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Advanced Windows Explorer Usage Techniques

As mentioned in Chapter 2, Windows Explorer is the one Windows XP tool that everyone should know about. Chapter 2 presented an overview of the most important and easily used parts of Windows Explorer. The following sections show you some advanced usage methods and tell you more about Windows Explorer configuration.

Setting the Folder Options

Windows XP provides lots of flexibility in the way you present data onscreen. The default Windows Explorer configuration represents Microsoft's best guess at what you might like to see. Use the Tools | Folder Options command in Explorer to change the way you view data. You'll see a Folder Options dialog box.

The General tab of the Folder Options contains three main entries. First, you select classic Windows folders or common tasks in folders. You saw the results of using Web-enabled folders in Chapter 2. Although the additional information is nice, it reduces system performance and clutters the display. Second, you choose between opening each folder in the current window or a new window. Choosing a new window allows you to compare two folders without opening two copies of Explorer manually. On the other hand, using the current window reduces screen clutter. The final option allows you to choose between a single- and double-click to open items. The double-click is the traditional Windows method of performing this task. I find that the single-click is faster and a little less error prone for users who spend lots of time on the Internet. Longtime users tend to find the single-click method confusing because they're used to a double-click.

The View tab contains two main sections. The first section contains options for automatically setting your folders. Use Apply to All Folders if you want all folders to look like the one you just configured. Use Reset All Folders to set all of your folders to the Windows default settings. The second section contains advanced folder settings. We've already discussed some of these settings. For example, you'll clear the Use Search Companion for Searching option if you want to use the standard search dialog box. I'll tell you about more of the options as this book progresses; it's best to learn about them in the context in which they're used.

The File Types tab contains a list of all the file types on your machine. The majority of these file types are associated with one or more applications. This association allows you to open that file automatically by double-clicking on it within Explorer. We'll discuss this tab in more detail in the "Creating Files Associations" section of this chapter.

Working with Offline Content

The Offline Files tab, shown in Figure 3.17, determines how Windows XP works with files you download from another location (mainly the Internet or an intranet). Offline files allow you to view remote content without having a connection to that location. Of course, the data is static, so you don't see any changes to the remote location unless you synchronize the data.


Windows XP might not allow you to use offline content if you have Fast User Switching enabled. To turn this feature off, open the User Accounts applet in the Control Panel. Click Change the way users log on or off. Clear the Use Fast User Switching option and then click Apply Options.

Figure 3.17 The Offline Files tab determines how you'll work with remote data when a connection isn't available.

Before you can create offline files, you need to check Enable Offline Files. The next two options on the Offline Files tab determine when Windows XP synchronizes content. You'll use the Display a Reminder Every option to remind yourself when the computer goes offline so that you know when the data you're viewing is static. You can use the next option to create a shortcut to your offline files on the Desktop to allow for easier management. Because security is now such a major issue, you'll likely want to encrypt the offline files. However, encrypting the files increases the space they consume and increases the time required to open them. Finally, you can choose how much disk space to allocate to offline file use. This setting is especially important because you also need to consider Recycle Bin and swap file requirements along with all of the other data that your drive needs to store.

Click Delete Files if you want to remove offline content from the Offline Files folder. You can choose to delete just the temporary offline version of the file or both the temporary and permanent versions of the file. If you want to see what the Offline Files folder contains, click View Files. Finally, clicking Advanced displays the Offline Folders- Advanced Settings dialog box. The settings in this dialog box determine what Windows XP will do when you lose a network connection. The first option simply notifies you that the connection is lost and that you're using the offline file. The second option tells Windows XP that you want to try to reestablish a connection to the remote system continuously. You can also create exception lists that select a specific behavior for a particular system.

Using Views

Explorer supports more than one view of your data. A view is a method of presentation. For example, you may want to know what the content of the file looks like versus the file statistics, such as the last modification date. Graphics folders may require a thumbnail view, and the System32 folder requires a detailed view. The following list tells you about the five data views supported by Windows XP and describes how you might use them:

  • Thumbnails This view displays the content of the individual files. This view works best in data directories where you're more concerned about finding specific content than learning file details. Many people use this view for folders containing graphics files. Note that Thumbnails view incurs a performance penalty because Explorer has to create a picture of each file's content onscreen. In addition, this view requires additional hard drive space for the thumbnail database.

  • Tiles The default Explorer view displays a relatively large icon coupled with the filename, data type, and file size. Use this view when you need to know more than just the filename, but less than Details view provides. This is an inefficient way to view folders with large numbers of files.

  • Icons Some people consider this the best overall view for any folder. It presents a medium-size icon and a filename. The larger icon makes it easy to determine the file type (or at least the associated application).

  • List This view presents a list of small icons and a filename. This is the best choice when you know the name of the file you want to find and there are a large number of files to scan. Some people also consider this the least confusing Explorer display.

  • Details This view displays a list of files using small icons. It also presents a wealth of information about each file. The default settings include the filename, size, type, and modification date. As we'll see in the "Customizing the Details View" section of this chapter, you have many other details to choose from for this view. This is the best view to use when you're concerned about the technical details of the file. Some users also consider it one of the best choices for data mining because you can learn so much about the file without opening it.

Customizing the Details View

Details View is the most comprehensive data view that Explorer provides. The data you see when using the default settings is just the tip of the data iceberg. Right-click the columns above the Details view, and you'll see a list of the most common additions for this view. Choose More from the list, and you'll see the Choose Details dialog box.

Click any entry in the columns list, and you can change its width and position within the list using Move Up or Move Down. Use Show and Hide to either add or remove the column from the list. Many column entries, such as attributes, work with any file. However, some columns won't work with some types of files. For example, the Album column won't contain any information when you work with word processing files.

Creating File Associations

Most applications you work with will add file associations to Windows XP for you. For example, when you install Microsoft Office, the installation program automatically creates an association between Word and the .DOC file type. However, in some cases, you need to work with file associations to ensure that you can access files in the way you want to access them.

You can create and edit files associations in a number of ways. The easiest way to create a file association is to double-click on a file of the correct type. Windows XP will display the Windows Cannot Open File dialog box, which gives you an option of automatically looking for an application that opens the file or selecting an application from a list of those installed on your machine. As soon as you select an application, Windows XP creates a file association for you.

A more common way to create file associations is to open the Folder Options dialog within Explorer using the Tools | Folder Options command. The File Types tab contains a list of all predefined file types for Windows XP, along with file types that applications add when you install them. Select any file extension, and you'll see information about the main application associated with that file type.

Explorer provides two methods for creating a new file association. The easy method is to click Change. Explorer will display an Open With dialog box that lists applications you can use to open the file. You can also choose to browse for an application that the Open With dialog box doesn't list.

The harder method is to click Advanced. You'll see an Edit File Type dialog box, like the one shown in Figure 3.18. At the top of this dialog box are an icon, the text description of the file type, and the Change Icon button. You can modify the text description of the file type, but normally you won't need to do so. However, you might want to change the icon associated with a file type if you change the main application used to modify it.

Figure 3.18 The Edit File Type dialog box contains options for changing the context menu entries for a specific file type.

You can associate more than one action with a file. However, only one action is the default that occurs when the user double-clicks the file. Otherwise, the user right-clicks and chooses the desired action from the context menu. You set the default action by highlighting its entry and clicking Set Default. Click Remove to remove an action from the list.

Explorer allows you to add new actions to the list or edit existing actions. Clicking New or Edit displays an Action dialog box containing an Action and an "Application used to perform action" field. When adding a new action, just type the action name and the name of the action you want to use. The Browse button allows you to find an application with relative ease.

A few applications still require the use of Dynamic Data Exchange (DDE) to create a proper file association. This is an old technology left over from previous versions of Windows. If you run into an application that requires DDE, it's a good idea to use another file type as a template for creating the entries you'll need. Simply check DDE, and fill out the four new fields that show up.


You can create low-level file associations as well as associations strictly for applications. One of the most useful low-level files associations I've used is to create an instant command line for Windows XP folders. Locate the Folders entry and click Advanced. Click New to create a new action. Type Command Prompt Here in the Action field and cmd.exe /k "cd %1" (include the quotes) in the Application Used to Perform Action field. Click OK twice to create the new action. Now you can create a command prompt wherever you need it by right-clicking any file folder and choosing Command Prompt Here from the context menu.

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