What is Computer Terminal? Types, Uses & More

What is Computer Terminal

What is Computer Terminal?

In simple words, a computer terminal refers to that command prompt or black screen, an emulator, or the intermediate console. It is an electronic or electromechanical device that sends commands to the kernel.

Historically, the term referred to the thin clients or low powered machines connected to a mini computer or a large mainframe computer.


  • A computer terminal is used to enter data into a computer or a computing system as well as display the data from it.
  • A terminal device that can work independently and comes with noteworthy local programmable data processing ability is called a smart terminal or a fat client.
  • A terminal that relies typically on a host computer to get its processing power is called a dumb terminal or a thin client. 

Understanding Computer Terminal

Understanding Computer Terminal         

The term computer terminal can refer to several different things such as an interface that allows the users to access the command line or even refer to a set of hardware items that consists of a monitor and keyboard.

In addition to that, a computer terminal may also refer to letterforms that described a stroke that ended without a serif or a software program such as the HyperTerminal that allows a user to link with another device or computer via the network card or a modem.

Sometimes, in the computer world, a terminal is also referred to as the text input as well as output environment.

This can be a program that performs as a wrapper which allows the users to enter commands for the computer to process.

In simple words, a terminal refers to the particular ‘window’ where the users enter the commands.

However, a terminal is actually just like any other program.

You can install it or uninstall it according to your wish just as you do with any other program.

You can install and use any number of terminals in your computer and run any of them you want whenever you need.

Typically, every operating system comes with a terminal installed in it by default.

Therefore, you have several options to choose from according to your needs and depending on their features and functionalities.


The first working and programmable terminal was the fully digital and automatic Turing-complete computer system, the Z3.

It came with a keyboard along with a row of lamps that displayed the results.

The early terminals were cheap devices but were very slow in performance as compared to the paper tape and punched cards in terms of input and output.

Over time, when video displays were launched and the technology improved, the terminals came out of their older type of interaction.

As time passed, the design, features and functionalities of computer terminals changed and were available in different forms. Some of these are:

  • Hard-copy terminals, which performed as an affordable terminal that supported video data entry and displaced the omnipresent punched cards and allowed newer and more interactive uses for computers
  • Early VDUs or Video Display Units that were also known as Glass Teletypes or Glass TTYs and came with separate logic gates and no CPUs
  • Intelligent terminals that did their own processing of the user input within the terminal itself
  • Contemporary terminals that combined inexpensive local processing power with fundamental and shared computer conveniences
  • Text terminals that typically acted as an interface and offered a few previously selected formed characters for text entry and display
  • Dumb terminals that do not have the ability to process by its own and could interpret only a few control codes but could not handle escape sequences such as clearing a line or the screen or controlling the cursor position
  • Graphical terminals that came in two modes such as vector mode and raster mode and could display images and text as well
  • Block-oriented terminals or block mode terminals that communicated in blocks of data with the host instead of each character at a time and could be display oriented, card oriented, keyboard-display oriented, keyboard-printer oriented, printer oriented and others and
  • A terminal emulator, which is actually a piece of software that performs like a text terminal.

During the period ranging between the 1970s and 1980s, technology advanced a great deal and with it the idea of computer terminals started to shift.

It was during this period that the concept of creating a network of desktop connections instead of connecting a number of small terminals to a mainframe computer developed. It was done through a central server.

In the 1990s, a lot of businesses did not use the workstations any more with multiple devices such as typewriters connected to it.

Instead, these featured a keyboard, a hard drive, and a monitor among others.

All these were small enough to consume little space on a standard work desk.

In a few specific instances, these terminals even incorporated a printer.

However, several businesses preferred using a solitary printer to serve numerous terminals at the same time.

With further advancements in technology, these newer systems came with more enhanced electronic functions due to which the use of solo printers with the separate workstations became a norm.


All these terminals operate in different modes as well and it all depends on when the input given by the users through their keyboard is sent to the receiving system, irrespective of their location.

Some of these modes are:

  • Character mode, which is also commonly known as the character-at-a-time mode where the input is sent to the receiving systems right away
  • Line mode, which is also commonly known as the line-at-a-time mode where local line editing function is performed and the whole input line is sent after being edited locally to the receiving system only when the users press the return key and
  • Block mode, which is also commonly known as the screen-at-a-time mode where a full-screen data function is performed locally after the user gives the input in numerous fields in the form on the screen and only the completed form with all the data is sent to the receiving system by the terminal when the users press the Enter key.
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Remember, all types of computer operating systems may not need or support all modes.

For example, the POSIX terminal interface offered by the POSIX and UNIX compliant operating systems does not support block-mode terminals at all and hardly ever needs line-at-a-time mode.

This is because the operating system needs canonical input mode.

This means that the device driver of the terminal imitates local echo and carries out line editing jobs at the host end.

Therefore, it mostly needs and supports character-at-a-time mode.

And, on the other hand, the IBM 3270 terminals will support only block mode mainly when connected to the Multiple Virtual Storage or MVS systems.

Need for a Terminal

What is Computer Terminal

As you may know, the operating systems come with a Graphical User Interface or GUI.

Well, knowing that you may wonder why at all you should care about the computer terminals given that you can do whatever you want with the operating systems right from clicking around to seeing things on the screen.

Well, there are several good reasons for that.

  • First, it is much more efficient for specific types of tasks while a simple GUI may need several clicks as well as a number of different windows to do the same job. A right type of computer terminal will enable you to do that same task with as little as a single command.
  • Second, this is a more convenient and easy way to accomplish a computing task and you will be more comfortable in the end after completing the task.
  • Third, you will save a lot of time being able to complete the task a lot quicker by automating it easily. This is incredibly useful when you do repetitive tasks on your computer. You will not have to do the task over and over again, thanks to the terminals.
  • Fourth, sometimes a computer terminal will be the only and most efficient way to interact with the CPU or a cloud platform server. In such situations, even though there is a GUI usable, running commands may not be easy only with it.

And finally, using computer terminals is cool and fun.

Types of Computer Terminal  

There are different types of computer terminals but the major variants of it are dumb terminals, smart terminals, and graphics terminals.

Here is the brief description of each.

Dumb Computer Terminals:

These are considered to be the simplest of all types of computer terminals.

These non programmable terminals typically use a keyboard and a screen attached.

The good thing about the dumb terminals is that these can connect to a bigger mainframe computer to receive all of the data and processing instructions from it.

The dumb terminals are just like a simple computer connected to a network or to a network router.

It may also resemble a tower unit that is connected to the network of an office.

The trademark feature of the dumb terminal is that it does not come with any specific processing ability of its own.

Instead, it has to depend on a bigger central computer for performing all of the tasks given to it and hence it is called ‘dumb.’

The dumb terminals also cannot save the data to the local hard drive. Instead, it has to forward all information, data and demands through the main computer system.

However, these terminals are both secure and cheap.

Intelligent Computer Terminals:

Laptops and desktops are the two most popular intelligent terminals.

These types of programmable computer terminals have the power to carry out different programs and even perform specific tasks without needing any involvement by other computers or even humans.

These terminals may also come with a device of its own such as a disk drive that helps in reading or writing files.

However, these intelligent terminals need to be programmed for that particular application.

Since the intelligent computer terminals can work independently without the help of other devices or systems, these are typically used along with the mainframe computers in specific areas such as:

  • Insurance
  • Banking and
  • Government applications.

The intelligent terminals are also used extensively in multiuser or in a networked setting.

Handheld Computer Terminals:

These computers are much smaller in size as compared to the laptop computers but are significantly larger than the PDAs or the Personal Digital Assistants.

These specific types of computer terminals typically do not come with any hard drive. Instead, they use flash memory for the purpose of saving data which makes them much easier to carry from one place to another.

These computer terminals are usually operated by batteries and are not very powerful to support running any heavy-duty programs on them that may need a lot of computing power.

These terminals also cannot access huge databases as the laptops can.

Therefore, the handheld terminals are usually used for low-end computing tasks such as accessing information and data stored on remote servers, simple work processing, browsing the internet, or for checking emails.

Handheld computer terminals got their name because these resembled the style of a briefcase.

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However, initially this particular type of computer terminal could not become very popular or grab the attention of the users because these were not very successful financially.

Over time, these terminals became more powerful and today these are used extensively.

Graphics Terminal:

This is another type of smart terminal that comes with some special hardware in it which allows it to display images.

These types of terminals are extremely useful for those users who work usually in a Windows interface and need special types of terminals.

The types of computer terminals may vary greatly on the basis of the format of the data handled by them.

For example, one of the simplest and earliest types of terminal is the typewriter keyboard that was used for input or a simple typewriter that was used specifically for printing alphanumeric output.

However, the more recent versions of terminals include the keyboard for input along with a screen that resembles a television for displaying the output.

As for the display screens, different types of displays are used such as:

  • LCDs or Liquid Crystal Displays
  • CRTs or Cathode Ray Tubes and
  • Even the old-school gas plasma panels.

Different types of displays can ideally offer a diverse range of output that may include anything from simple alphanumeric to more complicated graphic images that are used by the engineers and architects as design tools.

There are portable terminals that normally use Liquid Crystal Displays due to their low power consumption.

On the other hand, the terminals used in the pen-based computers use a pen-like stylus to input directly on the screen.

These specific types of terminals that are sensitive to touches usually receive input created by a touching panel that is sensitive to pressure.

This panel is typically located at the front of the menu that is exhibited on the screen.

There are also a few other specific types of computer terminals that you may or may not be familiar with such as the ones you see in a store checkout system.

This delivers printed receipts in detail as well as using laser scanners for reading barcodes on the packages.

Other examples of common types of terminals are:

  • A workstation which is linked with a network
  • A Voice over Internet Protocol or VoIP network endpoint
  • A mobile data terminal
  • A telematics device
  • A text terminal and
  • A textual language interface.

The ATMs or Automatic Teller Machines used in the banks are also good examples of computer terminals.

Uses of Computer Terminal

The primary function of a computer terminal is typically limited to input and display of data.

The computer terminal typically acts as an electronic communication hardware item that efficiently handles the data input and display of the same.

A computer terminal is designed to be used as a specific type of hardware device that helps in entering, retrieving, and displaying electronic data to feed the database with the necessary information depending on the specific queries.

Typically, the primary purpose of the computer terminal is to allow the users to perform several tasks more conveniently such as:

  • Entering data into the computer
  • View the information on the computer and
  • Controlling the operations of the computer.

One of the most significant uses of a computer terminal is to enable your computer to send or receive data.

A computer terminal also allows the users to interact with the internal CPU or Central Processing Unit with other computers or network devices.

As said earlier, with the development in the design and features, a computer terminal today allows the users to do much more than accessing the data that is saved on the hard drive or stored in a common server of a business.

It even allows using it to access the wealth of information that is available on the internet.

The contemporary design and configuration of the computer terminals are still undergoing remarkable changes allowing it to be used to connect with remote databases, access them and retrieve necessary data from there.

In general, a computer terminal helps the users to accomplish all those specific tasks that were previously possible only in an office setting.

This eventually helps in enhancing productivity both for the individuals as well as the businesses.

What is a Smart Terminal in a Computer?

Typically, a computer terminal comes with quite a few processing abilities.

However, these processing abilities of the terminal do not match both in number and types with the processing abilities of an intelligent terminal.

An intelligent or a smart terminal in a computer typically comes with some built-in logic.

This helps the terminal to perform a few simple and specific types of display operations such as boldface and blinking.

Ideally, a smart terminal supports a lot of screen functions. On the other hand, a dumb terminal does not possess any processing ability at all.

It is simply a display terminal that handles keyboard input and screen output but with no data processing abilities.

With the advent of the mainframes and minicomputers, smart terminals flourished since they supported a lot of screen functions.

The useful features of these terminals enabled it to perform several specific functions such as:

  • Display underlines and
  • Reverse the black on white video.

At the same time, a smart terminal can also handle the more intricate protocols of the mainframe computers and a few minicomputers.

These days, a smart terminal is referred to as a thin client as well but it is not identical to the smart terminals.

Though these terminals may perform a few functions that are similar to a smart terminal, these terminals surely do not come with the same processing abilities as the smart terminals.

It may even refer to a full-blown computer in which thin client software may be running.

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In the world of computer science, a smart terminal can mean different things. For example, in the early days of personal computers, the term “smart terminal” typically referred to the supplementary elements that also worked with a mainframe system.

After that, the smart terminals have been doing several things such as supporting the functionality of a thin client that worked with an outer server setup.

While talking about the smart terminals, most of the people these days often refer to some kind of auxiliary functionality.

For example, a terminal set up by a company that fits over a programmable logic controller or any other type of control plane hardware item that helps in communications, calibration, configuration or anything else is considered to be a smart terminal.

There may be other particular types of smart terminals that facilitate hardware setups which may further help in processing payments in the retail environment.

In short, a smart terminal may also refer to:

  • A computer terminal that comes with cursor positioning as well as other abilities of display formatting over and above a text-mode teleprinter
  • A block-oriented terminal that can offload form or panel editing from the mainframe computer
  • A thin client computer that comes with local data processing abilities and
  • A credit card terminal that supports different payment methods.

Typically, the term “smart terminal” simply means an added functionality to a secondary hardware item in any specific way, form or shape.

How to Open Terminal in Computer?

In Windows, if you want to make the best use of the hottest effort from Microsoft and have a pleasant experience while using the command-line tools and shells, you will first need to know how it works and how exactly to use it.

However, first of all you will need to know how exactly you should open it.

If you are using Windows 10, you will first need to make sure that the Windows Terminal app is installed and then follow these steps. In Windows 11, there is nothing to do to open the terminal apart from following these ways:

  • Using search – Click on the Search icon, type ‘Terminal,’ press Enter, and tap to open the terminal from the search results. Sometimes you may need to ‘Run as administrator’ to use this app with administrator permissions.
  • Using run window – Open run window by pressing Windows and R key together on the keyboard, type ‘terminal’ or ‘wt’ and click OK or press enter.
  • Using the WinX menu (in Windows 11 only) – Open the menu by right-clicking or pressing and holding the Windows logo on the taskbar. You may also press the Windows + X keys together on the keyboard to open the WinX menu. Click on the Windows Terminal or Windows Terminal (Admin) and ‘Yes’ on the UAC or User Account Control prompt to run it.
  • Using Start menu – Though slow on Windows 11, you may click on Start, All Apps, and windows terminal shortcut, and ‘Yes’ on UAC prompt. Additionally, you may need to click on ‘Run as administrator.’
  • Creating a shortcut – Press and hold or right click on an empty space on the desktop, choose ‘New item -> shortcut’ to open the wizard, type ‘wt’ and follow further instructions given by the wizard.
  • Using Command Prompt or PowerShell – When you are inside the Command Prompt or PowerShell, simply type ‘wt’ and press enter to open the terminal.
  • Using File Explorer – Type ‘wt’ in the address bar of the File Explorer and hit Enter to open the terminal immediately.
  • Using Cortana – If there is a microphone, start Cortana from the start menu or by pressing Windows and C keys together. Ask Cortana to open the terminal. However, it will fail to open the terminal as administrator.
  • Using Task Manager – Start the Task Manager by pressing Ctrl + Shift + Esc and press More Details tab on the window. Open File, select “Run new task,” then “Create new task,” type ‘wt’ in the window, and press OK or Enter on your keyboard. If you want to run it as an administrator, check out the “Create this task with administrative privileges” setting as well.

If you are using Windows 7, the steps to follow to open and use the terminal are:

  • Using Command prompt – Open CMD from the Start menu, type ‘terminal’ and hit Enter.
  • Using PowerShell – Open PowerShell by clicking on Start menu or taskbar and type “powershell.exe” in the search box, type ‘terminal’ and click it.
  • Using third-party programs – Download any third-party program offering a Windows console setting and follow the instructions.
  • Using a Terminal Emulator – A terminal emulator will also allow you to open any text-based connection if you want to do it remotely.

The ways to open the terminal may be different in different types of operating systems but that was quite a long list of general ways that will help you in any given situation, with and without the privileges of the administrator.


Therefore, with all that said and explained about the computer terminal, you can now make the best use of it with ease.

As you can see from this article, this is the latest feature that will make computing much easier than before, which, for any user, is the ulterior motive.

About Taylor

AvatarTaylor S. Irwin is a freelance technology writer with in-depth knowledge about computers. She has an understanding of hardware and technology gained through over 10 years of experience.

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