Windows Command Line Tools: A Beginner’s Guide

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What Are Windows Command-Line Tools?

Command-line tools are a terminal-like shell, separate from Microsoft’s PowerShell, with some shared commands and scripting capabilities. While the command line has built-in directives, PowerShell serves as a programming language for accessing APIs and performing communication, modification, and examination tasks.

Commands listed here are either built-in or specific to the command line interpreter. Access permissions are required for disk-based commands located in the file system, mainly in the \windows directory and its subdirectories. The command line apps affect only the executing machine, except for netsh. PowerShell commands can have network-wide effects where privileges are granted through Microsoft’s Active Directory for execution on filtered or qualified network assets.

Command usage may require system administrator status. Command line applications have privileged and unprivileged (default) modes, where privileged mode requires administrative access. A lack of administrator privileges can cause command failures.

To open the administrator-based command line, right-click on the CMD icon in the start menu and choose “Run as administrator”. PowerShell can also launch the command line in either administrative or user privilege mode by typing cmd within it.

Windows Command Line File System Navigation

File system navigation and file management are important to programmers. In Windows, you can use commands that are similar to those found in Unix and Posix-like systems. These commands also support the use of logical devices such as STDIN and STDOUT, allowing for program flow control and redirection:

  • To append the contents of FILE1 to FILE2, you can use the following command:

  • To invoke the MORE filter and use MYFILE.TXT as the input source, you can use the following command:

  • Similarly, to invoke the batch file MYBATCHFILE.BAT and provide MYLIST.TXT as input, you can use the following command:


Finding Files

The dir command lists directories of local and shared resources:

dir [<drive>:][<path>][<filename>] [....] [/p] [/q] [/w] [/d] [/a[[:]<attributes>]] [/o[[:]<sortorder>]] [/t[[:]<timefield>]] [/s] [/b] [/l] [/n] [/x] [/c] [/4] [/r]

The dir command alone lists visible files in the current directory. Each option is explained below:

<drive>:When a drive letter is expressed, list directory of that drive
<path>Same as above, with a direct folder path specified
<filename>Same as <path> with a specific file
/pPause display after 24 lines (for long listings)
/wDisplay in two columns (for long listings)
/dAdds sorting by columns in wide format of /w
/a(By attribute): :h (hidden), :n (name), :d (date), :s (size), :G (Group directories first), :e (extension sorted by alpha), :s (system), :a (archive bit set), :i (not content indexed files), :l (re-parse points)
/o(In sort order): :e (extension sorted by alpha), :s (system), :a (archive bit set), :i (not content indexed files), :l (smallest first). The “-” character reverses sort. Arguments can be added together in desired sort order with no spaces.
/t(Time field order): :c (created), :a (last accessed), :w (last written)
/xThe 8.3 equivalent of long filenames
/lDisplays forced lower case (similar to to_lower())
/sDisplays matching contents in subdirectories; recursive

Quick File/Folder Transversal and Management Commands

To work with the file system and perform various operations, you can utilize the commands below. Some commands may require administrator privileges to execute, and certain file attributes can restrict your ability to perform specific tasks. This section also covers the attrib command, which allows you to modify file and directory attributes to ensure the successful execution of command directives.

cd <path>Change directory
cd \Change to the root directory of the current drive
cd ..Move up one directory
del <arguments>Delete files based on the argument list
rmdir <path or default>Remove a directory (use /r for recursive removal)
type <filename>Display the contents of a file (similar to cat command)
more <filename>Display the contents of a file page by page
xcopy <origin> <destination>Copy files and directories recursively
assoc <executable file>Specify or show file extension association for a file
vol <default or specified drive>Display the disk volume label and serial number
taskkillTerminate or stop a running process or application (by matching name)
tree <default or specified path>Display the directory tree structure
ren <file argument>Rename a file or files
md or mkdir <name>Create a new directory with the specified name

Windows Command Line Task Management

Windows Command Line Tools provide the capability to view and manage a list of tasks. Like Linux/Unix, Windows delivers the list of tasks by task name, a PID which is similar to a process ID, the entity launching the task, the session number, and the memory usage for each task.

To view the list, you can use the tasklist command and pipe the output to the more command for better management of entries per screen. Here’s an example:

tasklist | more

To terminate a task, you can use the taskkill command followed by the task’s PID.

Killing a task may result in loss of functionality, including any child tasks or task dependencies. This can lead to orphan processes, broken links, resource allocations, and potential security vulnerabilities. Always use the taskkill command with care.
taskkill <task PID>

Network Utilities

Basic network operations and host network infrastructure commands are available from the Windows Command Line. These command line tools are similar to their Unix equivalents.

ping <host IP or FQDN>ICMP host-alive request (IPv4 or 6)
netstatList open IP ports
ipconfigShow IP configuration
ipconfig /?Show help options
ipconfig /releaseRelease current DHCP lease
ipconfig /renewSeek IP DHCP address
getmacLists network adapter MAC address(es)
arp <arguments>Address Resolution Protocol suite
tracert <host IP or FQDN>ICMP Traceroute to specified host
nslookup <host> <optional name source>Looks up specified host on

Using Netsh

The netsh (NetSHell) is a powerful command-line tool in Windows used for configuring, viewing, and diagnosing networking and network adapter settings. While it can currently be used on the command line, Microsoft warns that these contexts may be switched to be invoked only from PowerShell.

Various netsh commands can be combined into batch scripts and called from the command line. If you have Active Directory credentials and network paths, you can use netsh to control other computers administratively.

The netsh shell has several contexts associated with networking services and APIs. Each context has subcontexts with varying arguments based on the requirements of the context.

The following contexts are available on Windows 10: wlan (wireless LAN), winsock, wfp, wcn, trace, rpc, ras, p2p, netio, namespace, mbn, lan, ipsec, interface, http, dnsclient, bridge, branchcache, and advfirewall.

The available subcontexts include: Advfirewall, branch cache, bridge, dhcpclient, dnsclint, firewall, htp, interface, ipsec, lan, mbn, namespace, netio, p2p, ras, rpc, trace, wcn, wfp, winhttp, winsock, and wlan.

To explore the options of each subcontext, you can query the netsh <subcontext> with the “/?” command for help. This provides a list of possible arguments, making it easier to complete non-obvious commands. Netsh has arguments that perform important actions which are listed below:

  • -a : The alias for filename. The alias can run a batch-style number of commands that set options for other workstations or commonly-used organizational settings; returns to netsh (see -f).
  • -c : Sets the current context
  • -r : Sets the target of the context and subcontext used by the remote computer running the remote registry, specified by IP address, DNS, or AD name
  • -u : Sets the user context for targets of other netsh options/arguments using the specified username\DomainName
  • -p : Password for the -u argument
  • -f : Sets and executes a script name to process but exists netsh upon completion; alias for the filename of the script to process
  • /? : Help

The most commonly used netsh commands begin with netsh:

  • netsh show advfirewall rules: Displays current profile firewall rules
  • netsh interface ip show interfaces: Displays current profile interfaces and settings
  • netsh wlan show networks: Displays visible SSID wireless networks
  • netsh wlan show show networks mode=bssid: Displays wireless LAN connectivity characteristics
  • netsh interface TCP show global: Display default TCP characteristics; use specific interfaces for specific driver info
  • netsh show aliases: Show aliases for debugging
  • netsh int IP reset <logname.log>: Reset the TCP/IP stack with a log (log for troubleshooting)
  • netsh trace start capture=yes tracefile=<logfile.log> persistent=y maxsize=8096: Start a packet capture for debug into <logfile.log> with a size of 8MB.
  • netsh wlan disconnect: Forces wireless network disconnection

Windows Hardware Commands and Tools

Windows has commands that query hardware, change settings, encrypt files, and others that diagnose problems. The diagnostics report problems that the GUI doesn’t tell you about.

Windows Command Line powercfg

The powercfg command helps diagnose power, sleep, and battery issues. To use it, open the command line with administrator privileges and enter the following command:

powercfg /energy

Other handy arguments that you can use with powercfg are:

  • /batteryreport: Generates a detailed report about your battery’s usage and status.
  • /systemssleepdiagnostics: Provides information and diagnostics about system sleep transitions.
  • /powerthrottling: Manages power-throttling settings to optimize power usage for applications and processes.
  • /devicequery: Lists power-related information for devices connected to your system.

Windows Command Line systeminfo

The systeminfo command provides detailed information about the host’s platform, user, version, boot information, memory, applied hotfixes, network details, and Hyper-V requirements state. To use it, you can open the command line or CMD and enter the following command:

systeminfo | more

This command displays the system information in a paginated manner, allowing you to scroll through the output. You can also redirect the output to a file by using the > operator followed by the file path.

Windows Command Line diskpart

The diskpart command is used to find and manipulate disk information in the Windows command line. It allows you to examine and repair volumes, including RAID volumes that are compatible with this command. To view the available options, you can use the following command:

It’s important to exercise caution when using the diskpart command, as some options have the potential to render the current session and host unusable.
diskpart /?

This command displays a list of options and commands that can be used with diskpart.

Command Line File Encryption

In Windows 10, file encryption is facilitated through the use of a Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) certificate store. This store contains a certificate that is responsible for encrypting files. Windows command line tools provide a method for encrypting and decrypting files and directories using this certificate. The cipher command is used for encryption operations, and proper encryption management practices must be followed to ensure successful usage.

Files and folders that are encrypted using cipher can be deleted, copied, and can be managed in the same way as other files. The encryption keys used by cipher are the same keys utilized by many Microsoft applications. For instance, Microsoft Word can decrypt, encrypt, and perform various operations on files and folders that have been encrypted with cipher keys.

The keys are files, and the key files must be backed up and stored safely. The command line provides options to export these key files and offers a way to recover data from encrypted files in case the keys are lost or inaccessible.

To encrypt files, you can use the cipher command with the following options:

  • /e <filename(s) path>: Encrypts the specified files.
  • /d <filename(s) path>: Decrypts the specified files.
  • /b: Aborts the operation if an error is encountered.
  • /H: Displays files with hidden or system attributes set.
  • /S: Performs the action recursively on all files and subdirectories.
  • /X <filename>: Backs up the encrypted file certificate into the target file.
  • /Y: Displays the current user’s encrypted file system footprint on the local PC.
  • /ADDUSER <username>: Adds a user to the encrypted files.
  • /REMOVEUSER <username>: Removes the /ADDUSER attribute for the specified user.
  • <no arguments> <directory name path>: Displays the encryption state of the current directory.

Windows Command Line Attrib Command

The attrib command in the command line allows you to control how file metadata is displayed and managed. It provides a quick way to query and change file attributes without relying on the Windows GUI.

To query the attributes of a file, use the following command:

attrib <options> <file path>

By using the appropriate options with the attrib command, you can save considerable time and easily manage file attributes. Refer to the table below for the available options:

+r or -r+r adds read-only status and -r removes read-only status
+h or -h+h sets the hidden attribute and -h removes hidden status
+a or -a+a sets archive status and -a removes archive status
+i or -i+i sets content index and -i removes content index
+s or -s+s sets system file status and -s removes system status
/sSets the desired status recursively through subdirectories
/dSets the desired status to directories
/lSets the desired status and symbolic link, not its target


Windows Command Line Tools can be far faster, and in some cases replicated more quickly, than using the Windows GUI. In some cases, their depth of options can exceed what can be done with the Windows GUI.

You can complete a healthy amount of systems administration and trouble diagnosis with Windows Command Line tools. Combining command line tools into useful batch scripts can be handily accomplished, and become part of your toolkits, too.

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