More than just a pretty interface: File management with Vista Explorer

Vista Explorer features some significant changes in both layout and functionality. Take a tour of the new Explorer's redesigned interface.

One of the most significant changes to Vista's interface is the new look of the Windows Explorer file management tool. Explorer has undergone much more than just cosmetic changes. It's now more intuitive and easier to use in many ways—although it may take a little getting used to for those who have become set in the ways of its Windows 2000/XP predecessors. In this article, we'll take a look at the new Explorer and how you can use it to make everyday tasks easier.

Exploring the Explorer interface

The first thing you'll notice when you open the new Explorer is that it's a bit busier than the default XP Explorer window. As shown in Figure A, the left pane is now divided into two sections, and another toolbar appears under the Standard Buttons toolbar (Back, Forward, Up, Search, Folders, and View) that's displayed by default in XP. This new toolbar, which offers Organize, Views, Share, and Burn buttons, can't be turned off. (You can opt to not display the Standard Buttons bar in XP.)

Figure A

The default view of Explorer has a slightly busy look.

Additional buttons appear on this toolbar depending on the type of folder or file that's selected. For instance, when a music file is selected, Play and Play All buttons appear. If a folder containing picture files is selected, Preview, SlideShow, Print, and E-mail buttons appear.

There's also a section at the bottom that displays when the status bar isn't turned on. It shows the number of items in the selected folder—information that was part of the status bar in XP.

Another difference is the way the file path is displayed in the address bar. In XP, if you want to back up to a folder above the one you're in, you can either click the Back button (sometimes repeatedly) or press [Backspace] to erase the part of the folder structure below the one you want to go to. In Vista, you simply click in the address bar on the folder you want to go to, regardless of where it is in the hierarchy. It's a small thing, but it makes navigation a lot quicker.

A subtle but much appreciated enhancement is the behavior of the left tree as you navigate through it. As you expand folders in XP, you have to scroll horizontally to see the deeply nested folders as they are farther to the right. In Vista, the UI automatically scrolls for you as you expand folders. How cool is that?

A pane in the pane

That Favorite Links pane on the left side gives you a quick-click way to get to-your Documents, Pictures, and Music folders, recently changed files (including e-mail messages), and search folders. A number of default search folders already populate this link, including

  • Attachments
  • Favorite Music
  • Fresh Tracks
  • Important E-mail
  • Last 7 Days E-mail
  • Last 30 Days Documents
  • Last 30 Days Pictures And Videos
  • Recently Changed (also directly accessible as a Favorite Link)
  • Shared By Me files and folders
  • Unread E-mail
  • User's Files

Saved searches

In addition to using the default searches, you can create and save your own. For example, if you regularly need to search for e-mails that contain the word Vista, you can search for that character string and select E-mails from the filters in the Show Results For box that appears under the Search box.

The search function contains a large number of filtering options, including:

  • Attachments
  • Calendar items
  • Contacts
  • Documents
  • E-mail
  • Folders
  • Games
  • Instant Messages
  • Items
  • Links
  • Movies
  • Music
  • Notes
  • Pictures
  • Programs
  • Recorded TV (Vista Home Premium and Ultimate Editions that include Media Center)
  • RSS
  • Tasks
  • Videos
  • Web History

You can further filter a search using the Where, Title, and Contains menus on the search bar. For example, you can specify that the document contains or doesn't contain a particular word (Figure B), that it start with a certain word, or that it's greater than or less than a specified value. Or you can search very specific attributes, such as cc or bcc names or addresses, birthdays, date accessed or created, cell phone numbers, audio formats, and many, many more. Vista's search filtering functionality is far more sophisticated than XP's.

Figure B

The Contains menu lets you refine your search criteria.

To save a search, just click Save Search on the toolbar and give it a name. It will be saved as a Search folder with the .search extension and added to the Saved Searches folder.

You can set Search options on the Tools | Folder Options | Search tab.

A window with a view

The XP Explorer gives you five ways to view the folders and files in the right details pane: as thumbnails, tiles, icons, a list, or a detailed list. Vista gives you six options: extra large icons, large icons, medium icons, small icons, details, or tiles.

The thumbnails option is gone because now graphics display as thumbnails regardless of what view you choose. Even in Details view, they appear as tiny thumbnails, as shown in Figure C.

Figure C

Graphics are now displayed as thumbnails in all views, eliminating the need for a thumbnail view.

Explorer will even show you a miniature display of your Office 2007 documents, as shown in Figure D (in Extra Large Icons view).

Figure D

Office 2007 documents are displayed as thumbnails, along with picture files.

You'll also notice that the List view is missing, and the default Details view shows more columns/fields than XP does. (It includes Author and Tags fields.) As with XP, you can choose from a long list of additional columns to display by right-clicking in the column title area. You can also reorder the columns and set column width in pixels.

Another way to modify the view is with the Organize button, which lets you select the layout of the Explorer window. As shown in Figure E, you can select whether to display Classic Menus, a Search Pane, a Preview Pane, a Reading Pane, and/or the Navigation Pane.

Figure E

You can further customize the Explorer view with the Organize | Layout options.

If you select the Preview Pane, you'll see information about the selected file or folder above the status bar. For example, for a Word document it shows you the filename, document type, title, author(s), file size, date last modified, and offline availability.

You can see details and edit this information by clicking the Edit... link, which opens the document's properties dialog box. Here, you can change many (not all) of the fields or remove properties and personal information, as shown in Figure F.

Figure F

You can change some of the file details or remove properties and personal info.

If you select Reading Pane, you can examine the contents of your documents without opening them. For example, you can scroll through an entire Word document in the Reading pane without opening it in Word, as shown in Figure G.

Figure G

With the Reading pane, you can examine the contents of a document without opening it.

Share and share alike

Vista Explorer also makes it easier for users to share folders and files with others by using the Sharing Wizard. Click to highlight one or more folders or files you want to share and then click the Share button on the toolbar. A dialog box will open asking you to type the username of the person on the network with whom you want to share. You can also share with a Group or with Everyone.

If you don't know the name, you can select to find a user or group. Vista will search the specified location (local computer, a specified domain, or the entire Active Directory). By default, those you add will be given Reader permission, but you can change that to Contributor or Co-owner by clicking the dropdown arrow as shown in Figure H.

Figure H

Sharing files and folders is easier in Vista.

After the file or folder has been shared, you can automatically e-mail the links to the people you selected for sharing. Just click E-Mail These Links in the File Sharing dialog box and Vista will open up a mail message addressed to that person with the message and link already inserted in the body.

If you don't want to use the Sharing Wizard, you can turn it off by deselecting a check box in Advanced Settings list on the Tools | Folder Options | View tab.

Burn, baby, burn

Vista also makes adding a file to a temporary folder for burning to disk a one-click operation by including the Burn button on the toolbar. You can also burn DVDs through Windows Media Player and Windows Movie Maker or using the dialog box that opens automatically when you insert a writeable CD or DVD into your recorder.


Vista's Explorer has a different look and feel, and at first you may get a little frustrated when everything's not in the same old familiar place. But after working with it for a while, I have found it easy to adapt to. I think it will make file management and navigation easier for novice users (and those experienced users who give it a chance).

About Deb Shinder

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

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