Tuesday, January 8, 2013

A nice Windows hack: Substitute the bash shell to replace CMD

Going back to the Windows command line is always a painful experience. The pain is only magnified if you're used to using a unix shell, like bash. Luckily, relief is available via a free download and a Windows registry hack.

First, you'll need a replacement shell. There are a few available. I tested two.

  • Win-Bash This is a very lightweight tool. It only requires 13M of disk space and there are about 120 files with many standard utilities included. This setup ended up being much more capable than I had originally thought. Even though the bash version offered is several years old, it may be enough to meet your needs. Personally, I opted for a more comprehensive solution, below...
  • cygwin This is a large set of unix/linux applications that have been ported to the Windows environment. It can be installed piecemeal, and the base environment includes several shell options, including bash. The downside is that the basic install requires about 100M of disk space.

To add a final piece to the puzzle, and make executing the shell much more convenient, you'll need to tweak the Windows workstation a little bit. After installing the bash-capable environment of your choice, the next step is to create a batch file and tweak some registry settings. When these fixes are in place, it will enable you to invoke bash using the standard right-click menu context.

Create a startup batch file, my_bash.bat

@echo off
cd /D "%1"
bash -i

Navigate to the proper position into the registry (caution! whenever fiddling with the registry!) using the registry editing tool of your choice:

\My Computer\HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Classes\Folder\shell

Add a new key using a descriptive name for the environment you've chosen. I installed both and chose win-bash and cygwin

Note that the value of default REG_SZ key assigns the name that will be shown in the right-click menu.

Next, add one more subkey below that new key:

\My Computer\HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Classes\Folder\shell\cygwin\Command

The default REG_SZ for this subkey is the code that is executed. Link this to the batch file.

cmd /c c:\cygwin\my_bash.bat "%1"

Voila! Test it using the Windows explorer shell.

After this environment is installed other bonus factors can start to accumulate, too. You can start writing simple bash scripts to automate common Windows tasks, or not. In any case, the unix scripting language(s) offers much more robust and consistent environment(s) for getting things done. If that were not incentive enough all by itself, here are some other things that I have tested as working, too. You'll need to install more than the base layer of cygwin, though.

  • networking components. I installed ssh with heimdahl kerberos. That enables ssh sessions to be authenticated by active directory, i.e. without entering a passowrd.
  • gnu compiler tools. Now, you can compile your standard C/C++ code that will execute under Windows without having the Microsoft tools.
  • X11. Run remote X-applications!

As you can see, although I've only scratched the surface here, the Windows environment can be made more comfortable for those used to running Linux! Cygwin is the key.

edited: 2013-08-30, fix registry path

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