An in-depth look at Windows Vista's Virtual Folders technology

Virtual Folders is one component of Vista's new information visualization, organization, and search features. It is built right into the operating system and is designed to relieve us of some types of data management nightmares. And, even at the beta stage, Virtual Folders is one awesome feature.

In my July 15th column, "Ending file management nightmares with Longhorn's new features," I told you about a whole set of new and improved data and file management features that Microsoft calls Vista's new information visualization, organization, and search features.

These new features are designed to address the problem caused by the fact that the amount of data we have access to these days can fill up a hard disk faster than we can keep it organized. Not only is it easier to generate data with today's super efficient applications, but with the advent of the Internet and broadband access, we can download bucket loads of data in a matter of minutes.

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The traditional approach for dealing with data overload in a location-based storage system is to create folders and subfolders and even more subfolders in an attempt to keep your data organized. However, as you probably know from first-hand experience, this approach usually results in some form of Miscellaneous category folders in which you dump data that doesn't fit into your organizational scheme. And ultimately, you can't seem to find what you're looking for via a manual scan and then turn to your operating system's Search tool, which seems to take an inordinate amount of time to probe the recesses of your hard disk.

Virtual Folders is one component of Vista's new information visualization, organization, and search features. It is built right into the operating system and is designed to relieve us of these types of data management nightmares. And, even at the beta stage, Virtual Folders is one awesome feature.

In this article, I'll describe in detail what Virtual Folders are and how they work. Then, I'll show you how easy they are to create.

What are Virtual Folders?

When it comes right down to it, Virtual Folders are essentially an evolutionary step in the Windows XP Search Companion's Saved Search Query feature. Never experimented with the Search Companion's Saved Search Query feature? Well, you're not alone — not very many people took advantage of it, let alone even knew it existed. Want to try it now?

  1. Launch the Search Companion from the Start menu
  2. Specify your search criteria
  3. Click Search
  4. Once the search is complete, pull down the File menu and select the Save Search command
  5. Specify a location and a name and click the Save button
  6. Close the Search Companion
  7. Now find your Saved Search Query icon and double-click it. When you do, you see the Search Companion with your search criteria. However, you have to specify the location again and you have to click the Search button again.

The purpose of this little exercise in Windows XP is threefold: First, you'll see how easy it is to do. Second, you can see the potential and the drawbacks of the Saved Search Query feature. Three, you now have a good understanding of how Windows Vista's Virtual Folders feature works. However, as we move forward, keep in mind the potential and forget the drawbacks.

Virtual Folder categories

Windows Vista has two categories of Virtual Folders: Standard and Custom. The Standard Virtual Folders are built into the operating system by default and provide a generic set of preconfigured searches such as All Documents, which contains a list of all the documents in your Documents folder, and Authors, which in turn contains a set of Virtual Folders for every person whose name is associated with a document's Author property.

The Custom Virtual Folders are the ones that you create. You create a Custom Virtual Folder in Windows Vista in exactly the same way that you create a Saved Search Query in Windows XP. The only differences in the creation process are that you have a much more refined set of search criteria and when you save the search, it's actually saved as a Virtual Folder. The main difference in usage is that once you create a virtual folder, you never have to reconfigure the search — you just open the folder and within a moment, the Custom Virtual folder will scan your hard disk and update the listing.

Exploring the Standard Virtual Folders

While in the previous section I only highlighted two of the Standard Virtual Folders, there are many others. To find them, you'll launch Windows Explorer and open your user folder and then the folder titled Virtual Folders. You can immediately discern Virtual Folders from standard folders as their icons are blue as opposed to yellow. By default, the beta version of the Virtual Folders folder contains:

  • Albums
  • All Documents
  • All Music
  • All Pictures and Videos
  • All Videos
  • Artists
  • Authors
  • Date Taken
  • Favorite Music
  • Genre
  • Keywords
  • Rating
  • Recent
  • Types
  • User's Files

There are sure to be others once the operating system evolves; however, this give you a good feel for the type of information the Standard Virtual Folders will contain.

Keep in mind that any of the Custom Virtual Folders that you create will also reside in the Virtual Folders folder.

Using metadata

While creating Custom Virtual Folders via the Search tool is a very easy process, the more metadata your files contain, the easier it will be to narrow down the topics of your Virtual Folders via the search criteria. As you probably know, music, video, and photo files are packed with metadata by default. However, your other data files, such as Word and Excel files, are pretty skimpy in the amount of default metadata that is assigned to them. For example, Author is pretty standard fare. However, you can open any document, access the Properties command on the File menu and use the Properties dialog box to add all sorts of metadata to the document.

If you're planning on upgrading to Windows Vista and want to take real advantage of Custom Virtual Folders, it will be worth your while to invest some time in adding pertinent metadata to your documents now. That way, when Windows Vista does become a reality, you'll be ready to get the most out of the Virtual Folder technology.


Now, as I close this issue, it's important to keep in mind that you have to take this information with a grain of salt at this point in time, considering the fact that Windows Vista's release date is over a year a way and the operating system is still in a state of flux.

As always, if you have comments or information to share about Windows Vista's new Virtual Folder feature, please take a moment to drop by the Discussion area and let us hear.