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Windows Explorer
Windows Explorer (and its alter ego "My Computer") is the basic shell or user interface to the operating system. Its properties and characteristics are something we deal with every time we use the computer. Learning efficient ways of manipulating Explorer can speed up the way we get things done and make life easier.


In earlier days, Windows Explorer and Internet Explorer (IE) were totally separate entities. Somewhat different modes of presentation for the desktop and for the Internet are still available, but beginning with IE 4 the distinction between the two Explorers became blurred. Nowadays the two have much in common. Many properties, therefore, apply to either Explorer. There is some interesting history here for which we have no space. For reasons of its own, Microsoft wished to integrate IE into the operating system as much as possible and wanted to make the desktop and the Internet basically indistinguishable. Especially for those with a broadband connection, going back and forth from the Internet to the Desktop is now pretty much a seamless operation.


Let us begin with a fundamental function of Explorer- displaying the list of folders and files that are present on the system. There are two basic formats or views for displaying this information. One view format makes use of a single pane. This is the default for My Computer or for the view obtained from clicking on a folder icon. The single pane displays the contents of the container folder but shows no other folders. There are several variations on this view and information can be displayed in a number of different ways. To choose a particular format, go to the "View" menu. Figure 1 shows the choices that are in the View menu. If you have graphics files, Windows may automatically use the "Thumbnails" view but typically the view is "Icons" or "Tiles" (a larger version of Icons). Personally, I often prefer the "Details" view, which provides a list with assorted information such as size and the date modified for each file.

Figure 1. View menu for My Computer

The second view format employs a double-pane and a tree-like structure. In this view, the contents of the entire computer can be shown and different folders can be opened as desired.This is the view obtained by opening Windows Explorer from the All Programs Menu. It can also be obtained by right-clicking on a folder and choosing "Explore" from the context menu. Yet another way to get the double-pane view is to hold down the "Shift" key while double-clicking a folder. And still another way is to click the "Folders" icon on the Toolbar, which acts as a toggle switch for changing views. Just as for the single-pane, the double-pane has a number of view options. The default setting uses icons but again this can be changed in the "View" menu.

A specialized format that is normally only present in the folder "My Pictures" is "Filmstrip." However, if a folder contains graphics files, Windows usually adds the option Filmstrip to the View menu and may spontaneously assume that format.

Task Pane

A disadvantage of the single-pane presentation is that it restricts your view of what is on the computer. In the past this was a serious nuisance when you wished to move or copy files across different drives or folders. Generally, it meant having to have multiple windows open. This has been partially obviated in Windows XP by the addition of a new section called the Task Pane that contains some basic operations, among other functions. The contents of the Task Pane will vary according to the context, but if a file is selected a section will be present with file operations (Figure 2). It is now possible to copy or move files without having to open several windows since a browse function is available, which allows access to any folder on the computer (Figure 3).

Figure 2. Section of the Task Pane

Figure 3. Browse function in Task Pane

Arranging icons

Icons or file lists can be arranged in several ways. If changes are made to a folder's contents the icons can get get out of order and it is convenient to resort them. Also it may be convenient to group files into related categories. Figure 4 shows the choices that are available in the "Arrange Icons by" entry in the "View" menu. In addition to arranging by name, size, or other criterion, they can be grouped under separate entries for each letter of the alphabet by "Show in Groups".

Sub-menu in "View" for arranging icons