redirected here from amset.info. 

Throughout this page you will see this referred to as a command prompt. DOS Prompt and Command Prompt are the same thing.

You should have a Command Prompt open when reading this page so that you can try the commands. Unless stated, you will not damage your data by just moving around your folders.

Opening a Command Prompt

There are two conventional ways to start a Command prompt.

  1. Start, Programs, Accessories, Command prompt
  2. Start, Run and type "cmd" (minus quotes) and press enter.

You can also use Microsoft power toys to open a command prompt from Windows Explorer. You can read more about the power toys further down this page, here.

The screenshot below shows a Command Prompt on Windows 7 - it is almost identical on all other versions of Windows.

Screenshot: Standard Command Prompt

Command Prompt on Windows Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 2008

On Windows Vista and Windows 7, a standard Command Prompt may not allow you to do everything that you need to. In that case you will need to use an elevated command prompt.

The best way to start an elevated command prompt is to RIGHT click on the shortcut and choose Run As Administrator.

How to tell if the command prompt is elevated

If the prompt is elevated, then the initial path will be C:\Windows\System32. The title bar will also say "Administrator: Command Prompt". If the prompt is not elevated then by default it will start in C:\Users\Username (where username is the username of the account in use) and the title bar will just say "Command Prompt". The example above was configured to start in C:\ .

Screenshot: Elevated Command Prompt

Closing a command prompt

You can close a command prompt either by clicking on the cross in the corner, typing exit and pressing enter, or choosing Close when right clicking the Command Prompt icon on the task bar.
However command history is not maintained across sessions, so if you have a lengthy command that you want to use again, it needs to be copied out.


Command Prompt Basics

When you are working in Command Prompt, there are a couple of things that usually work:

Many of the commands will have extra options available, known as switches. They are added to the command by entering a "/" then a letter, number or word. These can change how the tool works or handles the information. A common switch would be the help command, which will also give you information on the other switches available.

"command" /?
This will usually bring up information about the command and the available switches. If it doesn't work, try "-?" after the command instead.

"command" > "filename.txt"
This will send the results of the command to a text file instead of the screen. You can include switches as well. This is particularly useful if you are looking at the help information for a command. Look at this example command:

 xcopy /? >c:\xcopy.txt

This writes the content of the help command to a file called xcopy.txt located in the root of the C:\ drive.

Stopping a Command

If you start a command it appears to be looping, showing more than you expect, then you can stop it sing the key combination CTRL-C.
If you are interested in simply allowing the text to show, but a screen at a time, then you should use the MORE command.


Copy and Pasting a command in to the window

The first thing to note, which will usually catch newcomers to the Command Prompt out, is that the usual CTRL-C and CTRL-V commands will not work for a command prompt window.

Copying Text

To copy text, such as a long command that you have been using or the results of a command, click on the icon in the top LEFT corner, and then choose Edit, and Mark.

Screenshot: Command Prompt Menu

The cursor will then change. You can then use the mouse to highlight the text that you want to copy. Once you have done so, press enter. The highlight will disappear, and the text will be copied in to the clipboard. You can then copy it elsewhere, or in to the same Command Prompt Window.

Pasting Text

To paste text, move the cursor to the point where you want to enter it, using the cursor keys. Then click on the icon in the top left corner and choose Edit, Paste.


CLS
If you have lots of text in your Command Prompt window, this command will clear it. The history of previous commands typed in that session will be maintained.


Moving Between Folders, Listing Folder Contents

There are two commands you will use most

  1. "CD" (change directory) (minus quotes). This changes directory relevant to the one you are currently working in.
  2. "DIR" (directory) (minus quotes). This lists the files and directories in the folder that you are in.

DIR

The "Dir" command is probably the most basic command. It gives you a listing of all the files and folders that are located in the folder that you are currently open in.
For example, in the screenshot above, we are in the root of the C:\ drive. If a DIR command is carried out at this point, then you will get a result similar to this:

Volume in drive C is System
Volume Serial Number is 1234-5678

 Directory of C:\

25/10/2002 23:42 0 AUTOEXEC.BAT
26/10/2002 01:03 0 COMLOG.txt
25/10/2002 23:42 0 CONFIG.SYS
06/02/2003 15:08 0 dir.txt
04/11/2002 20:40 262,144 ntuser.dat
25/10/2002 23:49 <DIR> Documents and Settings
27/01/2003 19:58 <DIR> Program Files
27/01/2003 09:26 <DIR> WINDOWS
5 File(s) 262,144 bytes
3 Dir(s) 12,528,111,616 bytes free

This command does not show you any hidden files. To see hidden files you will need to use the ATTRIB command.

Advanced "dir" commands

You can get a little more advanced with the dir command by putting extra commands after the intitial "dir".
For example:

dir /s

will show the contents of the current folder, and any subfolders that are below. This will produce a very long file listing. You might want to filter the results or send them to a text file (see above).

dir /s something.doc

This command will search through all subdirectories below for a file that matches that file name. Similarly, issuing the command

dir /s *.doc

will list all files that end in .doc (Word files).

More information on the DIR command can be found in the DIR Command Reference.

CD - Change Directory

The CD command is very simple to use. All commands are relative to the directory that you are in. Therefore, using the example output of a "dir" that is shown above, if you want to change to the "Windows" directory, you would type

CD Windows

If you want to change to the "system" directory (which is a sub directory of "windows"), you would enter

CD System

However if you knew that you wanted to change to the system directory immediately, you could type this command instead:

CD Windows\System

However if you were already deep in another directory (for example c:\ documents and settings \username\ local settings) and then wanted to move directly to windows\system then you can do that by putting in an initial backwards slash:

 CD \Windows\System

This tells the command to go to the root of the drive, then to the directory Windows and system.

Moving Back Up

You can also move back up the tree, instead of down.

If you want to just return to the root of the drive (C:\) you would just type

 cd \  or cd\

If you wanted to just go back one level (to use the earlier example, you were in c:\windows\system and you wanted to be in c:\windows) you would just type:

 cd..

Alternatively, if you want to access a totally different directory, for example "Program Files" you could type

cd program files or cd "program files"

When typing directories to change to, if the directory name is unique, then you can use wild cards. For example

cd program*

Directory Entry Shortcut: : If you are on Windows 2000 or XP and you have a Windows Explorer screen open at the location that you want to run a Command Prompt command you could open the Command Prompt and typing a long series of directories or CD commands. Instead, just type CD and then a space, then drag and drop the directory you want to work in to the Command Prompt window. The full path to the directory will be entered, ready for you to press enter.

More information on the CD command can be found in the CD Command Reference.

Change Drive

If you want to run a command against a directory on another drive, such as the D drive, then you need to change to that drive, This is done simply by entering the drive letter and a colon:

d:

On Windows Vista and higher you can also combine the drive letter change and directory by using the full path:

cd d:\downloads

On Windows XP and older, you can still enter the above command, but will then need to do d: . When you do, you will find that you are in the directory where you did the CD command to. 


File Renaming

You can rename files in a command prompt.

rename something.txt someone.txt

would rename the file something.txt to someone.txt

Full Rename Command Reference.


Directory Creation

You can create directories from the command prompt:

 mkdir something

would create a directory called "something".
If you want a directory with a name that has a space in it, such as "My Files" you need include the command in " ":

 mkdir "my files"

This ensures that the directory is created with the space. Without the space you will get a new directory called "my" and an error message.

 You can also use the md command instead of mkdir.


Windows Power Toys

If you do a lot of work in the command prompt, then you might be interested in installing the "Command Prompt Here" (Windows 9x, NT and 2000) or "Command Here" (Windows XP) Power Toys. These add a new command the right click menu you get when you click on a directory allowing you to open a Command Prompt in that directory.

You can download these Power Toys from Microsoft's web site.


Changing where the Command Prompt shortcut starts

By default, the command prompt will start in your Home directory. This could be "C:\Documents and Settings\Username" or a network drive. If you want to always start in another location, such as the root of the C: drive, then you can change the Shortcut. Right click on it and choose Properties. Change the value in "Start In" to your preferred location.


Keyboard Short Cuts

There are a couple of shortcuts that you can use from the keyboard instead of typing full directory paths.

Use a Wild Card

If the directory you are wanting to change to is very long but uniquely named, then you can use a wild card instead of typing the entire thing.

For example, instead of:

cd "program files"

you could enter

cd prog*

Enter the wildcard character once you have typed enough characters for Windows to only have one choice.

Using "Tab" to Select Files or Folders - Windows XP/Server 2003 only

Another neat trick if you are using a command prompt on Windows XP or Windows Server 2003 and is to use the "Tab" key to scroll through the files and folders in the current directory. Type the command you want to use as normal, for example "cd" then press tab to cycle through the files and folders until you reach the one you want. Then press enter. You may still have to enter the " as before, so would type " cd " " then press tab until you reached the folder you want to change to, enter the second " to finish off and press enter.
This technique can save a lot of time if you need to change to a directory with a long name.
It will also let you enter hidden folders that do not appear with dir without having to remember the correct name.

Repeat a Command

If you want to repeat a command that you have just run, or adjust something in the last command, press the "Up" cursor key to bring it back. You can then adjust it and press enter. Useful if you are trying to work out what switches and options you can use to achieve a certain result. History is not maintained across sessions, but is maintained if you use CLS to clear the screen.


Full Listing of Commands and their Options.

If you want a full list of the commands available to you, just type "help" and they will be listed. You can then type "help <command>" for the instructions.
Similarly, typing  /? after the command will also bring up the full list of options available for that command.

A complete list of the built in Commands, along with examples and notes on their use can be found here.


Screen Size and Buffer Size

When you are working with a Command Prompt, it maybe helpful to increase the screen size or the buffer size.
Screen size is what you can actually see on the screen.
Buffer size is what is stored and can be viewed by using the scroll bars at the side.

To change the screen size and buffer size, right click on the icon in the top left corner of the Command Prompt window and choose Properties. Then click on layout.
A good buffer size is height 300, whereas a good screen size is height between 25 and 50.

After pressing OK you will be asked if you want to apply the changes to the shortcut or the current window only. If you are testing, select the current window only.


Deleting Files and Folders

If you want to delete a file, then just type:

del filename.ext

If you want to delete all files in a folder then type

del *.*

similarly if you want to delete all files with a certain extension, then type

del *.ext

(where ext is the extension you want to delete)

To delete a folder, simply enter

del foldername

There are more advanced options for deleting files through the Command Prompt - view the Command Reference for DEL to see the full list.

Note - if you delete a file within a Command Prompt session it does not go in to the recycle bin. It will be deleted immediately.


Advanced Tasks

The command line allows you to more advanced tasks, either using built in tools or additional third party tools. This can include network diagnostics, Email MX record lookup and identifying what your computer is doing with the network or internet.


Further Reading

You can purchase books which cover the Command Prompt in more depth from our Amazon Store.

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Last Page Update: 05/06/2012

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