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Files and Folders

Do you want to know more about computers, but don’t know where to start?  What separates the beginners from the advanced computer users?  How do some people seem to already have experience doing everything a computer can possibly do?  Where did they learn how to do that? In this article, I will let you in on their secret.

I deal with a lot of people in my line of work.  Some of them are very advanced computer users, and some, well, not so much.  Over the years, I have noticed one single skill that clearly separates the beginners from the advanced users.  This skill is the door to unlimited domination over your computer.  The skill is the ability to manage files and folders.

If you could turn the clock back to the DOS days, you would see users were dealing directly with files and folders.  Even before the Internet, before the mouse, and before hard drives, files and folders were still there, and they still worked the same way they do today, and it’s just as important to know how to manage them to have control over your computer.  Unfortunately, today’s computers try to hide all that technical stuff to make it easier on the users, but it really just makes it harder to do things such as backing up your data, sharing pictures, organizing your documents, and working with email attachments.  Knowing how to work with files and folders is very important!  Ready to learn?

What is a file?  A file is a collection of data.  What is data?  Data is information stored in a computer, sometimes in plain text (such as this article), sometimes in 1s and 0s, sometimes in hexadecimal and other bizarre number systems.  Like a piece of paper contains words, a file contains data.

All files have a filename.  Filenames almost always end with 3 characters that describe what type of file it is.  Examples are .EXE .TXT .DOC .XLS .PDF
These are called file extensions.  They are VERY important.  Now, notice the period in before each extension.  You pronounce this as “dot E X E”, “dot T X T”, and so on.  So filenames will look like this:

Michael Jackson.mp3

There are hundreds of file extensions, but for the scope of this article, I will only describe some of them.  First, I have to tell you something that you won’t believe, but it’s true, you just have to trust me.  Sitting down?  Word does not store your documents, Itunes doesn’t store your music, and quickbooks doesn’t store your invoices!  Documents are stored in “.doc files”.  Music is stored in “.mp3 files”.  Quickbooks actually stores your invoices in “.qbw files”. (qbw=quickbooks for windows).

The actual applications, such as Word, Excel, Itunes, Quickbooks, Notepad, Wordpad, Calculator, Internet Explorer, and Firefox, are .EXE files like winword.exe, itunes.exe, qbwin.exe.  These EXE files do not contain your documents, pictures, or music.  It is VERY important to understand this difference between program files, and data files.  Advanced computer users are always aware of what programs they are using, and which data file(s) they are working with.  Are you aware of what program you are using right now to read this article?

Other file types that are applications include .bat, .cmd, .com, .ps1, .vb, .vbs, .vbscript, .csh, ws, and .wsf.  These are commonly found in virus attachments in emails.  Opening these attachments will run the program and infect your computer.  Never open and email attachment if you don’t recognize the file extension!  Google is great for researching file extensions, use it!

Lets consider using Microsoft Word.  When you click the WORD icon located on your desktop or start menu, it’s actually a shortcut, (which happens to be a .LNK file.)  This LNK file is a very small file that tells the computer the filename of the EXE file that starts Microsoft Word, which happens to be winword.exe.  After winword.exe starts, you might click the File menu and see 5 or 10 of your recent documents.  This is a bad habit!  Using this “most recent documents” feature will make you LAZY!  You need to click File, OPEN so you can see ALL your documents.  I see people all the time losing their documents because they rely on the “most recent documents” for everything.  When you click File>Open, you will see only .doc files because winword.exe is smart enough to filter out any other filenames with file extensions other than .doc.  When you choose your document, winword.exe will read this .doc file and display it on the screen.  When you save your document, winword.exe will write the data on the screen to your .doc file.

Just as Word deals with .doc files, Itunes deals with .mp3 files.  Each .mp3 file contains exactly 1 song.  When you open iTunes and play a song, it will read the mp3.  Unlike Word, Itunes wont be writing to the mp3 file (except for when you download it from the internet or copy it from your iPod/iPhone/iEtc).  When you use Quickbooks, it is constantly reading and writing your .qbw file every time you create/edit/delete an invoice.  Notepad handles .txt files.  Excel handles .xls files.  You are probably using Internet Explorer or Firefox or Chrome to read this article right now, and the article is coming from a .htm file from my webserver.

Not all extensions have 3 characters. Some have 4, like .html and .docx. Some have 2, like .db .7z and .js. Some have 1, and some filenames don’t even have extensions at all, but these aren’t as common.  Some extensions like .html and .htm mean the same type file of file.  .jpg and .jpeg are also the same.  .docx files are the newer documents that Word 2007 and newer create.  Older versions of Word can’t open .docx files without installing special updates.  If you use these newer versions of Word, you need to make sure you click “Save As” and save a .doc file instead of a .docx file when you want to email it to somebody because lots of people still use older versions of Word.

Not all programs are associated with data files.  Calculator doesn’t use data files.  You run calc.exe and input your numbers and see your output, but calc.exe doesn’t allow you to save your results, or read your results from a file.

Some file extensions have more than one program that is capable of handing it.  .pdf files can be opened by Adobe Reader, or Foxit Reader, or Nitro Reader, although most people use Adobe Reader. .avi files are videos, and can be opened by Windows Media Player, Winamp, RealPlayer, Quicktime, or VLC. Doc files are most commonly opened by Microsoft Word, but can also be opened by OpenOffice, LibreOffice, or StarOffice, and dozens of others.  People who believe their documents are in Microsoft Word dont have a chance of having control over their documents. .jpg files are pictures, and can be opened by many programs. There isn’t really any one most common program for opening .jpg files.  Some people use the picture viewer built into Windows, some use Kodak EasyShare, some use IrfanView.  What do you use?

If you right-click a file, you might see a “open with” option that allows you to choose which program you want to open your file with.  The options change depending on the file extension.  The computer is usually smart enough to know which programs are supposed to be able to handle which file extensions.  If you open a file with a program that wasn’t made for that type of file, the computer will explode.  Just kidding.  Opening a .doc file in notepad is interesting because you can see most of the words that are in the document, but it will be mixed with a bunch of gibberish.  That gibberish is how Word stores special formatting such as bold, italics, underlining, font size, page margins, etc.  If you tried to open a .doc file with iTunes, you would get an error message saying that iTunes was unable to play that song.

Do you see how important file extensions are?  Not only does the computer depend on them, but users are expected to know them too.  If you get an email with a file attached called FunnySlideShow.ppt, and the computer doesn’t know what program to open it with, you now have the knowledge to go to google and search for “ppt file” and see that ppt files were probably created with Microsoft Powerpoint and there is a free Powerpoint viewer you can download and install to see the funny slide show.  Feeling more advanced yet?

Now I’ve told you all about files, it’s time to learn about folders.  What is a folder?  A folder is a way of organizing your files in groups.  You can think about a filing cabinet with documents and folders.  The paper documents are like .doc files and the folders are like, well, folders!  You can put any type of file in any folder.  You can also put folders in folders.  Folders are usually displayed as a yellow icon with the folder’s name next to it.  Examples of folders you might find familiar are “My Documents”, “My Pictures”, “My Music”, and “Downloads”.  Can you guess which file extensions you would expect to find inside these folders?

You should not confuse folders with .zip files.  .zip files are files that contain other files.  The newer versions of windows will refer to .zip files as “compressed folders” but this is wrong.  It’s not a folder at all!  It’s a file! The proper term for a .zip file is "archive". These files can be handled by programs like Winzip, 7-Zip and PKZip.  Windows XP and newer has .zip file support built right into it so you no longer need these programs to handle .zip files.  Some email viruses will put the .exe file inside a .zip file so it doesn’t look as suspicious to the user.  Most users will unzip it and run the exe file without thinking twice, which makes their computer explode.  Don’t do this! Other types of archives include .7z, .rar, .cab, and .tar. There are over a hundred types of archive files and each type can only be handled by certain programs. Google is great for learning about new file extensions.

Now, I told you earlier it’s a bad idea to use the “most recent documents” feature in Word.  Now I’m going to tell you it’s best to not even go into Word to open your documents!  Use Windows Explorer instead.  This is already on your computer and it allows you to see ALL your files, as opposed to only the files that Word shows you when you use Word to see your files, or only seeing .txt files when using notepad, or only seeing .xls files when using excel, and so on.

You can find Windows Explorer in Windows XP by clicking Start>My Computer.
You can find Windows Explorer in Windows 7 by clicking Start>Computer.
Another way is to press Win+E (Hold down the Win key and tap the E key).  The Win key is on the keyboard, between the Ctrl and Alt keys.  It looks like the Windows logo. 
When you click Start>Documents or Start>Pictures, you are running Windows Explorer too, it just jumps to your documents folder or pictures folder.

Windows Explorer is awesome.  All advanced users use it.  It allows you to surf the files on your computer like Internet Explorer allows you to surf the Internet.  It allows you to delete files, rename files, move files to another folder, copy files, copy folders, delete folders, rename folders, and an endless combination actions you can perform on your files/folders.  It is your responsibility to learn these actions.  These actions are the “skills” I was referring to at the beginning of this article.  These skills give you unlimited power over any computer!  There is literally no limit to what you can do after you understand how to manage your files and folders.  You can easily do things that have never been done on a computer before and use your computer in ways that even the people that created it had never thought of!

Unfortunately, all versions of Windows have slightly different versions of Windows Explorer, and there are so many different settings in Windows Explorer that change the way it looks, that I can’t even begin to write instructions on how to do specific actions.  You will have to learn this on your own.  Sadly, all versions of Windows Explorer hide file extensions unless you tell it to show them.  If I setup your computer, I have probably already changed this setting so you can see the file extensions.  If you are not seeing your file extensions, you should change this setting now by going to google and searching for “unhide extensions”.

The next thing you want to do is open your “Documents” folder (“My Documents” in Windows XP).  Open it now and you will most likely see documents that you don’t want anymore that need to be deleted.  Right-click them and choose delete.

It is important to name your files something descriptive.  I commonly see filenames like document1.doc, document2.doc, scan.pdf, CopyOfPicture.jpg and the users have to open them all to find the document they are looking for.  That sucks!  What happens when you get over 100 files?  I see companies that have over 10,000 files, do you think they name their documents document1.doc?  Use names like DoctorsList.doc and WalmartList.doc and AllergyTestResults.pdf and you will be able to find your documents in a matter of seconds.  You can Right-click your files and choose rename.  Be careful to NOT change the extension when renaming!

To copy or move a file or folder, drag it to another folder using the RIGHT mouse button.  This causes it to display a menu asking you if you want to move or copy.  If you use the left mouse button to drag it, it won’t ask.

Organizing your pictures is commonly a huge failure for people.  With knowledge of how to manage your files and folders, you can come up with good ways to organize your pictures.  Between me and my wife, we have 14,297 .jpg files in 283 folders, and growing!  We have ours in folders named by year, month, then the location or event, such as
2008_05_vacation Louisville Niagra Falls New York DC
2008_10_Halloween Party at Madonna's

Most of the .jpg files have the filename assigned by the camera, usually just some sequential number.  We also have thousands of .mp3 files.  Each mp3 file is named the title of the song, and put into folders named after the artist.  Windows Explorer has a great search feature that can go through all your files and show you which ones contain certain words in the filename.  This is very powerful IF you have your files named appropriately, but useless if you don’t.  Windows Explorer also allows you to sort your files by size, type, or date modified, also extremely useful.

Now there is one last thing you need to know about managing your files and folders.  Todays computers have many devices you can store files and folder on.  There are hard drives, floppy drives, cd drives, dvd drives, usb drives, sd cards, cameras, phones, mp3 players, and many others.  Each device will have a “drive letter”.  Each drive letter refers to a different device.  Drive letters can contain files and folders.  You might hear “C drive” referring to a hard drive, and “D drive” referring to a CD/DVD drive”. “A drive” usually refers to a floppy disk drive.  If you move a usb flash drive from one computer to another, it might not have the same drive letter on the new computer.  Drive letters are assigned by the computer, not by the device, and are usually assigned in sequential order.  You will see the drive letter is the fist part of a complete file path, followed by a colon.

C:\documents and settings\admin\desktop\readme.txt
D:\Music\ACDC\You shook me all night long.mp3

In a network where you have a server, you can have drive letters that go to the server, like N drive or T drive so that many computers can SHARE files and folders like this.  This is extremely useful in a business with many computers.

If you have a file that’s not in a folder (like E:\readme.txt), that’s called “the root of E drive”, because it’s the root folder, like the root of a tree, with all the other files and folders branching off. The next time you insert a CD to install a program, and nothing pops up automatically, look in the root of your cd drive's drive letter for setup.exe or install.exe.

Devices like hard drives and usb drives can fail at any time.  Your data is never safe on any single device.  This is why people have backup copies, (“backups”).  Backups are nothing special, just a copy of the files and folders you don’t want to lose.  With your knowledge of how to copy a file, creating your own backups is just a matter of copying a file to another device.  You can buy external hard drives and usb flash drives from wal-mart or  When you plug them in, your computer will assign it a new drive letter.  If you discover your new device already has files on it, you should delete these files.  Those are junk programs that try to hide the files and folders from you and they commonly don’t work properly.  Just copy your files manually and you will sleep better knowing your data is safe.

If you made it to this point and your head isn’t spinning, I’m impressed.  Learning how to work with files and folders isn’t easy, but it can be learned in less than a day.  If you are afraid of messing your computer up, you should use XP’s limited account feature, or win7’s UAC to protect you from yourself.  If you are not familiar with this protection, you should read my articles about that too, they are on the main articles index page.

Here are some decent youtube video's to get you started with actually using Windows Explorer.

If you are running Windows XP - Video 1 - Video 2

If you are running Windows 7 - Video 1 - Video 2 - Video 3