Windows 10 makes extensive use of symbolic links. Here's a detailed look at how they differ from standard shortcuts, along with a tool you can use to view them.
In last week's article, How to take advantage of symbolic links in Windows 10, I provided a brief introduction to the MKLink command and showed you how to use it to create symbolic links in Windows 10. I then explained how I use symbolic links to implement my CurrentWork technique. After the article was published I received email from some readers asking for more information on how symbolic links work. I also received email from folks wondering if symbolic links were superfluous.
As such, in this article, I'll offer more details about symbolic links and discuss how symbolic links are actually a big part of the way Windows 10 operates. I'll also show you how to use NirSoft's NTFSLinksView to dig deeper into Windows 10's use of symbolic links.
What makes symbolic links different from standard shortcuts?
The one question that a lot of folks asked is "What's the difference between a symbolic link and a standard shortcut? Don't they do the same thing?"
Well, symbolic links and standard shortcuts do, in fact, perform a similar function, but there are several differences. To begin with, a symbolic link is pointer that works at the file system level, as opposed to a shortcut, which is a pointer designed to work within Explorer.exe. Since a symbolic link is essentially grafted to the file system, it doesn't have a footprint, so to speak, whereas a shortcut is an actual file on the hard disk.
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Take a look at the Properties dialog boxes shown in Figure A. As you can see, the shortcut is an actual file that takes up 4KB of disk space. The symbolic link is simply a pointer and it doesn't actually take up any space on the disk. The Properties dialog box for the symbolic link shows the size of all the files and folders contained in the folder to which it points.
Shortcuts are files and symbolic links are part of the file system.
Another difference is that a shortcut is fundamentally a one-shot deal, while a symbolic link has a sustained existence. To see this in action, let's suppose that you use the MKLink command:
Mklink /J C:\CurrentWork " C:\Users\Greg\Documents\1) My Work\1-Writing\1) TechRepublic\1) Articles\2017 "
to create the C:\CurrentWork symbolic link folder that points to the path:
C:\Users\Greg\Documents\1) My Work\1-Writing\1) TechRepublic\1) Articles\2017
Then, you use the Create Shortcut wizard to create a shortcut called CurrentWork Shortcut that points to the same path.
If you double-click the CurrentWork Shortcut, it will deliver you to the 2017 folder. But if you double-click the CurrentWork symbolic link, the operating system will make it appear that the files actually exist in the CurrentWork folder, as shown in Figure B. The shortcut has done its job and is gone, while the symbolic link continues working.
Once a shortcut does its job, it's gone, but a symbolic link continues working.
This also works from the Save and Open dialog boxes of your applications, as shown in Figure C. The efficiency improvement then comes from the fact that no matter where you are, all you have to remember is the name of the symbolic link.
Symbolic links work in the Save and Open dialog boxes of your applications.
If you work from the command prompt, you'll discover that you can access symbolic link folders on the command line, as shown in Figure D. You can't really use a shortcut from the command line.
You can access symbolic link folders from the command prompt.
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Windows 10's built-in symbolic links
Many symbolic links are built into the Windows 10 operating system. However, under normal circumstances, you never see them. There are some you can see if you enable the Show Hidden Files, Folders And Drives option on the View tab of the Folder Options dialog box. However, there are many others you can't see at all—unless you use a special tool, such as Nirsoft's NTFSLinksView.
Windows 10 has two types of built-in symbolic links designed for backward compatibility: system junctions and per-user junctions.
An example of a system junction is C:\Documents and Settings. In Windows XP there was an actual folder called Documents and Settings that contained the user profile folders. In Windows 10, the user profile folders are stored in a folder called C:\Users.
An example of a per-user junction is C:\Users\Greg\My Documents. In Windows XP, there was a folder called My Documents. In Windows 10, that folder is called Documents. To be backward compatible with older applications that are hard-coded to look for and use the My Documents folder to open and save files, Windows 10 creates a My Documents symbolic link.
NTFSLinksView is freeware and comes in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions. Once you download and extract it, you can run it right away, as there is no installation procedure. NTFSLinksView is extremely easy to use, so I'll leave up to you to explore and learn about all the features and ways to put it to work. My goal here is just to show you some of the places Windows 10 makes use of symbolic links.
If you use NTFSLinksView to look at the C:\ root directory, you'll see the C:\Documents and Settings junction I mentioned earlier. If you double-click the name, you'll see the properties of the symbolic link, as shown in Figure E.
You can see the properties of the C:\Documents and Settings symbolic link.
If you navigate to the C:\users directory, you'll see that the Default User folder is a junction, while All Users is a standard symbolic link, as shown in Figure F.
The C:\users directory contains two symbolic links.
If you navigate to your user directory, you'll find more symbolic links, including the My Documents junction, as shown in Figure G.
You'll find the My Documents Junction in your user directory.
You can continue exploring the directories in your Windows 10 installation if you want to see more. But as you can tell, symbolic links are a big part of the Windows 10 operating system.
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What's your take?
Are you already using symbolic links and the MKLink tool in Windows 10? Have you tried NTFSLinksView? If so, what has been your experience? Share your thoughts with fellow TechRepublic members.