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Environment variables

The environment variables of the command interpreter process are inherited by the processes of any (external) commands that it executes. A few environment variables are used by the command interpreter itself. Changing them changes its operation.

Environment variables are affected by the SETPATH, and PROMPT commands.

To unset a variable, set it to empty string, such as set myvar=.

The command interpreter inherits its initial set of environment variables from the process that created it. In the case of command interpreters invoked from desktop shortcuts this will be Windows Explorer, for example.

Command interpreters generally have textual user interfaces, not graphical ones, and so do not recognize the Windows message that informs applications that the environment variable template in the Registry has been changed. Changing the environment variables in Control Panel will cause Windows Explorer to update its own environment variables from the template in the Registry, and thus change the environment variables that any subsequently invoked command interpreters will inherit. However, it will not cause command interpreters that are already running to update their environment variables from the template in the Registry.

COMSPEC

The COMSPEC environment variable contains the full path name of the command interpreter program file. This is just inherited from the parent process, and is thus indirectly derived from the setting of COMSPEC in the environment variable template in the Registry.

PATH

The value of the PATH environment variable comprises a list of directory names, separated by semi-colon characters. This is the list of directories that are searched, in order, when locating the program file of an external command to execute.

PATHEXT

The value of the PATHEXT environment variable comprises a list of filename extensions, separated by semi-colon characters. This is the list of filename extensions that are applied, in order, when locating the program file of an external command to execute.

An example content of PATHEXT printed by echo %PATHEXT%:

By adding ".PL" to the variable, you can ensure Perl programs get run from the command line even when typed without the ".pl" extension. Thus, instead of typing "mydiff.pl a.txt b.txt", you can type "mydiff a.txt b.txt".

Adding ".PL" to the variable in Windows Vista and later:

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PROMPT

The PROMPT environment variable controls the text emitted when the command interpreter displays the prompt. The command interpreter displays the prompt when prompting for a new command line in interactive mode, or when echoing a batch file line in batch file mode.

Various special character sequences in the value of the PROMPT environment variable cause various special effects when the prompt is displayed, as in the following table:

CharactersExpansion Result
$$$ character itself
$A& symbol AKA ampersand. A convenience, since it is difficult to place a literal & in the value of the PROMPT environment variable using the SET command.
$BVertical bar '|' (pipe symbol)
$CLeft parenthesis '('
$DCurrent date
$EESC (ASCII code 27)
$FRight parenthesis ')'
$GGreater-than symbol '>'
$HBackspace (deletes previous character)
$LLess-than symbol '<'
$MRemote name linked to the current drive if it is a network drive; empty string otherwise.
$NCurrent drive letter
$PCurrent drive letter and full path
$Q'=' (equals sign)
$S' ' (space character)
$TCurrent system time
$VWindows version number
$_<CR> (carriage return character, aka "enter")
$+As many plus signs (+) as there are items on the pushd directory stack

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