Using Cygwin effectively with Windows

Cygwin is not a full operating system, and so must rely on Windows for accomplishing some tasks. For example, Cygwin provides a POSIX view of the Windows filesystem, but does not provide filesystem drivers of its own. Therefore part of using Cygwin effectively is learning to use Windows effectively. Many Windows utilities provide a good way to interact with Cygwin's predominately command-line environment. For example, ipconfig.exe provides information about network configuration, and net.exe views and configures network file and printer resources. Most of these tools support the /? switch to display usage information.

Unfortunately, no standard set of tools included with all versions of Windows exists. If you are unfamiliar with the tools available on your system, here is a general guide. Windows 95, 98, and ME have very limited command-line configuration tools. Windows NT 4.0 has much better coverage, which Windows 2000 and XP expanded. Microsoft also provides free downloads for Windows NT 4.0 (the Resource Kit Support Tools), Windows 2000 (the Resource Kit Tools), and XP (the Windows Support Tools). Additionally, many independent sites such as,, and provide command-line utilities. A few Windows tools, such as find.exe and sort.exe, may conflict with the Cygwin versions; make sure that you use the full path (/usr/bin/find) or that your Cygwin bin directory comes first in your PATH.


Windows programs do not understand POSIX pathnames, so any arguments that reference the filesystem must be in Windows (or DOS) format or translated. Cygwin provides the cygpath utility for converting between Windows and POSIX paths. A complete description of its options and examples of its usage are in the section called “cygpath”, including a shell script for starting Windows Explorer in any directory. The same format works for most Windows programs, for example

notepad.exe "$(cygpath -aw "Desktop/Phone Numbers.txt")"

A few programs require a Windows-style, semicolon-delimited path list, which cygpath can translate from a POSIX path with the -p option. For example, a Java compilation from bash might look like this:

javac -cp "$(cygpath -pw "$CLASSPATH")"

Since using quoting and subshells is somewhat awkward, it is often preferable to use cygpath in shell scripts.

Console Programs

Another issue is receiving output from or giving input to the console-based Windows programs. Unfortunately, interacting with Windows console applications is not a simple matter of using a translation utility. Windows console applications and designed to run under or cmd.exe, and some do not deal gracefully with other situations. Cygwin can receive console input only if it is also running in a console (DOS box) since Windows does not provide any way to attach to the backend of the console device. Another traditional Unix input/output method, ptys (pseudo-terminals), are supported by Cygwin but not entirely by Windows. The basic problem is that a Cygwin pty is a pipe and some Windows applications do not like having their input or output redirected to pipes.

To help deal with these issues, Cygwin supports customizable levels of Windows verses Unix compatibility behavior. To be most compatible with Windows programs, use a DOS prompt, running only the occasional Cygwin command or script. Next would be to run bash with the default DOS box. To make Cygwin more Unix compatible in this case, set CYGWIN=tty (see the section called “The CYGWIN environment variable”). Alternatively, the optional rxvt package provides a native-Windows version of the popular X11 terminal emulator (it is not necessary to set CYGWIN=tty with rxvt). Using rxvt.exe provides the most Unix-like environment, but expect some compatibility problems with Windows programs.

Cygwin and Windows Networking

Many popular Cygwin packages, such as ncftp, lynx, and wget, require a network connection. Since Cygwin relies on Windows for connectivity, if one of these tools is not working as expected you may need to troubleshoot using Windows tools. The first test is to see if you can reach the URL's host with ping.exe, one of the few utilities included with every Windows version since Windows 95. If you chose to install the inetutils package, you may have both Windows and Cygwin versions of utilities such as ftp and telnet. If you are having problems using one of these programs, see if the alternate one works as expected.

There are a variety of other programs available for specific situations. If your system does not have an always-on network connection, you may be interested in rasdial.exe (or alternatives for Windows 95, 98, and ME) for automating dialup connections. Users who frequently change their network configuration can script these changes with netsh.exe (Windows 2000 and XP). For proxy users, the open source NTLM Authorization Proxy Server or the no-charge Hummingbird SOCKS Proxy may allow you to use Cygwin network programs in your environment.

The cygutils package

The optional cygutils package contains miscellaneous tools that are small enough to not require their own package. It is not included in a default Cygwin install; select it from the Utils category in setup.exe. Several of the cygutils tools are useful for interacting with Windows.

One of the hassles of Unix-Windows interoperability is the different line endings on text files. As mentioned in the section called “Text and Binary modes”, Unix tools such as tr can convert between CRLF and LF endings, but cygutils provides several dedicated programs: conv, d2u, dos2unix, u2d, and unix2dos. Use the --help switch for usage information.

Creating shortcuts with cygutils

Another problem area is between Unix-style links, which link one file to another, and Microsoft .lnk files, which provide a shortcut to a file. They seem similar at first glance but, in reality, are fairly different. By default, Cygwin uses a mechanism that creates symbolic links that are compatible with standard Microsoft .lnk files. However, they do not include much of the information that is available in a standard Microsoft shortcut, such as the working directory, an icon, etc. The cygutils package includes a mkshortcut utility for creating standard Microsoft .lnk files.

If Cygwin handled these native shortcuts like any other symlink, you could not archive Microsoft .lnk files into tar archives and keep all the information in them. After unpacking, these shortcuts would have lost all the extra information and would be no different than standard Cygwin symlinks. Therefore these two types of links are treated differently. Unfortunately, this means that the usual Unix way of creating and using symlinks does not work with Windows shortcuts.

Printing with cygutils

There are several options for printing from Cygwin, including the lpr found in cygutils (not to be confused with the native Windows lpr.exe). The easiest way to use cygutils' lpr is to specify a default device name in the PRINTER environment variable. You may also specify a device on the command line with the -d or -P options, which will override the environment variable setting.

A device name may be a UNC path (\\server_name\printer_name), a reserved DOS device name (prn, lpt1), or a local port name that is mapped to a printer share. Note that forward slashes may be used in a UNC path (//server_name/printer_name), which is helpful when using lpr from a shell that uses the backslash as an escape character.

lpr sends raw data to the printer; no formatting is done. Many, but not all, printers accept plain text as input. If your printer supports PostScript, packages such as a2ps and enscript can prepare text files for printing. The ghostscript package also provides some translation from PostScript to various native printer languages. Additionally, a native Windows application for printing PostScript, gsprint, is available from the Ghostscript website.