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Be a power user: Customize the file management features of Windows Explorer

Greg Shultz shows you how to customize Windows 7's Windows Explorer so you can set it up to meet your specific productivity needs.

Back in October I wrote "Tap into the Power of Libraries in Windows 7" and explained that Libraries were a refinement to the Search Folders Feature introduced in Windows Vista and that you can think of Libraries as collection points for files of a certain type that can exist in any number of locations. In the article "How Do I Create and Configure a Network with Windows 7 HomeGroup?" I then touched on how Libraries come into play in Windows 7's new network paradigm.

Now, while Libraries are notably the biggest enhancement to Windows Explorer, Microsoft did indeed make many other standard file-management enhancements in Windows 7. Over the past couple of months I've uncovered and begun to use many of these to enhance my productivity. While some of them are obvious, many of them are a bit tricky to find and harness.

In this edition of the Windows Vista and Windows 7 Report, I'll investigate the file-management enhancements I've discovered in Windows 7. As I do, I'll show you how to customize Windows 7's Windows Explorer so you can set it up to meet your specific needs.

This blog post is also available in PDF format in a free TechRepublic download.

New Folder button

While the New Folder button is not the most exciting new feature in Windows Explorer, it is something that I have been pining for a long time. I don't know why it has taken Microsoft so long to put this button where it has always belonged, but it did. In Windows 7's Windows Explorer, you'll find the New Folder button on the toolbar, as shown in Figure A. Just click it and a new folder appears!

Figure A

Finally, we have a New Folder button on the toolbar in Windows Explorer.

Preview Pane button

On the right side of Windows Explorer's toolbar, you see the Preview Pane button, which allows you to quickly and easily toggle the Preview Pane, as shown in Figure B. And if clicking the Preview Pane button isn't easy enough for you, try the [Alt]-P keyboard shortcut.

Figure B

You can quickly and easily toggle the Preview Pane from a toolbar button.

Simulated dual-pane file manager

Back in the DOS days, I lived and breathed Norton Commander. With its dual-pane interface, copying files from one folder or drive to another was a breeze. I've always wished that Windows Explorer had a dual-pane feature. Now, thanks to Aero Snap, creating a simulated dual-pane interface with Windows Explorer is, well, a snap.

You can create your dual-pane file-manager simulation with four simple keystrokes:

  • [Windows]+E
  • [Windows]+[Left Arrow]
  • [Windows]+E
  • [Windows]+[Right Arrow]
You don't even have to let up on the [Windows] key. In fact, I press and hold down the [Windows] key and then press E, [Left Arrow], E, [Right Arrow]. Once you have the two windows open, as shown in Figure C, you can easily copy files from one folder or drive to another.

Figure C

In four easy keystrokes, you can open a simulated dual-pane interface with Windows Explorer.

Change Windows Explorer's target

When you launch Windows Explorer from the Start menu in Windows 7, the default target is the Libraries folder. If you would prefer to have Windows Explorer open Computer, all you have to do is change the target.

To do so, press [Windows], type "windows explorer" in the Search box, right-click the first result, and select the Properties command. When you see the Windows Explorer Properties dialog box, type the following command in the Target text box, as shown in Figure D, and click OK.
%SystemRoot%\explorer.exe /root,::{20D04FE0-3AEA-1069-A2D8-08002B30309D}

Figure D

To make Windows Explorer open Computer, just change the target.

Save time with Favorites

If you have certain folders that you access all the time, you can save yourself time and navigation steps by adding those folders to Windows Explorer's Favorites. In Windows 7, it's a very simple operation to add folders to the Favorites.

Navigate to and open the folder that you access all the time. Then, right-click on the Favorites item in the navigation pane and select the Add Current File Location to Favorites command, as shown in Figure E.

Figure E

In Windows 7, it's a very simple operation to add folders to the Favorites.

Expand the navigation pane

By default, Windows Explorer displays five sections in the navigation pane: Favorites, Libraries, Homegroup, Computer, and Network. While this makes the navigation pane a straightforward tool, there are other locations you may want to have easy access to. To expand the number of items in the navigation pane, pull down the Organize menu and select the Folder and Search Options command. When you see the Folder Options dialog box, select the Show All Folders check box and click OK. When you do, you'll see a fuller navigation pane, as shown in Figure F. As you can see, there are now nine items in the navigation pane including Desktop, your User folder, Control Panel, and Recycle Bin.

Figure F

Selecting the Show All Folders check box expands the navigation pane.

More Album Art

To help you more easily associate individual MP3s with the artist, you'll now discover that each file's icon can now show Album Art when you select Tiles, Medium, Large, or Extra Large as the view, as shown in Figure G.

Figure G

Each MP3s icon can now show Album Art.

Content View

There's a new View setting in Windows 7 called Content View that makes it easier to keep track of multimedia files -- pictures, videos, music/MP3s. As you can see in Figure H, Content View displays one item per line with information about that item, such as date modified, size, author, and type.

Figure H

Content View makes keeping track of multimedia files easier.

What's your take?

The file-management features in Windows 7's Windows Explorer are pretty nice once you get used to using them. Have you grown to like the file-management features in Windows 7? What do you think? As always, if you have comments or information to share about this topic, please take a moment to drop by the TechRepublic Community Forums and let us hear from you.

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About

Greg Shultz is a freelance Technical Writer. Previously, he has worked as Documentation Specialist in the software industry, a Technical Support Specialist in educational industry, and a Technical Journalist in the computer publishing industry.

50 comments
bookman25
bookman25

If you really want to get back to a good tool MS should make the old file manager, that was available before explorer, available in Windows 7 and update it to include the right click menus. Dual pane file manager with it's ability to set permissions and take ownership, etc. was a great tool.

vijer
vijer

Personally I think MS screwed up Explorer. And the concept of Libraries is for the dimwitted who don't know how to keep their files organized; "geez let me leave pictures in 12 spot then I can include them in my library". Hey isn't that what the Desktop is for? For the dimwitted who don't know how to save files to folders so they know where they are. Nope just put a lot of crap on your Desktop so you have to filter through it. But lets assume you like the new features, and some don't, shouldn't it be super easy to change the settings instead of having to resort to hacks!@!@

viralnexxus
viralnexxus

Mr. Shultz, you sir, are a GENIUS! I have been dual booting between Windows and Linux because of certain features not implemented in one or the other or both. Like you, I also find the Dual-Pane file manager very handy; Midnight Commander? Now I have one less feature to integrate in Win7 without installing yet another "Windows Tweaker" with huge over-head and bloat. Keep up the good work! Cheers, -VB

nhiep_nguyen
nhiep_nguyen

It's very useful to me. However PowerDesk 7 (from Avanquest)does all those added features at a cost and have to run in XP compatible mode.

rcfoulk
rcfoulk

My personal take is that libraries are ridiculous. The admitted redundancy of "My Documents" in earlier versions was one thing but Libraries just make more fragmented the understanding of how things are stored on a hard drive. I'm frankly not a rocket scientist but the concept of a hierarchically structured inverted tree system just doesn't seem that daunting. The new explorer is one of the reasons that I won't use Win7. It is made a little better by a crafty add-in that reverts a lot but not all of the interface to classic mode but it's still annoying. I don't know when folks will get the concept that using a computer is about applications, not the OS interface. That should be wholly customizable to however one works best rather than being dramatically reworked for the detail geek set at the sincere annoyance of those among us that are trying to get work done.

LewisEigen
LewisEigen

Terrific. I had no idea of these capes and can use most of them.

Regulus
Regulus

One of my Win 7 units correctly shows gif's, jpg's & .tst's etc. in the icons & viewing pane. Another shows nothing, or 'no preview available'. How do I enable the preview function?

hvpoele
hvpoele

Ever heard of XYplorer?

Dogcatcher
Dogcatcher

A good article, but it's a shame we need it. As some chap noted in another blog, the fundamental problem with Windows 7 (and Vista) is not that things were added or changed, but that some truly useful UI functions, views, and shortcuts found in XP were removed. Newbies may not notice the omissions, but the omissions surely do annoy the power users. Still haven't read any good explanation as to why Microsoft would deliberately make changes that annoy the people who recommend and support its products.

libskrap
libskrap

I keep trying to get in a positive frame of mind about win 7 (and office 2007, for that matter). Seems like every time I find something useful in it, I find that ms defeated two other things that used to be easily, readily, there (xp). Keep up the good work, Greg. Maybe I can at least get to where I don't think it is a rip-off.

cwiebe
cwiebe

The way Vista's Explorer would allow sorting while in list mode? This was my favourite feature as I prefer list to details, but often want to swap from filename to Last Modified or some other attribute. This was great in Vista, but MS took it away in Win7.

deICERAY
deICERAY

There is no "File Edit Views Tools" bar in WIN7's Explorer. You have to press ALT to see it; every time you want to use it. Explorer also has the ridiculous habit of expanding a folder's sub-folders in the left panel by dropping the opened folder to the bottom of the listing - dumbest thing I've ever seen in a file management program. An OS shouldn't need 3rd party software to function properly or fully, but MS always has suffered from the need.

info
info

Simply forget Windows Explorer and install Directory Opus !!!

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

Have you discovered other new features in Windows Explorer that you found particularly useful? How about other tweaks and hacks that are not obvious?

SirWizard
SirWizard

Once upon a time (Windows XP) you could get at all your applications in the Start menu simply by hovering over apps, their sub-apps, and so on. They all popped out, easy to see--just click the one you want from the completely exposed list. Now, in Windows 7, you must hover over or click All Programs, then scroll to find the one you want (extra step one), then click [no hover functionality], so one extra click for each level in the hierarchy to get what you need. For example Microsoft Office Tools requires extra step two and extra step three to reach "Microsoft Office Access Snapshot Vi". You can't even read the whole app title without trying to scroll (without a scroll control) or having to hover over each app to read the tool tip. What a productivity/ease of use/carpal tunnel killer.

imsoscareed
imsoscareed

MS removed\disabled a lot of useful funtions in Win7. Theater Mode, the share folder icon, the way you save the default user profile, the list goes on (forever). I think their mission was to try and dumb it down as much as possible to try and snag the average user and they left corporate customers hanging.

yagar
yagar

Most of my business customers don't want anything to do with Win7 or any office product above Office 2003. They refuse to learn the new OS. Those that have tried office 2007 have gone back to 2003, they hate 2007. One of my customers is putting together an order for new machines, all XP, no office. They are going to use the old licenses for Office 2003. They, and I, are not real concerned that MS will drop support for XP in 2014. I will have all the updates so any new machines, which they have asked me to build for them when they can no longer order them, will be updated to the last available. As far as I am concerned MS shot themselves in the foot with no "Run in Classic Mode" in Win7 and the newer office packages. Some people are just not going to learn to operate a computer again. Why should they XP does everything they want as does Office 2003 or even Office 2000. This is covering old ground but it's real.

SirWizard
SirWizard

Let's say that I have lots of subfolders within folders on a drive (as I actually do), and want to look in several of the subfolders. In the Windows Explorer folders pane, I click a plus sign to expand a sub-list, and then click a subfolder to view its contents. In the contents pane, I click something to view it (watch a brief video file or whatever.) When I want to look at something within a different subfolder, I find the main folder's list has condensed back showing only the folders I've previously selected below the main folder. I must re-expand the main list to look at the whole sub-list again. It doesn't stay open as one would expect/want, so I have to do a lot of extra clicking. Is this some kind of interface improvement, or am I missing some crucial setting? Perhaps a Don't Condense Expanded Lists Unless I Condense Them check box in the Don't Waste My Time dialog box.

rfolden
rfolden

Win 7: With the percieved flop that was Vista, I'll take Win 7 any day. I don't care if it is argued that it really is Vista SP(x). It installs SO much faster than Vista and runs (adequately) on hardware I wouldn't DREAM of putting WinVista on. Office 2007: Yeah, hated the "ribbon" interface at first. Still don't like it as much as the "conventional" menu structure, but all the alt-blah combinations still work and I'd memorized them anyway. I can now say that I can navigate around in MS products as efficiently as I could with, say, office 2003.

NthDegree
NthDegree

Just click on the column header you want to sort by, click it again to reverse the order.

rfolden
rfolden

Use the alt - feature once to bring up the menu that is "Missing". Find view... folder options (IIRC) and turn on the "show menus always". Works in Vista Twista, too, of course...

ghughes
ghughes

"File Edit Views Tools" menu is selectable in Win7 from the Organize button. It's under Layout.

ederkley
ederkley

Lashed out and bought it a few years ago and never looked back. I really dont like Vista and Win7 File Explorers. But I guess I'm now getting a bit old-school. UltraMon is the other must-have application if you run dual-monitors. Even with Vista and Win7 it continues to add just that extra useful level of functionality.

Dzmitry Z
Dzmitry Z

I've used FAR manager as replacement to NC for years and still do a good bit. It has many enhancements like shell integration and is quite customizable.

Thack
Thack

I've used Directory Opus for years, but I must say it does look awfully dated now. The functionality is great, but it looks like some clunky old Windows 95 app, with its numerous toolbars populated with tiny icons whose meaning is hard to fathom, its very busy layout and almost complete lack of Vista/W7 "look, style and feel". I know we techies are supposed to be immune to UI elegance, but the horrible appearance always grates a bit with me. Just fussy, I guess!

jcurtis
jcurtis

Directory Opus looks good but at 50GBP/75USD it will be too expensive for quite a lot of users.

damon.mac88
damon.mac88

I especially liked the shortcuts for Dual View ...

seanferd
seanferd

I couldn't remember how to get the faux split pane effect. Thank you. Didn't have time to look it up when I needed it. And I don't have an RTM copy that I'm using myself. What I'd like to do is change the default "shake" behavior to to this (yeah, I'm probably dreaming here). I mean, minimize button? How is shake easier for this?

jzh_44
jzh_44

Try; %windir%\explorer.exe ,/e should give you the same results and is easier to do then adding the GUI key.. -JZH

deICERAY
deICERAY

There are many other file managers and one that I like is Windows Double Explorer. It behaves much more as you would expect it to. I like your idea of a "Don't Waste My Time" dialog box.

ssadler
ssadler

Too many limitations with windows 7 explorer so switched to FreeCommander. Much better. Lots of power: dual pane, synchronize folders, compare folders, filter views, select files with same extension, etc...etc...etc. And it's free.

cwiebe
cwiebe

Thanks NthDegree, but there are no column headers displayed when in list mode. These column headers existed in Vista, but are gone in Win7.

deICERAY
deICERAY

What is the genius thought behind making file/edit/view/tools Optional? Because it's a new decade? Because it's only been around for 40 years? Because it Looks nicer with less? Optional? So is common sense, I guess.

LeoDavidson
LeoDavidson

It's worth noting that Opus tends to only get a charged-for update very three years (based on past behaviour) and yet gets many free updates during that time which add as many features as most companies would charge for. While those three-yearly updates are discounted for existing users, IMO, GPSoftware should make people pay a smaller amount more often, i.e. charge for some of the intermediate updates, as most people don't look into the update schedule and thus don't realise the cost is spread out compared to most software. ?50 also seems high but maybe it is now due to exchange rates? It used to be ?35 last time I calculated the price (which was three years ago :)... the price in Australian dollars won't have changed but the exchange rate has).

UtopiaBoy
UtopiaBoy

I have just bought a laptop with Windows 7 and each of your tips was useful. Bravo

RonaldO@OrtronInc.com
RonaldO@OrtronInc.com

"You Can Automate Repetitive File Management Suite" add some needed features. It is a free windows explorer extension with folder bookmarks, a file launcher and batch file replacement.

Keith Hailey
Keith Hailey

I just downloaded & installed Freecommander and my first impression was, WOW, Everything I liked about the old Windows 3.11 filemanger and missed, PLUS a lot of the features I wished that it had. Thanks for mentioning this program.

cwiebe
cwiebe

In Vista for list mode. It was so convenient for picking the sort order quickly.

seanferd
seanferd

Details view has columns. List is only a list. Same as XP. What would be in the columns aside from details?

TG2
TG2

Thank you!! I had looked a while back.. never saw anything.. but now seeing this.. there's hope yet.. Although now I wonder when MS will try to buy them out or put them under the microsoft steam roller. :)

JCitizen
JCitizen

I hope someone at Microsoft sees this and is rightfully embarrassed that we have to buy, software to fix their stupid design concept. Microsoft for business? What a joke!

deICERAY
deICERAY

There is a program out there, a freeware that adds the classic old Windows Word menu bar to 2007! It's a godsend - I will try to find its name and get back to you. I agree with everything you said about the OS degeneration. "Designers, we don't need no stinking designers."

TG2
TG2

Yeah ... Time to re-learn how to do everything with that "windows" thing ... even though (if like me) you've been using windows programs ever since 3.0 upgraded to 3.1. Its this point that angers me greatly about microsoft with the Vista UI and now continued in 7 .... what the hell were they thinking? The "File" menu bar has been with us a long time, yet they destroyed it in Office 2007. I can't tell you the number of times I've just gone back to word 2003 to do stuff because that GD ribbon bar is useless to me. Pretty, sure, but it wastes screen realestate on my already tiny 16 inch 1366x768 laptop screen. And explorer.. what the hell happened to the UP button? I don't like clicking in the address bar to go up one level, and how do you trick explorer to go up when your starting point was a user's folder ie double click the user's folder on the desktop, in XP you could go "Up" from there and it would put you in C:\Users ... becase you'd started in C:\Users\__your_user_name_\ They may have "redesigned" to make this UI easier for non-computer users ... or for those who gravitate to Mac already ... but they quite literally F**Ked the other 99% of the world that already used windows, and had, whether by trial and error, or under fire, become used to what *was* the expected norm.. again.. good goin' microsoft, next time use some lube... please.

LeoDavidson
LeoDavidson

If you had even looked at Opus you'd realise what a silly thing to say that is. You cannot customize Explorer to anywhere NEAR the extent you can with Opus (or most other file managers, for that matter). It's like comparing MSPaint to Photoshop. There thousands of things Opus does (and other file managers do) which Explorer cannot do no matter how many registry tweaks and shell extensions you install. If you're happy with Explorer then that's fine but you shouldn't disparage a more powerful tool just because you know nothing about it.

Nunob
Nunob

Like custimizing windows explorer that is free with the OS? Insert roll eyes gif here