Get what you need when you need it with contextual tabs in Windows 8 Explorer

Greg Shultz continues his in-depth look at Windows 8 by examining the new Windows Explorer Ribbon's contextual tabs.

In last week's blog post, I examined the core tabs in the new Ribbon in Windows 8's Windows Explorer. As I did so, I explained that in addition to the core tabs, the Ribbon also sports a set of contextual tabs, which appear based on the location or type of object that you have selected and then provide you with groups of appropriate commands.

In this edition of the Windows Desktop Report, I will continue my in-depth look at the new Ribbon by exploring the contextual tabs in Windows 8's Windows Explorer.

Examine the Windows 8 Explorer Ribbon interface in Greg's Photo Gallery.

Note: Keep in mind that since this is such an early release of Windows 8, some of the features that I'll describe in this article may change between now and the time the operating system is actually released.

Contextual tabs

As I mentioned in the previous post, the Ribbon system with its tabs is designed to expose close to 200 different file management commands in Windows Explorer without having them buried in numerous nested menus, popups, dialog boxes, or right-click context menus. One of the ways that the Ribbon system accomplishes this feat is by using contextual tabs, which appear only when you select a specific location, such as Computer or Network, or a specific object, such as a drive, and then displaying related commands. In this way, contextual tabs essentially display the commands that you need only when you need them. Let's take a closer look.


When you select Computer in Windows Explorer's Navigation pane, the File menu and two tabs titled Computer and View will appear in the Ribbon. The File menu and the View tab contain the same commands as I showed you last week; however, the Computer tab contains a set of commands for the tasks that you typically perform in Computer. When you select a drive letter, a contextual tab titled Disk Tools Drive appears.

Computer tab

As you can see in Figure A, the first group in the Computer tab is titled Open, and it contains three commands: Open simply opens the drive, Properties displays a standard drive Properties dialog box, and Rename allows you to rename the selected object.

Figure A

The Computer tab displays commands for the tasks that you are likely to perform in Computer.

The Network group contains the Map Network Drive command as well as the Add a Network Location command. The latter launches the Add Network Location wizard that you can use to connect to a cloud site, an FTP site, or a network location.

The Configure Group allows you to easily tap into the Control Panel, launch the Uninstall Program tool, or access a System screen just like the one you access in Windows 7 by right-clicking on Computer and selecting Properties.

Drive tab

Selecting the Drive tab, as shown in Figure B, provides you with access to a set of commands you commonly need to use when working with drives. You'll notice that contextual tabs are highlighted with an additional colored tab to make them stand out.

As you can see, the commands in Removable Media group and the Rewritable Media group in my screen shot are inactive, but they become active when you select the appropriate type of drive, such as a USB thumb drive or a DVD-R disc.

Figure B

The Drive tab contains a host of commands you will need when you select a drive in Computer.

When a drive is selected, the Bitlocker command in the Protect group will allow you to enable and manage Bitlocker. The Manage group contains the Format, Cleanup, and Optimize commands, which work exactly as you would expect -- but instead of being spread out on a context menu and a couple of tabs on the Properties dialog box, they are readily available on the Ribbon.

Search tab

When you select the Search box in any Windows Explorer window, you'll see the Search contextual tab, as shown in Figure C. In the Location group, you can see that there are several commands that allow you to specify where you want to search. The commands in the Refine group allow you to narrow your search. In the Options group you'll find several commands that will allow you to perform various search-related operations, such as access recent searches or configure advanced search options. Once you're finished searching, you can click Close Search to remove the Search tab.

Figure C

When you select the Search box, you'll see the Search contextual tab appear in Windows Explorer.


When you select Libraries in Windows Explorer's Navigation pane, you'll see the File menu, the core tabs, and the Manage contextual tab, which is highlighted as Library Tools, as shown in Figure D.

Figure D

When you select Libraries, the Manage contextual tab appears.

From this tab you can perform a host of library management tasks, such as use the Manage Library command to add and remove libraries, specify the type of file that the library will be optimized for, as well as decide whether a library is to appear in the Navigation pane.


When you select Homegroup in Windows Explorer's Navigation pane, the File menu and two tabs titled HomeGroup and View will appear in the Ribbon, as shown in Figure E. The File menu and the View tab contain the same commands as I showed you last week. The Homegroup tab allows you to share libraries and devices with the homegroup as well as change homegroup settings. You can also view the homegroup password or launch the homegroup troubleshooter.

Figure E

The HomeGroup tab makes it easy to manage and configure your homegroup settings.


When you select Network in Windows Explorer's Navigation pane, the File menu and two tabs titled Network and View will appear in the Ribbon, as shown in Figure F. In the Open group of the Network tab, you'll find the Connect with Remote Desktop Connection command is available when you select a computer in the network. It's a very nice command to have easily available! When you select a device such as a router, the View Device Webpage command is enabled and allows you to quickly change configuration settings.

Figure F

The Network tab exposes some nice commands such as the Connect with Remote Desktop Connection command.

In the Configure group you can add network printers or devices, access the Network and Sharing Center, and, if you are connected to a domain, search Active Directory.

File type contextual tabs

When you select certain file types in Windows Explorer, you'll see contextual tabs that contain commands related to the file type. For example, when you select an image file, you'll see a Picture Tools Manage tab that contains the Rotate and View groups, as shown in Figure G.

Figure G

Selecting an image file in Windows Explorer activates the Picture Tools Manage tab.
When you select a video or music file, you see the Video Tools Play tab or the Music Tools Play tab, as shown in Figure H. I'm not sure that this tab is complete at this stage in the development process, but you can get the basic idea.

Figure H

Selecting a music file activates the Music Tools Play tab.

Minimize the Ribbon

If you don't want to have the Ribbon actively displayed in Windows Explorer, you can minimize it. Just click the arrow beneath the close button, as shown in Figure I. To get the Ribbon back, just click the arrow again.

Figure I

You can minimize the Ribbon if you prefer not to have it displayed in Windows Explorer.

Quick Access Toolbar

If you loved the Customize Toolbar feature in Windows XP's Widows Explorer, you'll be glad to see the Quick Access Toolbar in Windows 8's Windows Explorer. Any command that you see on any tab can be added to the Quick Access Toolbar easily -- just right-click on the command and select Add to Quick Access Toolbar. You can add approximately 200 commands to the Quick Access Toolbar. So, if you prefer, you can then minimize the Ribbon and just use a customized Quick Access Toolbar, like the one shown in Figure J.

Figure J

You can minimize the Ribbon and just use a customized Quick Access Toolbar.

What's your take?

What do you think about Windows 8's Windows Explorer? Are you ready to embrace the Ribbon or are you going to complain about it? It's your choice! 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.


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.


I am not disabled, but using a mouse or touchpad is painful to me. I have watched Microsoft and most other providers move away from keyboard navigation for some time. People who cannot use a pointing device need to be served. This means more than tacking on the ability to move the mouse with numeric keypad. If that is all that is going to be provided in the new Explorer, then the disabled are being moved to the back of the bus. There are accessibility guidelines for the Web, and I am sure there guidelines for software development as well. Are these guidelines being followed?


Really good article Greg ! Always enjoy reading your tutorials and share your thoughts of IT. Actually you were the one that showed me how to understand how Gadgets working on the inside. Didn't knew before it wasn't more difficult than just switching the file extension to zip in open them. Perhaps you guys now heard the news Microsoft closed Windows Live Gallery. That's tragicomic they want everyone heading over for Windows 8, looks like there's other issues behind than only a matter of the development of new apps when haven't afford keeping their webbsite open for the public. I mean just because of the dev. of Windows 8 it doesn't mean the support for Windows Vista & Seven has expired. Don't understand why they opt for these sudden priorities just because of a new version. I'm worried of what this will bring all traditional desktop users in the world. No company haven't tried make this big re-imagine before and they won't do it without meeting peoples opinions. I like what Windows always brought me and its been a interesting experience in both good and less good moments. If they know what they doing right now, I'm not sure here on that point. There's more than just a few trivial aspects of importance in changes that will strike against many desktop users. We heard of the biggest changes but sure more may come, it goes like a line through the story, Microsoft getting harder to dealing with and it's obvious economy has to do with it. I'm sorry if my post made anyone upset I'm on your side as well.


I really don't mind using the menus, because I don't generally need access to the tools being exposed on the ribbon. I can also see some REALLY bad things happening by adding the Format tool to the context menu for clueless users. Same goes for many of the others - there are a lot of settings that get people in trouble when they are messed with including encryption, networking, etc. And given that you can get access to the majority of these from the control panel, putting them on the context menu just is overkill. Disclaimer: I hate the ribbon anyway. Right-click is so much faster and doesn't eat up my screen!


I'm so used to the ribbon in Office that it took a while to actually reallise I was using it in Explorer! A quick browse on the Internet will find a really good, quick tutorial on its use from Microsoft and you will find it saving you a lot of time. To save even more here is the url:


I didn't find the learning curve that steep. My only problem was with that blasted Office 'button disguised as a logo', and it's been replace with the File menu that should have been there in the first place. I'll probably adapt to the Ribbon in Explorer a lot quicker than I'll adapt to the Metro GUI on desktop or laptop. My one concern is that the contextual tabs won't allow me to access something MS doesn't think I need access to at that particular time. That would not be a Ribbon issue, just MS again trying to prove they know what I want better than I do. I do agree with FlagstaffCJ; bring back the ability to have multiple folders open in the same Explorer session.


I think the Ribbon is great but what I really want is multiple folder tabs similar to how IE/Firefox/Chrome does internet tabs.

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

I know many don't like the Ribbon in Office, but I actually like it. For Windows 8, it looks like the Windows Explorer Ribbon is much more flexible, which is even better. Are you willing to give the Ribbon a chance for Windows 8 Windows Explorer?


Hi Buill R - keyboard nav is still there in the ribbon - hit ALT and you will see a whole raft of new (and not intuitive) shortcuts appearing. First letter navigation exists in lists eg Windows D to the desktop and hit the first letter of what you want until you get to it. I may be anti-ribbon but there is more to navigating it than using thenumeric arrows. Tabs will jump you from section to section.


Just right-click it and select "Minimize the Ribbon". It shrinks down to about the same size as the old toolbar, and stays that way. This applies to all Ribbon-equipped apps.


The groupings in ribbons are arbitrary and illogical. I wanted to filter data so I only got unique results - is that possible from excels filter commands on the ribbon - no you have to go to the data ribbon. just leave things where they make sense - ie on the right mouse button/applications key where the user controls it. info.


Ramming down our throats the ribbon and their inane "Search" which no one understands or cares for, where you enter part of a fille name, or even the whole one, and it says "Not found!" Yet you KNOW it's there. Hence everyone ends up installing "Search Everything." Someone should insist to MS the "KEEP IT SIMPLE STUPID" method. Their designers and developers are at best too smart for their own good. Look ar IE9: the worst of their browser contributions so far. What an abortion. I have to keep uninstalling it for my customers because half of what people need it for doesn't work. Pathetic.


Search used to be so intuitive - now it's layered with loads of options to 'make it easier, it basically isn't fit for purpose.

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