Customizing Windows Console Application Key Actions

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    Introduction

    ReadKeyConsole is a solution that contains some tools for customizing key actions for a Windows Console Application, as well as a general way of retaining default functionality when using Console.Readkey() and some other useful console functionalities.

    When working on a console application, I wanted to implement a custom action when the tab key was pressed. 

    After doing some research, this turned out not to be as straightforward as I first thought. A lot of solutions offered for this problem included using the Console.ReadKey method. The problem with using this method is that it will disable a lot of other functionality like using the arrow up/down keys to scroll through the history of typed commands. Functionality I wanted to keep.

    The example below illustrates this:

    bool running = true; string line = string.Empty; while (running) {     var key = Console.ReadKey();     if (key.Key == ConsoleKey.Enter)     {         if (line.ToLower() == "exit")             running = false;         Console.WriteLine(line);         line = string.Empty;     }     else         line += key.KeyChar; }

    Note: I already took time to fix the enter key functionality in this example, as the default behaviour will just return the cursor to its first position again, without starting a new line.

    When I press the up key on the second line, the application inserts a space instead of my previous typed command (“Test”). Then, when I press escape (twice) to clear the line, it just shows a “?”, meaning it is writing down the character instead:

    Obviously, when I want to implement functionality for a single key, I do not want the other functionality that the console has to offer to be lost.

    After some more Googling, I didn’t find any solution to this problem and I decided to write my own. I want to share my solution with the community.

    I’ve tried a lot of different approaches, even intercepting keys directly from the operating system. None had the desired effect.

    Eventually, I decided to reverse engineer the console functionalities that are being lost by using the ReadKey method. I’m not sure if the benefits outweigh the cost. But it was a nice project to work on and a good learning experience.

    Before I started, I had to figure out what default functionality was supported for a console application. Again, Google offered less help than I had hoped. I found quite a few pages explaining different functions, but none of them were complete.

    By combining the information on these pages, and by actually trying it myself, I decided to support the following functionality:

    Key combinations without Ctrl button pressed

    Default Insert character
    F1 Auto complete a single character from the previously entered entry
    F3 Auto complete the rest of the line using the selected previous entry
    F5 Cycle up through previous entries
    F6 Do nothing
    F8 Auto complete using previous entries
    Escape Clear line
    Delete Remove succeeding character
    Backspace Remove preceding character
    Left arrow Move cursor left
    Right arrow Move cursor right
    Home Move cursor to start of line
    End Move cursor to end of line
    Up arrow Cycle up through previous entries
    Page up Cycle to first entry
    Down arrow Cycle down through previous entries
    Page down Cycle to last entry

    Key combination with Ctrl button pressed

    Default Do nothing
    H Remove preceding character
    Backspace Remove all preceding characters
    Left arrow Move cursor to start of line
    Right arrow Move cursor to end of line
    Home Remove all preceding characters
    End Remove all succeeding characters

    Note: As stated, this list is not complete. Some functions had too little benefit for their cost (e.g. F2 and F4 open a menu to enable functionality) while others I might have simply missed. But as you will see in the next chapters: This solution will make it very easy to add any functionality you might find missing. And even override the default functionality as is displayed in these tables.

    Using the code

    The library (attached) provides its own ConsoleExt.ReadKey method which is very similar to the Console.ReadLine method .NET provides. The difference is that the new method leaves most key functionality intact (So the up and down arrows still scroll through previous commands, etc. See chapter Default Console Key Functionality). It also returns a KeyPressResult instead of a ConsoleKeyInfo entity. This object doesn’t only tell the programmer which key was pressed, but also contains information about the complete line and cursor position, both before and after the key press.

    All properties on KeyPressResult:

    • ConsoleKeyInfo – The same struct that would be returned by Console.ReadKey().
    • Key – The ConsoleKey inside ConsoleKeyInfo.
    • KeyChar – The key character inside ConsoleKeyInfo.
    • Modifiers – The modifiers that were pressed when the input was given (e.g. Shift, Ctrl).
    • LineBeforeKeyPress – A LineState class containing the line information as it was before the key was pressed.
    • LineAfterKeyPress – A LineState class containing the line information as it is after the key is pressed.

    All properties on LineState:

    • Line – The line.
    • CursorPosition – The position of the console cursor.
    • LineBeforeCursor – The part of the line that was before the CursorPosition.
    • LineAfterCursor – The part of the line that was after the CursorPosition.

    An example of how to use ReadKey:

    bool running = true; while (running) {     var result = ConsoleExt.ReadKey();     if (result.Key == ConsoleKey.Enter && result.LineBeforeKeyPress.Line.ToLower() == "exit")         running = false; }

    By using ConsoleExt.ReadKey, default functionality will be maintained. The following gif shows the exact same key combination as the example in chapter background (up key followed by escape key). Now with the expected behaviour:

    Note: The example states that LineBeforeKeyPress.Line should be used to get the same result as Console.Readline. This is because after pressing the enter key, the newline is empty. So the LineAfterKeyPress.Line will be an empty string.

    In some cases, it might be useful to intercept the key that is pressed. Both .NET and this library support this, by providing the intercept parameter in the ReadKey method.

    A useful addition to the standard console functionality, is that the programmer can now simulate key presses using the SimulateKeyPress method. This makes it possible to use an intercepted key after examination, or to even provide keys the user did not enter.

    In the example below, we want to intercept the space key for some reason. This can easily be achieved by using the intercept and SimulateKeyPress functionality.

    KeyPressResult result = ConsoleExt.ReadKey(true); switch (result.Key) { case ConsoleKey.Enter: ConsoleExt.SimulateKeyPress(result.ConsoleKeyInfo); break; case ConsoleKey.Spacebar: break; default: ConsoleExt.SimulateKeyPress(result.ConsoleKeyInfo); break; } }

    Note: When using the intercept parameter, LineAfterKeyPressed will contain the same information as LineBeforeKeyPressed, as nothing changes in the console.

    All public properties/methods available on ConsoleExt:

    • LineState – Property returning the current line/cursor state
    • ReadLine – Method that behaves the same as Console.Readline. However, for some other methods to work, this method must be used instead of Console.Readline. These methods are marked using an asterisk(*).
    • ReadKey – Method that blocks until one key is pressed by the user. Possible to intercept the key from the Console.
    • SimulateKeyPress – Method to simulate a key press from the user
    • SetLine – Method to set the current line. Will overwrite any characters the user already typed.*
    • ClearLine – Will clear the current line. All characters already typed by the user are deleted.*
    • StartNewLine – Will start a new line. Like when enter is typed.*
    • PrependLine – Will prepend a line above the one the user is currently using.* This can be useful for multithreaded console applications. (I will write an article about that subject shortly)
    • Custom Console Methods – These will be addressed in the next chapter.

    * These methods will not work if Console.ReadLine/ReadKey are used instead of ConsoleExt.ReadLine/ReadKey.

    Custom Console Actions

    Custom console actions can be used to alter default console key behaviour. For example, the console action that is attached to the home key by default, will set the cursor the first position of the line. ConsoleExt provides the means to override this default behaviour or to create new behaviour altogether.

    When assigning a custom console action, modifier key (shift, ctrl and alt) combinations are combined with the action key. For a single key, all different modifier combinations can have a different console action. This keeps the library as flexible as possible.

    For example: ctrl + a could mean select all, while ctrl + alt + a could have another functionality altogether.

    Below is a list of these combinations:

    • No modifier keys
    • Control
    • Shift
    • Alt
    • Shift + Alt
    • Control + Shift
    • Control + Alt
    • Control + Shift + Alt

    For this to be easy to use, all console action related methods have several variants:

    • One to affect the console action for all modifier combinations (including No modifier keys).
    • One to affect all combinations without the control key (No modifier keys, Shift, Alt and Shift + Alt).
    • One to affect all combinations with the control key (Control, Control + Shift, Control + Alt and Control + Shift + Alt).
    • And a method to affect the action of a single modifier key combination.

    Every modifier combination also has a default action assigned to it. This is the action that will be used if no action is assigned to a specific key. The default for non-control combinations is to write the character in the control. The default for control combinations is to do nothing. The library also allows for the defaults to be overridden.

    ConsoleExt supports the following functionality for console actions:

    • Setting a console action
    • Removing a console action
    • Setting a default console action
    • Resetting all console behaviour

    Combining these functions with the modifier variants as stated above gives the following list of console action methods implemented by ConsoleExt:

    • SetConsoleAction – Assign a console action to one specific key + modifier combination.
    • SetConsoleActionForNonCtrlModifierCombinations – Assign a console action to one specific key + all non ctrl modifier combinations.
    • SetConsoleActionForCtrlModifierCombinations – Assign a console action to one specific key + all ctrl modifier combinations.
    • SetConsoleActionForAllModifierCombinations – Assign a console action to one specific key + all modifier combinations.
    • RemoveConsoleAction – Remove a console action from one specific key + modifier combination.
    • RemoveConsoleActionForNonCtrlModifierCombinations – Remove a console action from one specific key + all non ctrl modifier combinations.
    • RemoveConsoleActionForCtrlModifierCombinations – Remove a console action from one specific key + all ctrl modifier combinations.
    • RemoveConsoleActionForAllModifierCombinations – Remove a console action from one specific key + all modifier combinations.
    • SetDefaultConsoleAction – Set a default console action for a specific modifier.
    • SetDefaultConsoleActionForNonCtrlModifierCombinations – Set a default console action for all non ctrl modifier combinations.
    • SetDefaultConsoleActionForCtrlModifierCombinations – Set a default console action for all ctrl modifier combinations.
    • SetDefaultConsoleActionForAllModifierCombinations – Set a default console action for all modifier combinations.
    • ResetConsoleBehaviour – Reset all assigned console actions.

    Creating a custom console action is very straightforward. It requires your class to implement IConsoleAction, after which it can be passed to ConsoleExt using one of the methods above.

    In the following example we want the tab key to repeat the previous character in the line.

    First we implement the console action class:

    public class RepeatPreviousCharacterAction : IConsoleAction { public void Execute(IConsole console, ConsoleKeyInfo consoleKeyInfo) { if (console.CursorPosition <= 0) return; var previousChar = console.CurrentLine[console.CursorPosition - 1].ToString();         console.CurrentLine = console.CurrentLine.Insert(console.CursorPosition, previousChar);         console.CursorPosition += 1; } }

    If the cursor is on the first position, the action does nothing. In other cases, it will get the character in front of the cursor, and inserts it at the position of the cursor. After this, we move the cursor one position to the right.

    Now all we have to do, it assign this action to the correct key, in this case the tab.

    ConsoleExt.SetConsoleActionForNonCtrlModifierCombinations( ConsoleKey.Tab, new RepeatPreviousCharacterAction());

    That’s it. When the user of the application presses the tab key without holding the control button, the previous character will be inserted again:

    Note: Because we used the Non-Control variant of the method, the console action is automatically assigned for Tab, Shift + Tab, Alt + Tab and Shift + Alt + Tab.

    An example of assigning the console action only for Shift + Alt + Tab would be:

    ConsoleExt.SetConsoleAction(   ConsoleModifiers.Shift | ConsoleModifiers.Alt,    ConsoleKey.Tab, new RepeatPreviousCharacterAction());

    Design Choices

    This chapter will explain a few of the design choices I made when creating the library. For context, it is good to have the source open while reading this.

    Previous Line Buffer

    A big part of default key functionality is the use of previous entries. Examples of this are using the up and down keys to scroll through these previous entries and using function keys for autocompletion using these enties.

    Since this functionality contains state (the entries and the index of an entry) which is used over all functions, I decided to create a separate class for this. The PreviousLineBuffer.

    The use of a separate class also enables easy unit testing and keeps the ConsoleExt class cleaner.

    Console Actions

    To make testing easier, and to make IConsoleAction more generic, I wanted the console to be passed to the interface, instead of all implementations having to use ConsoleExt directly. To accomplish this, IConsole is used.

    Because ConsoleExt is static and cannot implement an interface directly, a wrapper class (ConsoleExtInstance) was created in order for ConsoleExt to pass itself into the console action classes.

    The use of IConsole also makes unit testing easier, as the programmer can now make a stub class instead of having to use the actual ConsoleExt. The attached solution also contains examples of this (ConsoleStub).

    Points of Interest

    As stated in the chapter default console key functionality, I haven’t implemented all functionality. If you have any good additions, feel free to message me, and I might add them to the project.

    Keys like tab are not yet supported in this version of the library. Currently, the library is designed to have one screen character for one line character, while the tab key represents one line character for several screen characters.

    Little disclaimer for the purists: Yes, it would have been better to mock (or even stub) PreviousLineBuffer in tests like CycleDownActionTests, but I didn’t want to use a mocking framework for an isolated library like this, or complicate things in another way. So yes, CycleDownActionTests (and tests like it) also test a bit of the code that is already tested in PreviousLineBufferTests.

    To make methods like ReadLine predictable, I’ve chosen to always let the enter key be the new line key, and not use a console action for this. Of course it is very easy to alter this in the ConsoleExt class yourself.

    History

    05-06-2017 – Version 1

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