Windows

The Windows Explorer ribbon in Windows 8 is ready for prime time

Greg Shultz takes a closer look at some of the changes and new features in Windows Explorer in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview.

Soon after the Windows 8 Developer Preview was released on September 13, 2011, I began investigating the new Windows Explorer, which had been endowed with a Ribbon toolbar. Of course, we all remember that we were first introduced to the Ribbon toolbar in Office 2007. And, when Windows 7 was released, we found the Ribbon in WordPad and Paint, two applets whose UIs had remained virtually unchanged for 14 years. The Ribbon then appeared in Windows Live applets, such as Movie Maker and Photo Gallery. So I guess that it was inevitable that we would see more of the Ribbon in Windows 8.

Keep up with all the news about Windows 8.

Three goals

While Windows Explorer has had several minor tweaks over the years, the team in charge of this integral part of Windows decided on three goals for the new version of Windows Explorer:

  • Optimize Explorer for file management tasks. Return Explorer to its roots as an efficient file manager and expose some hidden gems, those file management commands already in Explorer that many customers might not even know exist.
  • Create a streamlined command experience. Put the most used commands in the most prominent parts of the UI so that they are easy to find, in places that make sense and are reliable. Organize the commands in predictable places and logical groupings according to context and present relevant information right where you need it.
  • Respect Explorer's heritage. Maintain the power and richness of Explorer and bring back the most relevant and requested features from the Windows XP era when the current architecture and security model of Windows permits.

With these goals in mind they determined that the Ribbon would be the best way to go. Another benefit of using a Ribbon for Windows Explorer is that it lends itself well to a touch interface. Microsoft also promised that this new version of Windows Explorer would provide a level of customization like we had in the Windows XP's version with the Customize Toolbar feature.

During my exploration of the Windows 8 Developer Preview's version of Windows Explorer I was truly impressed that it had such great features and that it was so solid -- especially at such an early release stage. However, from reading Steven Sinofsky's August 29, 2011, blog about Windows Explorer on the Building Windows 8 site I knew that the team had already put a lot of time and effort into crafting the new Windows Explorer.

But, there were hints that they weren't yet done with Windows Explorer. I have eagerly been awaiting the Consumer Preview. Now, there haven't been any dramatic changes to the Windows Explorer Ribbon since the Developer Preview, but there are several new features and several subtle alterations.

In this edition of the Windows Desktop Report, I'll take a closer look at some of the changes and new features in Windows Explorer in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview. If you are interested in reading my previous articles on Windows 8's Windows Explorer, click on the following links.

The Ribbon

Over the last five months I've become very adept at using the Windows Explorer's Ribbon and have come to depend on it -- so much so that whenever I go back to a Windows 7 or Windows XP system I find myself struggling with the old Windows Explorer interface. The changes that I have found so far in the Windows 8 Consumer Preview's version of Windows Explorer have made it even easier to use.

Of course, I remember that when I first began using the new Ribbon interface it took me a while to adapt, and I know that you will too. However, I can say with confidence that once you get used to it, you'll wonder how you ever got along without its feature set.

The Windows Explorer Ribbon contains the File menu and three Core tabs titled Home, Share, and View that always appear in the Ribbon, as shown in Figure A. There are also a set of colored Contextual tabs that appear based on the type of object that you have selected, such as a location, a folder, or a file, and provide a set of related commands.

For example, when you open the Pictures folder or select a JPG file, the Picture Tools tab appears; when you select a drive in Computer, the Disk Tools tab appears. This system of Core and Contextual tabs is designed to expose close to 200 different file management commands in Windows Explorer without having them buried in numerous nested menus, pop-ups, dialog boxes, or right-click/context menus.

Figure A

Windows Explorer's base Ribbon contains the File menu and three Core tabs titled Home, Share, and View.
As you know, I am a big advocate of the Up button in Windows Explorer and even developed a technique for putting it back in Windows 7's Explorer, as I showed you in the blog post "Add the Up Button to the Explorer Command Bar in Windows 7." Well, it appears that Microsoft felt our pain at the demise of the Up button in Vista and 7 and now it is back in Windows 8. It's right between the Address box and the Back and Forward buttons, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B

The Up button is back in Windows Explorer.
As I mentioned, the Contextual tabs are colored so that they stand out and get immediately noticed. In the Consumer Preview, Microsoft has tweaked the colors in an attempt to make them more appealing. For example the Picture Tools tab is now a light orange rather than a light purple, the Disk Tools tab is now light purple rather than light yellow, and the Library Tools tab is now light orange rather than light green, shown in Figure C. This may not sound like a big deal, but I bet there is a lot of usability study that went into these changes.

Figure C

Microsoft changed the color of most of the Contextual tabs in the Consumer Preview.

File menu

The File menu is the first item on the Ribbon and is designed to provide you with quick access to some of the more general commands in Windows Explorer. When you access the File menu, you'll see a set of commands on the left side and what is now renamed to Frequent Places on the right side, as shown in Figure D. In the Developer Preview it was called Favorite Places, but Frequent is actually more appropriate because it lists the most recently accessed folders.

As you can see, there are pushpin icons on the right side that allow you to pin locations to the Frequent Places list. This Jump List-like functionality makes accessing regularly visited locations easier to get to. I have begun to depend on this feature for my file management tasks, and I'm sure that, in time, you will too.

Figure D

You can pin items in Frequent Places to makes accessing regularly visited locations a snap.
When you select a sub-menu, that menu overlays the Frequent Places space and provides you with related options. As you can see in Figure E, the File menu now provides access to PowerShell. As you can imagine, this makes scripting in Windows 8 much more accessible.

Figure E

PowerShell is now on the File menu.

View tab

On the View tab, you'll find a host of commands that you can use to configure the way you want Windows Explorer to display files. Now, you'll also find the Options icon, which has migrated over from the File menu. When you select the Change Folder and Search Options command, shown in Figure F, you'll see the familiar Folder Options dialog box. You'll also see a command called Legacy Toolbars, which sounds interesting. I'm still trying to figure out exactly what that applies to, but at this point in time it is inactive on my system. I've been so enamored with some of the other features that I haven't investigated it in great detail. As soon as I find out, I'll add a post in the discussion area.

Figure F

You can now access the Folder Options dialog box from the View tab.
Another feature that existed in the Developer Preview and is still present in the Consumer Preview are what I have been calling the Quick View buttons, which appear at the bottom-right corner of Windows Explorer, no matter what tab you have selected. (I'm sure Microsoft has an official name for them.) As you can see in Figure G, these are Details and Large Icons buttons, and no matter what layout view you are currently using, you can instantly switch to one of these views.

Figure G

These two buttons always appear at the bottom-right corner of Windows Explorer.

What's your take?

There are lots of great features in the Windows Explorer Ribbon that are designed to make file management in Windows 8 that much easier. Have you been using the Windows 8 Consumer Preview? What do you think about the new Windows Explorer Ribbon? 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.

Also read:

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.

37 comments
DvT-Hex
DvT-Hex

I fail to see any functionality in the Ribbon. It simply takes up space on the screen with large, useless icons that lack keyboard shortcuts.

BlueCollarCritic
BlueCollarCritic

???With these goals in mind they determined that the Ribbon would be the best way to go.??? At least be honest about the Ribbon push. I mean no insult but we all know that the move to force users to the Ribbon interface over the traditional Menu & Toolbar had NOTHING to do with whether the Ribbon was the ???Best Way To Go???. Windows Explorer was destined to be Ribbonized just like all other pieces of the OS. The change over to the Ribbon wasn???t to give users great new features and or to recover some lost ones from versions past but was instead part of the Ribbon roll-out project in which every menu & toolbar in every area of the OS was to be replaced with a Ribbon interface. The Ribbonization is more about perception of change than anything else. While it???s true that some do prefer the Ribbon it???s not true to say that the Ribbon is the better choice for all. The Ribbon should be nothing more than a presentation layer to the user, a way to graphically access and use internal commands to easily perform tasks without having to resort to pro-geeky command line syntax and codes. The Menu & Toolbar we successful because they made it easier for the average user to get common task performed; not because it gave them access to more functionality. That way the user gets to select what interface or ???skin ??? ( a popular term used to described the visual overlay of a software application that decouples the users interface from the inner workings) they like and want to use instead of having one forced on them. There may have been many people out there thrilled with having to the use the new Ribbon in Office 2007 but there were a lot more who were not just unhappy about it but outright pissed! The Ribbon agenda as well as the START-less Windows 8 are about perception change; making the differences between new Windows OS and older versions as aesthetically different as possible. Why? To justify the upgrade price. IN the case of Office 2007 there were many new features in the product but where there enough to get most users to pay the cost to upgrade? Maybe, maybe not. If however that change were accompanied by a product make-over, a change to the look of the product as well as what it can do then the upgrade would be an easier sell. Enter the Ribbon. The Ribbon and the absence of the START button in Windows 8 are more about increasing the perception of changes to users than anything else.

laurie.morris
laurie.morris

I can't believe there are troglodytes who still use and spruik about XP. Are you all incapable of learning or just scared of progress?

fixmypcmike
fixmypcmike

What was the thought process behind the ribbon interface? "You know Bill, Office is too easy to use. We should make it just a little bit difficult to use. We have all their money, so why not?" I am one who tried the Windows 8 Beta last year and was so confused, I uninstalled it. I hear it's gotten better, but I won't try it. Maybe they should bring back an updated or new version of Windows XP! Imagine all the revenue MS would rake in! Windows 7 is good, but XP is still, hands down, the BEST!

SHCA
SHCA

Boy, what a bunch of grumps. We've got to move with the times, and I for one look forward to it. I bet these gloom-sayers also hated the touch interface on their phones at first, and now can't live without it.

tuttleesq
tuttleesq

I am not a Microsoft basher and appreciate what they do well. However, Microsoft and other software developers crete new versions that eliminate or significantly modified features that millions of long time users are familiar with, are satisfied with and wish that such desirable features will be also found in new versions. For example, the look nd feel of XP software is popular and Windows 7 has changed, modified or eliminated popular features. In addition, users are familiar with certain names and common terminology, so why start calling well known features by a totally new name? Changing the location of features makes little sense. An Insert tab is created, but common insert features are located in some other tab. All insert features should be found under the Insert tab. I am hoping that Windows 8 will restore deleted features and make the other features easier to locate and use when the user is in a hurry to accomplish a task. Software creators need to spend more time watching ordinary users struggle with new Microsoft software and then eliminate the annoyances experienced.

lunchbeast
lunchbeast

The ribbon, first forced down our throats with Office 2007, then Office 2010, and now with Explorer in Windows 8, is nothing but Microsoft's latest marketing $hitware. It appeals to those impressed by superficial fluff, pretty colors, and buttons to click. It sucks up valuable screen real estate and interferes with long-standard keyboard shortcuts relied upon by millions of users who long-ago outgrew the newbie thrill of mouse navigation.

scratchbaker
scratchbaker

The ribbon sounds awful. No wonder I am still using XP and have my desktop rearranged to look more like Win95. I always want to see File Details and that is hard to maintain in the old Windows Explorer as the default in ALL folders on ALL drives. I file lots of information in what is probably hundreds of folders and subfolders. Ribbon sounds useless for that. I am also tired of helping people who weren't using computers before you could be an idiot and do some work, find anything they have downloaded or used recently and have no idea where it was filed. So the ribbon just sounds like more mouse clicks to accomplish what should be an easy task... Find a File.

rader
rader

"Another benefit of using a Ribbon for Windows Explorer is that it lends itself well to a touch interface. " Seems everyone missed this in the article. While I'm old school and not a fan of the ribbon since its inception, I do see a use for the ribbon in the "consumer" devices such as tablets. Until I saw this statement, I hadn't even thought of that possibility. As for me, I'll adapt, kicking and screaming all the way of course. Give me the option to retain the old menus while providing the new ones for those that choose to use them would be the best way. I comes down to code bloat then.

mhoff1387
mhoff1387

This might be something that is great for someone with a disability that restricts use of the mouse and keyboard simultaneously. Why do I want a ribbon that does exactly the same stuff as keyboard shortcuts and right clicks? If my users are already proficient with mouse and keyboard, what does this add for them that would justify the training time and the ensuing confusion?

Slayer_
Slayer_

It gets rid of the useless Vista/Windows 7 bar area which required the menus to be turned back on to be useful, and replaces it with something that exposes the many functions that were hidden. It also helps remove the need for the task pane. So overall, I like it. And it doesn't take up any more space than the XP one did.

Ajax4Hire
Ajax4Hire

What I hate about the ribbon is loss of real keyboard interface... When Microsoft introduces the new, they forgot to give us a bridge from the old to the new. They simply deposit me in the new Ribbon and expect me to have the wealth of understanding, appreciation and history that their developers have with this way-cool new way of interacting with the computer. I am a keyboard person, got hundreds of keys at my finger tips and I can Alt+F,S save quicker than you can mouse over, click, click, click. 1st Office Ribbon lost the text menu in preference of pretty pictures to poke with a mouse. Keep the pretty pictures for the masses of right-arm elbow jockeys while their left-arm hangs limp and useless. Just return to me the menu structure so I can traverse the possibilities. Yes, I realize that the "Keyboard short cuts" are still there but I cannot traverse the menu structure. If I want the Tools->Rules in Outlook-2007, I would have to remember Rules&Alerts is AltT+U, Rules does not begin with U. This is exactly why Microsoft gets such a bad reputation. It is not that the "new" ribbon is better; I am better with the old way. A new car does not get me there quicker; a new phone does not get my calls thru faster but they can slow down my travel and connections. rant over, gotta get back to work.

imsoscareed
imsoscareed

The ribbon is one of the most useless, time wasting thing MS has ever done whether it be in Office, Windows or any other apps.

wompai
wompai

I think it's a great way to improve both erfficiency and looks.

ksaldutti
ksaldutti

Yes it???s a mess and they are so now so deep into it that they can not get out of it with face. No classic options not real scaling nothing. It???s just here eat this and you will like it PERIOD. Office is absolutely terrible and powers user have been thrown to the curb for the office for dummies ribbons. MS will never be what it could and should have been. It is loosing to Apple every day in extremely large numbers. It is more then ever variable to any OS and Office suits that emerges. Millions will not leave office 2003 because of the use these ribbons and like it ideology.

Tolga BALCI
Tolga BALCI

Windows Explorer still lacks the two-pane file manager we had with the Norton Commander back in the old days. I wonder why it is so hard to make a two-pane file explorer so that the users do not need to open up another window to copy files.

psaxelby
psaxelby

Drag stuff off of the Ribbon, drag stuff on, rearrange it, & make my own tabs I might learn to like it. Hang on a minute though - That would make it a 'toolbar' wouldn't it... Sooooo last-week...

psaxelby
psaxelby

I still can't stand them. Really. Maybe it's just me but they just frustrate the hell out of me. Nothing they have done in recent years is as easy to use as the old menu & toolbar system. You know where stuff is & you can change the toolbar contents if you want to. Just because it was the way it had been done for years it doesn't mean that there was anything wrong with it. I really am sick & tired of companies changing stuff for the sake of making it new & removing flexibility in the process. I don't have a problem with the existence of Ribbon style interfaces, it's just that I would like the ability to carry on using the system that makes sense to me. I'm just dreading the time when someone at MS or Google decides that the new look is looking a bit old... What on earth will we have forced upon us in the next round?

dwh999
dwh999

The ribbon killed MSoffice for me. Now win8 looks very suspect. Why can't it be an option and keep us on side? MS seem to think that growth is in the new users and they can ignore existing users. Poor choice when you have such a large user base.

laurie.morris
laurie.morris

I love using the ribbon and tab feature in Office and as a teacher at a senior citizens computer club I find it easy to teach WordPad as an introduction to Word as it has the same ribbon interface only with less tabs. I'm sure that giving Explorer a similar layout will also make it much easier for newcomers to find their way around their computers.

Ron_007
Ron_007

The legacy toolbars option. I wonder if it will offer the option of importing custom toolbars from the older version. There is a technique in Office 2010 that you can use to import custom toolbars created in 2003 and earlier versions. One thing I'd REALLY like to see is a dual pane display like File Mangler had. Telling us to open 2 copies of explorer is plain and simply stupid. The "File tab". I'm glad they brought it back to Office 2010. But what UI design justification do they have for making it a menu rather than another stupid ribbon? The file tab/menu clearly demonstrates that MS had no excuse for not providing a "legacy" Tab/menu option for the UI.

jasondlnd
jasondlnd

The ribbon is a pain in the butt. Yes, I've used Office '07 and Office '10. Yes, I use Windows 7 on a semi-regular basis. I've adapted to the ribbon, but still completely hate it. On top of all of that, the Metro interface gives a very disorganized feel to Windows 8. I thought we gave up a disorganized desktop experience when Microsoft released Windows 95. The start menu brought organization and a feel of control over the computer. The Metro interface un-does all of that and brings the disorganized feel of Windows 3.1 right back to the desktop. Thanks, but no thanks. Microsoft really needs to blend the old with the new in Windows. This *does* work. Even Microsoft knows it. If you have have ever used Microsoft Office:Mac '08 or Office 2011, you can see the blend of the new (ribbon style interface) with the old (Apple drop down menu style interface). The ribbon and drop down menu style interface most certainly work together quite nicely. Instead of bringing this blend the old and the new to Windows, though, Microsoft is moving in the opposite direction, opting for just the new. This, by and large is a big mistake. It is like saying to the general public, "You don't want to compute here. Buy a tablet instead". Why is this a mistake? For the majority of the general public, a tablet computer is the iPad.

fishcad
fishcad

A capability I would love to see is to be able to set a folder to open in a certain view based on the contents and keep that preference even if the view was changed in a previous session. Example: I want all image files to open in thumbnails view (not that damned filmstrip) and all other file types to open in list view.

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

It seems Microsoft has made Windows Explorer a more integral part of Windows 8, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Grelly
Grelly

If you don't like the ribbon or the loss of screen real estate then minimise the ribbon. In Word, Excel, etc right click the blank area at the right end of the ribbon and select minimise ribbon. Other apps right click the blank area to the right of the tabs on the ribbon and do the same.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Most likely, they have no reason to not continue using XP. If they can run the applications and peripherals they want, why switch?

permadank
permadank

Can't remember shortcuts and hate the ribbon? Turn on the Quick Access Toolbar and add the stuff you can't remember to the bar.

blarman
blarman

The word is "lose", not "loose". You lose market share, your keys, your girlfriend, etc. You loose/loosen a knot.

lehnerus2000
lehnerus2000

I'm sure Microsoft's retort would be something like: "Why are you still working with files? We've given you apps." ;)

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

At least in 2010; right-click any Ribbon and select 'Customize the Ribbon'. Even in 2007 you could customize the Quick Access toolbar. I don't get it when people say they can't customize the Ribbon; the capability has been there all along.

mudpuppy1
mudpuppy1

I despise Metro. I've found ubitmenu does a great job integrating the old menu system with the ribbon on Office 2007 and 2010. It's free for personal use, but if you use more than one profile (user account), it only works in the one it's installed in. I find myself going back and forth between them. It's simply a tab on the ribbon. As for the ribbon on W8's Explorer, it's actually useful. I wish I had more time to play with it (going to school for a career change). This is one of the things I didn't like about the Metro-disablers in DP; they also disabled the Explorer ribbon and other new things I liked. I'm hoping that if MS insists on foisting this hideousity on the Desktop that some third parties come up with a way to disable it while keeping the good things about W8.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

is your request assumes all files in a folder are the same type. I guess if a folder had mixed contents it could default to 'Details' or 'Tiles'.

blarman
blarman

The problem is that there is no alternative to the ribbon. Minimizing doesn't provide an alternative AND hides access to all the commands.

blarman
blarman

Many people are so fascinated with the shiny, new toy that they forget that for businesses, it isn't the operating system that gets things done, it is the applications. There's that other little bit about money that also comes into play...

blarman
blarman

The point is to be able to access items using menu items/keyboard keys. How does adding things to the toolbar help?

blarman
blarman

Can I turn them off? No. I can hide them, but I don't have the option to use the old-and-still-better interface. My gripes with the ribbon still haven't changed: They take up too much room and they still try to force me to do things Microsoft's way. Thanks but no thanks - I do things my own way.

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