Windows

Take advantage of Windows Explorer's Navigation pane

Greg Shultz takes a closer look at the features in the new Navigation pane in Microsoft Windows Vista and shows you how to use these features to improve efficiency and wean yourself from the folder tree.

While Vista's Windows Explorer provides you with what appears to be a standard Folders pane, just like the previous versions of Windows, the Vista version is actually called the Navigation pane and it consists of two sections -- the Folders section and the Favorite Links section. Because the Folders section provides a very familiar interface, a folder tree, chances are good that this is all you use to navigate your hard disk in Vista. That's unfortunate because you are probably missing out on two of Vista's most useful file management features -- Search Folders and Favorite Links.

In this edition of the Windows Vista Report, I'm going to take a closer look at the features in the new Navigation pane. As I do, I'll show you how you can use these features to improve efficiency and wean yourself from the folder tree.

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

The folder tree aspect

When you look at Windows Explorer in its default configuration, as shown in Figure A, you'll notice that the Folders section with its folder tree is the most prominent part of the Navigation pane. However, if you look closer, you'll see that the Navigation pane is actually separated into two sections, Folders and Favorite Links. The real power of the new Windows Explorer is in the Favorite Links section.

Figure A

The Navigation pane is actually separated into two sections, Folders and Favorite Links.

Favorite Links

To take real advantage of the Navigation pane, you need to close the Folders section. To do so, click the arrow control in the Folders section. When you do, the Folders section essentially is minimized and the Favorite Links section takes over the entire Navigation pane, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B

You can essentially minimize the Folders section and display only the Favorite Links section in the Navigation pane.

As you can see, by default, the Favorite Links section of the Navigation pane contains six links. However, you can customize the Navigation pane by adding other links as we'll see in a moment. To begin with, the first three links -- Documents, Pictures, and Music -- are simply shortcuts to these common folders. Since these are the folders that contain the files that you most likely need to access on a regular basis, having these links at the top of the Navigation pane will allow you to quickly find what you need without having to drill down through a standard folder tree.

The next link is titled Recently Changed and is designed to show you files from your Documents, Pictures, and Music folders that you have created or modified in the past 30 days. As you can see by its icon, the Recently Changed link is actually a Search Folder.

The next link is titled Searches and is the main container for all the Search Folders, as shown in Figure C. As you probably know, Search Folders are essentially searches that you saved and are designed to make it easy for you to quickly find your files, regardless of where they actually exist on your hard disk. When you open a Search Folder, the operating system instantly runs that saved search and immediately displays up-to-date results.

Figure C

Search is the main container for all the saved Search folders.

As you can see, there are six saved searches in the Searches folder -- four for various file types, the main Recently Changed catch-all, and a special saved search, Shared By Me, which shows all files and folders that you have shared.

Just below Searches is a link to the Public folder, which is the folder where you can store files that you want to share with other people on the same computer or network.

Customizing the Navigation pane

To really make the Navigation pane shine, you will need to customize it. As you do, keep in mind that your goal should be to create a navigational tool that contains as many of your most frequently accessed items as possible so that you can reduce your dependence on the folder tree. Of course you'll still have to use the folder tree sometimes, but the more you can use the features of the Navigation pane, the more efficiently you'll be able to find what you need.

To begin with, you'll want to add your saved searches. When you create saved searches, they are automatically added to the Searches folder, but you can use drag-and-drop to move them directly to the Favorite Links section.

For example, I have written lots of articles about scripts in VBScript and often need to reference them, so I type VBScript in the Start Search box and then click Search Everywhere, as shown in Figure D.

Figure D

Use the Start Search box to launch your search operation.
When the Search Results appear, I then click the Save Search button, as shown in Figure E, and save the search in the Searches folder. When the saved search shows up on the Searches folder, I then use the right-click, drag-and-drop action to move the VBScript saved search to the Favorite Links folder.

Figure E

When the Search Results appear, click the Save Search button.
Now, I can click the VBScript saved search and immediately locate all my files and information about VBScript, as shown in Figure F.

Figure F

You can add custom saved searches to the Favorite Links section of the Navigation pane.
You can also customize the Navigation pane by adding links to a specific folder. For example, as I write each week's Windows Vista Report for the month of September, I access the C:\Users\Greg\Documents\TechRepublic\Articles\2008\9) September 08 folder. So rather than having to drill down through the folder tree, I can create a shortcut, via drag-and-drop, and add it to the Favorite Links section of the Navigation pane, as shown in Figure G.

Figure G

You can add your own links to the Favorite Links section of the Navigation pane.

What's your take?

Are you dependent on the folder tree? What do you think about using the Favorite Links section of the Navigation pane as a replacement for the folder tree? As always, if you have comments or information to share about this technique, please take a moment to drop by the Discussion area and let us hear from you.

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.

27 comments
Regulus
Regulus

Another major issue that was not addressed here is the contents of the right window. When accessing a folder containing media files .jpg. .wmv, .mp3 etc. the column headings change. The critical information that I am looking for is no longer present - Size, type & date modified. How do I get my standard screen back without having to rebuild the View every time that I access such a folder? This 'feature' might be great for 'media heads', but it is a major hindrance to IT Pro's and many others.

dogknees
dogknees

Am I the only one that gets sick of tips that are obvious by looking at the interface and checking out the options? I'm seeing tips for XP that I saw 5 years ago showing up as new. How about some options and actions that are not visible in any interface (including the Advanced Options) or described in any Help file. The things that the programmers coded in but never told anyone about. The "real" hidden features. Rant Over

sabinelevrier
sabinelevrier

I love it! I never waste any time looking through my folders since I discovered this feature. Very similar to one of the function "Ctrl" (hit twice) available with Google taskbar within XP.

saved2serve
saved2serve

Rather than using the Navigation Pane i have eliminated it (Organize>Layout), as i want more space, esp. when i place windows side by side (now if only Vista would remember Window sizes). But this results in sometimes finding a dead end in navigating (like when going straight to a folder via a hotkey), which necessitates using Alt and the up key (since Vista eliminates the Up navigation arrow). Enter QTab bar (freeware), which enables the Up arrow (View>Toolbars>Enable..., then r. click towards the middle and choose Customize), as well as tabbed windows and many other features. See review ("extremely functional and highly configurable..") and download link here: http://www.softpedia.com/reviews/windows/QTTabBar--Review-78844.shtml i think such should be standard on Vista, and thank God for those who make such nifty additions.

bsmi021
bsmi021

I do not feel it is any advantage, it is eye candy only, if you just build and keep a GOOD folder set up in my doc's then it should not be an issue. The folder tree should be used for things OTHER then what is in the doc's folder.

kaspencer
kaspencer

Sorry, but the new navigation methods are the things I *least* like about Windows Vista. I still hanker after the old drop down list in the header of an explorer dialogue, which showed me exactly where I was and how I got there, and which allowed me with a single click to navigate back up the tree to any point higher up. With Vista you simply cannot do that in a single click. I hate the new arrangement just as much as I hate the Office 2k7 ribbon. Kenneth Spencer

dogknees
dogknees

I routinely need to access pretty much any folder on any mapped drive. How do I use the above to make this easier? It only seems to make sense if you use a limited number of folders and can't remember where they are. I know where all my data is, and keep it organised. Don't you?

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

Are you dependent on the folder tree? What do you think about using the Favorite Links section of the Navigation pane as a replacement for the folder tree?

KVJ
KVJ

The folder tree is simple and to the point ie...efficient (how bout that mr. i before e except after c). Anyway, why add so many clicks to a process that is already efficient. The pane is for users.

bradsell
bradsell

I still hanker after NT's File Manager which works fine on XP but not on Vista. So much quicker and more powerful than Explorer. I hated the Office 2007 ribbon so much, that after 18 months of struggling with it, I uninstalled the damn thing and re-installed Office 2003 - what a relief!

wfps1946
wfps1946

From past experience, I have found that, outside the workplace, the average user is probably 50 years old or older or 12 years old and younger. Both age groups are not likely to keep their files organized or know the name of them, much less where they put them. So, that being said, then the navigation pane is probably a good addition for them, if you don't need it, it's a simple thing, don't use it. I currently work on a computer service desk and have also found that the average user in the work place also has the same problem, they don't know the file name or where they put it. I get at least 10 calls a day for this particular situation. They come from some of the smartest people in their resective fields, which obviously is not computers. All of us the work with computers for a living know what the consequences can be if we lose a file and have to hunt for it. If that isn't bad enough, try to hunt for someone else's file that is lost when you don't know the name or location.

bbwalters
bbwalters

Nice Mark, but, I do wish I could search in VISTA. I know there are particular files there, but the search never finds them. I now have given up on the search facility. Another reason to change operating system.

sbjcat
sbjcat

The original post asks if the pane will be a replacement for the tree. It will never replace the tree. These are two different tools used for different kinds of navigation. They are not mutually exclusive, and you can easily toggle between them. I find that they enhance each other.

pjboyles
pjboyles

I miss the up arrow. I know the bread crumbs but they can be a big pain to use as the area cannot always show the preceding folder to click. (Yes I know how to get the drop down list to choose from!). The up arrow was so SIMPLE and EXTREMELY USEFUL. Change for changes sake is just not good. I wish Microsoft and others would get that.

Craig_B
Craig_B

I appreciate the tip.

ed.spaeny
ed.spaeny

For me, being an IT worker for years, I have my files organized, access them regularly and want to keep using the folder tree for sure. The pane is a pain (thanks first poster). However, for other, non-IT people, like a lot of my relatives, I can see it having its use. They see the folder structure with all those directories and funny names files and folders and can't see the wood through the trees. For me, no way. Keep the folder tree!

1bn0
1bn0

HOW DO I TURN THE ^&%#%^@^%#@%^% THING OFF! The Favorites Pane can be usefull if you use your computer that way. But NOT in Explorer. When I open Explorer it's because I am looking for something I KNOW I am not going to find any other way. This is especially true for those of us that maintain and repair P.C.'s. That DAMNED pane is a PAIN. I just want to be able to manually search through the folder structure. If I wanted to use the Favorites menu I would have opened it INSTEAD! {Edited to make verde@ happy}

pjboyles
pjboyles

Right click "Explore." Open, "Computer" and configure the view how you like. Click on "Organize" - "Folder and Search Options" - "View" TAB - Click "Apply to all folders" - Enjoy I usually add a shortcut for "Windows Explorer" to the desktop. It is under accessories. Then you have both.

zeevid
zeevid

Ignore the boob. Some people do not understand how to have a serious topic where people can disagree. I agree with you that the Favorites Pane is a nice feature but not a replacement for my good-old Folder list. To get rid of the Pane (ha, ha), move your mouse over the Folder divider until it becomes either a 4-headed arrow or a 2-headed arrow. Then drag the header to the top, covering the Favorites Pane completely. No more Favorites.

verd
verd

You also should learn how to spell. it is 'piece' not peice (i before e except after c) it is 'this' not tsis I am beginning to wonder if you are smart enough to run a computer. If you can't learn something new go back to XP and then make it look like Windows 98. I do not think I would have you work on any of my computers with that attitude.

kaspencer
kaspencer

Verd, Presumably to meant to type "whining" not "whinning" ? A rule for you to remember, in standard English: ' when forming a participle from an infinitive, if the infinitive ends in a vowel, followed by a single consonant, followed by an "e", double the consonant, **unless** the syllable is "long" ' Example: To dine dining (syllable is long) To win winning (syllable is short) I never understood why your country's Noah Webster had to confuse matters by trying to change my country's Samuel Johnson's logical rule for some verbs. For example: Label should be "labelled" not "labeled" Cancel should be "cancelled" not "canceled" as both final syllables are short - and there are many other examples. One final point: transposed and misplaced letters are very common typographical errors. Yes they are errors, but they don't warrant the kind of response you gave. I hope this helps. In humility as always Kenneth Spencer

1bn0
1bn0

And my fingers do seem to have a much more limited vocabulary sometimes.

wfps1946
wfps1946

By the way, it's "throw" not "through", sounds to me like your fingers are going faster than your brain.

1bn0
1bn0

or at least stick to the topic under discussion. If you wish to criticize my dislexic (?) typing, please start a new discussion. You can include my comment that my fingers have difficulty in keeping up with what my mind wishes to express as well as hitting keys on a keyboard that is still following a design specification that was originally intended for female typists. Not intended to be a sexist remark. I just happen to be 190.5 cm(6'-3"). O.K. so I often type with one hand as well. Windows explorer is (was)primarily a TOOL for directly manipulating files and folders. That is the purpose I use it for. I do not need a bunch of attachments and add-ons that do nothing to enhance the main purpose of the tool for wich I wish to use it. Just because the tool hasn't changed in a while does not mean it NEEDS to be "Improved" by adding things that detract more than they enhance. As for learning "new" things. I do that every day. I just don't throw out the old to make room as I need my old tools as well.

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