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I think these terms almost refer to the same thing, when used loosely:

  • terminal
  • shell
  • tty
  • console

What exactly does each of these terms refer to?

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The TTY demystified –  firo Mar 7 '13 at 7:54
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3 Answers

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A terminal is at the end of an electric wire, a shell is the home of a turtle, tty is a strange abbreviation and a console is a kind of cabinet.

Well, etymologically speaking, anyway.

In unix terminology, the short answer is that

  • terminal = tty = text input/output environment
  • console = physical terminal
  • shell = command line interpreter

Console, terminal and tty are closely related. Originally, they meant a piece of equipment through which you could interact with a computer: in the early days of unix, that meant a teleprinter-style device resembling a typewriter, sometimes called a teletypewriter, or “tty” in shorthand. The name “terminal” came from the electronic point of view, and the name “console” from the furniture point of view. Very early in unix history, electronic keyboards and displays became the norm for terminals.

In unix terminology, a tty is a particular kind of device file which implements a number of additional commands (ioctls) beyond read and write. In its most common meaning, terminal is synonymous with tty. Some ttys are provided by the kernel on behalf of a hardware device, for example with the input coming from the keyboard and the output going to a text mode screen, or with the input and output transmitted over a serial line. Other ttys, sometimes called pseudo-ttys, are provided (through a thin kernel layer) by programs called terminal emulators, such as Xterm (running in the X Window System), Screen (which provides a layer of isolation between a program and another terminal), Ssh (which connects a terminal on one machine with programs on another machine), Expect (for scripting terminal interactions), etc.

The word terminal can also have a more traditional meaning of a device through which one interacts with a computer, typically with a keyboard and display. For example an X terminal is a kind of thin client, a special-purpose computer whose only purpose is to drive a keyboard, display, mouse and occasionally other human interaction peripherals, with the actual applications running on another, more powerful computer.

A console is generally a terminal in the physical sense that is by some definition the primary terminal directly connected to a machine. The console appears to the operating system as a (kernel-implemented) tty. On some systems, such as Linux and FreeBSD, the console appears as several ttys (special key combinations switch between these ttys); just to confuse matters, the name given to each particular tty can be “console”, ”virtual console”, ”virtual terminal”, and other variations.

See also Why is a Virtual Terminal “virtual”, and what/why/where is the “real” Terminal?.

A shell is the primary interface that users see when they log in, whose primary purpose is to start other programs. (I don't know whether the original metaphor is that the shell is the home environment for the user, or that the shell is what other programs are running in.)

In unix circles, shell has specialized to mean a command-line shell, centered around entering the name of the application one wants to start, followed by the names of files or other objects that the application should act on, and pressing the Enter key. Other types of environments don't use the word “shell”; for example, window systems involve “window managers” and “desktop environments”, not a “shell”.

There are many different unix shells. Popular shells for interactive use include Bash (the default on most Linux installations), zsh (which emphasizes power and customizability) and fish (which emphasizes simplicity).

Command-line shells include flow control constructs to combine commands. In addition to typing commands at an interactive prompt, users can write scripts. The most common shells have a common syntax based on the Bourne_shell. When discussing “shell programming”, the shell is almost always implied to be a Bourne-style shell. Some shells that are often used for scripting but lack advanced interactive features include the Korn shell (ksh) and many ash variants. Pretty much any Unix-like system has a Bourne-style shell installed as /bin/sh, usually ash, ksh or bash.

In unix system administration, a user's shell is the program that is invoked when they log in. Normal user accounts have a command-line shell, but users with restricted access may have a restricted shell or some other specific command (e.g. for file-transfer-only accounts).

The division of labor between the terminal and the shell is not completely obvious. Here are their main tasks.

  • Input: the terminal converts keys into control sequences (e.g. Left\e[D). The shell converts control sequences into commands (e.g. \e[Dbackward-char).
  • Line edition, input history and completion are provided by the shell.
    • The terminal may provide its own line edition, history and completion instead, and only send a line to the shell when it's ready to be executed. The only common terminal that operates in this way is M-x shell in Emacs.
  • Output: the shell emits instructions such as “display foo”, “switch the foreground color to green”, “move the cursor to the next line”, etc. The terminal acts on these instructions.
  • The prompt is purely a shell concept.
  • The shell never sees the output of the commands it runs (unless redirected). Output history (scrollback) is purely a terminal concept.
  • Inter-application copy-paste is provided by the terminal (usually with the mouse or key sequences such as Ctrl+Shift+V or Shift+Insert). The shell may have its own internal copy-paste mechanism as well (e.g. Meta+W and Ctrl+Y).
  • Job control (launching programs in the background and managing them) is mostly performed by the shell. However, it's the terminal that handles key combinations like Ctrl+C to kill the foreground job and Ctrl+Z to suspend it.
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Only quibble: I would say that both kinds of ttys are “provided by” the kernel. The difference I would emphasize is that hardware ttys (e.g. serial lines and the built-in, text-mode console) have one end connected to hardware and one end connected to software (e.g. login programs and/or shells) while pseudo-ttys have both ends connected to software (e.g. a terminal emulator on one end and shell on the other). –  Chris Johnsen Nov 17 '10 at 4:04
@phunehehe: Right, that's a different meaning of “shell”, in common use in operating system design: the shell is the outer part of the kernel. It's not unix terminology: Unix kernels don't tend to have a component that one could call a shell. –  Gilles Nov 17 '10 at 19:27
This is the image in my mind for the shell metaphor. –  ændrük Dec 7 '10 at 19:00
There is also another meaning of "console" under Linux. The console (there is only one) is where printk of sufficient priority goes (e.g., kernel panics). It is set by passing console=DEVICE,... on the kernel command line (e.g., console=ttyS0,115200 for a the first serial port, at 115,200 bps). Normally it defaults to the virtual-terminal, but that can be changed when the kernel is compiled. –  derobert Aug 29 '11 at 21:12
“…the terminal…handles key combinations like Ctrl+C to kill the foreground job and Ctrl+Z to suspend it” Not quite: the terminal still merely sends control characters, it’s the tty device that decides how to handle them, and it’s configurable. By default the tty device converts the control characters into signals sent to the shell (and other processes). –  Chris Page Mar 10 '12 at 20:34
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A terminal or a console is a piece of hardware, using which a user can interact with a host. Basically a keyboard coupled with a text screen.
Nowadays nearly all terminals and consoles represent "virtual" ones.

The file that represents a terminal is, traditionally, called a tty file. If you look under the "/dev" directory of a UNIX system, you'll find a lot of tty files connected to virtual consoles (e.g. tty1 on linux), virtual terminals (e.g. pts/0) or physically connected hardware (e.g. ttyS0 is the physical serial terminal, if any, attached on first serial port of the host).

A console must be a piece of hardware physically connected to (or part of) the host. It has a special role in the system: it is the main point to access a system for maintenance and some special operation can be done only from a console (e.g. see single user mode). A terminal can be, and usually is, a remote piece of hardware.

Last, but not the least, a shell is a special program that interacts with a user through a controlling tty and offers, to the user, the way of launching other programs (e.g. bash, csh, tcsh).

A terminal emulator is a program that emulates a physical terminal (e.g. xterm, gnome-terminal, minicom).

So when you look to a "text window" on your linux system (under X11) you are looking to: a terminal emulator, connected to a virtual terminal, identified by a tty file, inside which runs a shell.

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SHORT explanation:

The console is a terminal - i.e a system has got one console and potentially multiple terminals. The console is typically the primary interface for managing a computer, eg while it is still booting up.

A terminal is a session which can receive and send input and output for command-line programs. The console is a special case of these.

A TTY is essentially a pseudo device, call it a kernel resource, which is used by processes to access a specific terminal. TTYs can be tied to hardware such as a serial port, or can be virtual, eg created when a user log in via a network

The shell is a program which is used for controlling and running programs. It is often used interactively, via a terminal. Several Shell programs exist, Bash being arguably the most common used shell today. Other shells, in no particular order, includes Bourne Shell, C-shell, Dash, Tsch, Ksh, and the increasingly popular zsh. There are many more.

When you have a GUI, you can use a terminal program to draw a nice resizeable border, add scroll bars, and format the text, and so on, for a terminal session. Often these are called terminal emulators, and sometimes they can handle multiple sessions via a TAB concept. A Terminal Emulator often starts a Shell to allow you to interactively work on a command line.

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