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HTG Explains: Why You Shouldn’t Be Scared of the Terminal on Linux

apt-get-moo

Linux users often use the terminal to accomplish tasks. This can be intimidating if you’re a new Linux user who wants a graphical environment that’s easy to come to grips with, but you shouldn’t be put off by the Linux terminal.

The Linux terminal is a powerful tool that makes it possible to accomplish some tasks much more quickly than you could with graphical tools. However, these days, you can accomplish most things graphically. Using the terminal isn’t mandatory.

The Terminal is Optional

Whether you want to install software, configure your network, or tweak other system settings, you can do it from the terminal – but you can also do it from the graphical interface. Most settings you would want to change are easily accessible in the standard graphical control panels.

If you have never tried using Linux, you may have an expectation that you will have to learn terminal commands to get around, but this has become less and less true with each passing year. Give Ubuntu a try and you may be surprised at how little you’ll need to use the terminal. Many users shouldn’t need to touch the terminal at all.

(It is possible that, if your hardware isn’t well-supported, you may have to use terminal commands. With properly supported hardware, you should not have to mess around with the terminal to make things work.)

ubuntu-system-settings

…But the Terminal Can Be More Efficient

In spite of how usable Linux’s graphical tools now are, websites like ours constantly use terminal commands when writing instructions for Linux users. On the other hand, we include step-by-step graphical instructions for using the Windows graphical interface in our articles.

If you’re wondering why websites like How-To Geek still use terminal commands, it’s simple: Terminal commands are powerful and can make things much faster. if you don’t know a command, it can be faster to use the graphical interface. However, if you do know the appropriate command, using the Terminal can speed things up.

Let’s try to illustrate this by writing some instructions for accomplishing a task using both the graphical interface and the terminal. Let’s say we have just installed Ubuntu and we want to install Pidgin and Chromium.

Here’s how we’d accomplish the task using the graphical user interface:

Open the Ubuntu Software Center, type Pidgin into the search box, click Pidgin Internet Messenger, click Install, and enter your password. Type Chromium into the search box, click Chromium Web Browser, and click Install.

This is a fairly simple process that inexperienced users should be able to figure out on their own, but it’s not the most concise explanation and it requires quite a few clicks. If we wanted to install many more programs at once, this would take forever.

install-software-with-the-ubuntu-software-center

Here’s how we’d accomplish the same task using a terminal:

Open a terminal window, copy-paste the following line into the terminal, and press Enter:

sudo apt-get install pidgin chromium-browser

The second line is much faster. It’s easy for readers, too – all they have to do is copy-paste. Note that we’re using a single command to install two programs – we could even install 50 different applications with a single command. When you are installing a large amount of software or doing more system tweaks, this can be a much faster process than guiding people through a long clicking process for each task.

install-ubuntu-software-with-apt-get

In both cases, this is faster than the equivalent Windows process of downloading installers from multiple websites and clicking through installation wizards.

Windows Has Scary Low-Level Settings, Too

Not all settings on Linux are available in user-friendly control panels, but not all settings on Windows are available in user-friendly control panels, either. We have covered a lot of registry hacks you can use to customize hidden settings in Windows. The group policy editor contains many more.

You may have to use the terminal on Linux, but you may also have to step into the registry editor on Windows. With both operating systems, you can install third-party graphical tweaking applications that help automate some of the more popular tweaks.

Microsoft is trying to catch up with the powerful Linux terminal – that’s why they created Windows PowerShell, a more powerful command-line shell than the traditional DOS-like Command Prompt. If you are only familiar with DOS and the Windows Command Prompt, you would rightly be skeptical of command-line interfaces – but the Linux terminal is so much more powerful and flexible than DOS or the Windows Command Prompt.

Learning the Linux Terminal

There’s obviously a learning curve to go through before you can use the terminal to compose your own commands. You can find quite a few tutorials for learning the Linux terminal here at How-To Geek:


In summary: Don’t be scared of the Linux terminal. It’s an optional, powerful tool. If a lot of Linux geeks end up using it, it’s because it’s more efficient for many tasks. Just as geeks use keyboard shortcuts to speed things up rather than clicking everything, terminal commands can be faster than graphical tools, after you learn them.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 02/25/13

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