Try and imagine a 5-year old's messy room.
Toys, clothes strewn everywhere - on the floor, under the bed, in the
closet. If a parent tells him or her to clean, the child really has no
idea what to do - at best, everything might get stuffed into drawers or
into the closet. For too many people - even people whose physical homes
and offices are reasonably tidy and organized - throw up their hands in
dismay faced with the task of keeping their virtual office space -
their computer - organized in a way that allows them to easily find
what they're looking for.
Are you one of those people? One way to tell is to look at your
computer's Desktop - the screen you see when no program is running. Is
it covered with dozens of icons in haphazard order? Maybe you need to
learn a bit more about Files and Folders and Drives. (Oh My!)
A bit of background:
Your computer stores information in 'files' - the computer
equivalent of sheets of paper with writing on them - instructions for
the computer. The instructions may tell it to open a word processor or
web browser - these are applications (a.k.a. 'programs' or 'apps')
which are stored as files. A file may contain writing that you created
with a word processor application. A photo taken with a digital camera
(or smartphone) is stored as a file.
When you're organizing paper files in a 'real' office, you may put them
into folders - ways to store files that are related in some way. In an
elementary school office, there's probably a file for each student -
organizing paperwork including application forms, copies of health
records, and report cards. Even if you've never created a folder, your
computer already has folders created by the operating system (Windows,
Mac OS, etc) and by each application that you've installed. When you
first signed into your computer, it created a folder for your user
account and set up a set of folders for you to use to store your
personal stuff - folders with names like Documents
Two things to know about folders:
- You can (and should) create folders to help keep your stuff
- You can put folders inside other folders
More about organizing folders in a moment.
In the 'real world' when you have a bunch of (physical) folders full of
documents you need someplace to put them - typically a file drawer or a
multi-drawer filing cabinet or even a room full of filing cabinets. The
computer equivalents are drives. And while computer files and folders
are metaphors for the physical equivalents, drives are real pieces of
hardware. Your desktop or laptop computer has a hard drive or solid
state drive inside where the files and folders you access whenever the
computer is turned on are stored. You can plug 'removable drives' into
your computer - external hard drives, DVD discs, or USB flash drives
for instance - to give your computer temporary access to additional
files and folders.
On Windows computers, each drive - both internal and external - gets a
letter-name: C: for the internal hard drive, possibly D: for the
built-in DVD drive, other letters (followed by colons) for other drives
that you may attach. These are less important that they once were - but
you should know about them.
File Management tools: Windows 10's File Explorer
Every computer operating system includes a tool or utility for managing files - Macs have the Finder
. From Windows 95 to Windows 7, Windows includes a utility name Windows Explorer.
Windows 10 renamed its file management utility File Explorer
since that's what it does. It's very similar to the Windows 7 version
with a few enhancements. Note the two panes - a left-hand pane with
commonly accessed folders. You can customize it by 'pinning' folders
you often visit to the Quick Access list at the top of this pane. The
larger pane lists folders and files; you can customize the view,
letting you see larger or smaller sized icons or a list with details
like date modified, file size, and file type. In that Detail View
you can sort by name, date, size, or file type by clicking on the
category names at the top of the list. In some views, you'll also get a
on the left, letting you preview the contents of a file without having to load it into an application.
||Files, folders, and drives are
organized in a way that's similar to the
diagram of a family tree... At the root, there's the computer.
Branching off is each individual drive. You can use a file management
tool like Windows 7's Windows Explorer,
Windows 10's similar File Explorer,
or the Mac's Finder
to look at the organization of your computer's drives, folders, and
files. We're going to use Windows 10's File Explorer, but the other
computer operating systems have similar file management tools.
In the image to the left, File Explorer opened up with 'This PC'
selected from a list of frequently used items on the left. In the
centre of the larger pane beside it, it lists 'Devices and drives' on
that computer and finds two of them.... 'Local Disk (C:)' - the internal hard
drive and '32GB (D:)' - a USB
flash drive that was plugged in at the time.
I'm going to double-click on 'Local Disk (C:)'
|Here is the list of the first
level of file folders - all of these were already on the computer when
I got it. Folders with names Program
Files and Program Files (x86)
hold the folders and files for installed programs; when I install
additional programs, the installation process creates new folders to
store the files for each new program.
The Windows folder contains
folders and files for the computer's operating system - Windows 10.
There's also a folder on this computer named Windows 7 - presumably this computer
started life with Windows 7 on it and was upgraded to Win 10.
The Users folder has folders
for each person who is able to log-into the computer, making it
possible to keep each user's personal stuff private and unavailable to
I double-clicked on the Users folder then double-clicked on my personal
folder and saw the image below on the left.
It has a long list of folders, some with the standard yellow
file-folder icon, others with special icons: Desktop, Documents, Downloads, Music,
Pictures, Videos and
more. I didn't make any of those folders - each user automatically gets
I then double-clicked on the Pictures
folder and saw the image below on the right:
The contents of my Pictures
folder includes four folders - two were created automatically, the two
Italy folders were made by me and contain photos of two trips I took.
There's also one file loose in the folder - a cartoon image of me
playing an accordion. If you look above the yellow folders, you can see
the path down the folder tree that I took to get there - This PC > Local Disk (C:) > Users
> E6230 > Pictures
When you're organizing your stuff on your computer, think about
your life - your activites and projects - and how you use your
computer. This may change over time. For a long time, I wrote a weekly
technology column for a local business paper; I needed to keep years
and years of columns organized. In my Documents
folder, I created a folder named Articles
. Inside it, I created a folder named BIV
(the abbreviation of the paper I wrote for). Within that, I created
folders for each year, and then saved the word processor documents I'd
sent to my editor inside the folder for that year. Inside the Articles
folder, I had other folders named for other publications I wrote for. I
have other folders within my Documents folder named Recipes
, and more.
Within my Pictures
make folders for trips I take, but also a folder for photos of my
grandchildren, a folder for photos of the band I play in, and so forth
(not all of these are illustrated in this workshop because they're on
In my Music
folder, the program iTunes
does a bunch of organizing for me - it creates an iTunes Library
folder and within that, creates folders for each artist. Within the
artist's folder, it creates folders for each of that artist's albums.
Within the album folder it stores the actual music files for that album.
The point being that there's no single right way how you organize your
files into folders. There is a single wrong way, however - not to do it.
If you've let your computer (or your office or bedroom) become a mess,
it can be a big job to get your stuff organized. Once that's done,
however, keeping it tidy is much less of a chore - and it makes it much
easier for you to find what you're looking for.
A Tale of Three Clicks
There are three common ways of clicking on file/folder/drive icons -
each does something different. Note that Windows mice and trackpads
typically have two buttons - when I say 'click' that's short for saying
'click using the left button'. (Note
- some left-handed people switch buttons, so officially that's referred
to as the 'primary' button. But's almost always the left one).
Similarly, 'double-click' means click twice fairly quickly using the
left (primary) button. Right-click means click (once) with the right
button. Macs typically have mice or trackpads with just one button -
Mac-users can get the same effect by holding down the Control-key on
their keyboard and clicking (i.e. Control-click).
As an example, I'm going click, double-click, and right-click on the
Recycle Bin icon on a Windows 7 computer's Desktop. Here's what we'll
Create a new folder
- Single-click on the
Recycle Bin icon selects (or 'highlights') that icon - note how it has
a rectangle around it and a transparent grey box compared to the icon
below it (labelled 'My Pictures'). Selecting it indicates that
something can happen to it - we could drag it around the Desktop or
drag it to another folder. If we wait a few seconds and click on it
again, we could change the name - not necessarily recommended.
- Sometimes, a single click will open a file or folder;
usually, though it takes a double-click - clicking twice in quick
succession without a pause between the two. Click-click - just like you
might read that.
- Double-clicking on
the Recycle Bin 'opens it up'. What that means depends on what sort of
file the icon represents - double-clicking the icon for a program (or
application) will run the program without loading any documents.
Double-clicking the icon for a document or media file will load that
file into the program you're using on your computer to edit that sort
of file - for instance, double-clicking a file saved by Microsoft Word
will open up Microsoft Word and load that document into it.
Double-clicking a folder's icon will open up the folder, letting you
view the contents. The Recycle Bin is a special folder -
double-clicking it will open the folder and show the files that you've
deleted - in this case, one file.
- Note that if you click
two times more slowly you'll have the option to rename the file or
folder. Some people have trouble double-clicking quickly enough!
We'll be using right-click a lot!
- Right-clicking on
the Recycle Bin pops up a menu, a so called pop-up or context menu. It's a list of things
that can be done specific to the item that's been right-clicked. Many
items might have context menus that include 'open', 'create shortcut',
and 'rename'. Only the Recycle Bin's context menu will have an option
to 'Empty Recycle Bin'. (The 'Properties' option gives more information
about the item that's been right-clicked).
- Mac users don't have right mouse or trackpad buttons in
most cases - they can view context menus by holding the Control-key on
their keyboard and clicking their single button - Control-clicking.
- You can even right-click on an empty space on your Windows
or Mac Desktop and get a context menu of actions appropriate to the
Desktop - making a new folder on the Desktop, for instance, or changing
the picture on the Desktop (the 'wallpaper).
Youd can easily create a new folder anywhere you need one - either on
the Desktop or within an existing folder viewed in Windows/File
Explorer. Just right-click in any open space (on the Desktop or within
the folder) and click (left-click) on the word New
then on New Folder
from the pop-up menu. A new folder will appear named 'New Folder' -
with those words highlighted waiting for you to type in a better name.
If you click somewhere instead of typing, you'll have a folder named
'New Folder'. If that happens, click on the name, wait a second or two
and click again - now you'll have another chance to rename it. Or
right-click on the folder, choose Rename
from the pop-up menu. (Those, by the way, are two ways to rename a file or folder).
Selecting multiple files or folders
Often you may want to do something to more than one file or folder. If
you want to copy 35 files out of 60 in a folder from one drive to
another it would be a real pain if you had to do them one at a time, 35
times. Selecting multiple files or folders is a bit of a trick, though.
Typically, if you click (left-click) on a file or folder - whether on
the Desktop or appearing in one of those file management tools, it will
be 'selected' - it will appear highlighted so you know it's ready for
you to do something to it. It might be useful to be able to select more
than one file or folder - but if you click on one then click on a
second one, only the second one will be selected. There are a number of
tricks to select multiple items at one time. (We'll try this in a
moment). All of these will work both on the Desktop or within the
Windows File Explorer and Mac Finder.
Copying vs Moving Files and Folders
- If multiple icons are grouped together, you can hold the mouse
button (left button) down and move the mouse diagonally across the area
of the icons you want to select. When you lift the mouse button you'll
see they're all highlighted as selected and you can drag them as a
- If you want to select multiple items that aren't in a group, hold
the Control key (Command key on a Mac) and click on each item you want
to select... you can Control-Click on as many as you want. If you
selected one by mistake, Control-click on it again and it will no
longer be highlighted. When you've selected what you want, take your
finder off the Control key and you can again drag all of them at once.
- If you have a long list of files and you want to select a bunch
of them click the first, then hold the Shift key down and click the
last in the group - everything from your first click to your
Shift-Click will be highlighted.
- You can select everything in a particular location quickly - hold
down Control (Command on a Mac) and press the letter 'A' (A for All)
and everything will be selected - or click on the Edit menu and pick
- Note that all these selection
tricks also work in many programs - you can use them with text in
Microsoft Word or other word processors, for instance.
There can be confusion between 'copying' a file or folder and 'moving'
the file or folder. The confusion is enhanced because sometimes, doing
the same thing - dragging a file or folder with the mouse and dropping
it in a new location copies
the file or folder - in other words there are now two of them, one in
the original location and the other in the new location. But if you do
the exact same steps to a different destination, you may find that you moved
the original - in other words
there's only one, and its now in a different locations from where it
Here's what's going on:
- If you drag and drop a file or folder from one location to
another on the same drive it
will be moved - for instance, from your computer's Downloads folder to
your Desktop - both of which are folders on the computer's internal
- If you drag and drop a file or folder from a location on one
drive to a location on a different drive it will be copies - for
instance, from your computer's Desktop to a flash drive that you
plugged into the computer.
If you want to have something different happen - for instance if you
want to copy a file instead of moving it or move it instead of copying
it, there are a couple of ways to change this default
behaviour. Here's the
- Right-click on the file or folder you want to copy/move
(Control+click on a Mac). A menu will pop up with a variety of options
- choose Copy if you plan to
copy the file/folder somewhere. Choose Cut
if you want to move it.
- Go to the new location (using the Windows File Explorer or Mac
Finder - a different folder, your flash drive, wherever. Right-click on
a piece of blank space and pick Paste
from the pop-up menu. Bingo!
A special kind of file - named a 'shortcut
' by Windows or an 'alias
' on a Mac can be a helpful
tool for organizing - and finding - files and folders. A shortcut (etc)
is a tiny file with the same name as another file or folder that points
to the 'real' file's location. Maybe you have a large document saved in
a folder several layers deep within your Documents
folder - you can put a
shortcut on the Desktop making it easy to access the real file.
Double-clicking the shortcut will open the file - just as if you were
double-clicking the real file. If it's a shortcut to a folder,
double-clicking the shortcut will open the folder so you can view and
work with the contents.
The icons for a shortcut (or alias) will have a little arrow on top of
the standard icon for the file. The filename may be tagged with the
word 'shortcut' or 'alias'. You can also have shortcuts pointing to an
application. Note the arrow in the picture or the folder shortcut.
The key to understanding shortcuts is that they provide an easy way to
access frequently used folders, files, and applications from multiple
places on your computer without making copies of the folders/files/etc
in all those places - shortcuts take up almost no space on your
computer's drive (unlike making copies of actual folder/files/etc). And
if you had a bunch of copies of a file in different locations, you
quickly would get some that were out of date and a lot of confusion
about which one to open when. (Note
that Start Menu icons are just shortcuts pointing to your different
Let's imagine you'd like a shortcut on your Windows Desktop pointing to
a frequently accessed folder - maybe your Pictures folder. There are a
couple of ways to do it - here's perhaps the easiest way (for Windows users):
Note for Mac users - you can put
'aliases' (the Mac name for what Windows-users call 'shortcuts')
wherever they're useful to you - but you can't do it in the way
described above. Instead, locate the file or folder (in the Mac Finder)
that's the target of your alias-to-be and click once to select it.
With it selected, cick on the
Finder's File menu and choose Make Alias. That will make an alias in the same
location as the target file/folder, which is not very useful - drag it
to the Desktop or any other intended location. Your alias will have the
same name as the original plus the word 'alias' and will have a little
arrow in the bottom-left corner of its icon - so you know its and alias
and not a 'real'' file or folder.
The Recycle Bin/Trash
- Right-click on the Desktop; from the pop-up menu choose New and then Shortcut
- You'll see a dialogue box like the one on the left - click Browse
and you'll get what you see on the right, letting you select the My Pictures folder.
- You'll be asked to confirm that location
- You'll be asked to give the shortcut a name - if you just
click OK to both questions you'll get a shortcut on the Desktop named My Pictures
- Double-clicking the shortcut will open the My Pictures
folder just as you would hope
- Dragging files and dropping them on the shortcut will move
them to the 'real' My Pictures folder
- You can do this within any drive or folder - not just on
- Note - in Win 10,
shortcut icons get the word 'Shortcut' added to the name. Not so in
Windows 7. The little arrow is your clue that it's a
shortcut and not an actual folder.
Computer operating systems include a way for users to delete or erase
files stored on their various drives that are no longer needed, freeing
up the space. Sometimes, however, users change their minds and want to
get a deleted file back. Starting with the original 1984 Mac, operating
systems gave users a simple way do to this using the metaphor of a
trash can (Mac) or recycle bin (Windows). Both work in pretty much the
same way. You have an icon of a Recycle Bin (on the Windows Desktop) or
Trash can (on the Mac Dock). The icon's appearance changed depending on
whether it's empty or full.
You can add an item or tems to the Recycle Bin/Trash in a number of
ways - all of these work the same way for a single item or multiple
items, selected as described in the previous section. Here are two -
after selecting a file or files:
- drag and drop onto the Recycle Bin/Trash icon
- right-click (control-click on Mac) on a selected file and choose Delete (Move to Trash on a Mac) from the
Note that if you move a folder to the Recycle Bin/Trash all its
contents are moved at the same time.
Also note that the items in the Recycle Bin/Trash are not erased; they
are stored in the Recycle Bin/Trash. If you want one or more back, you
can double-click on the Recycle Bin/Trash icon to open a window
displaying the contents. Locate what you want and drag it to a location
outside the Recycle Bin/Trash. Or right-click (control-click on a Mac)
on an item in the Recycle Bin/Trash and pick Restore
(Windows) or Put Back
(Mac) - this will put it
back where it was when it was deleted. If you restore a delete folder
you'll restore the deleted contents of the folder at the same time.
There is a limit to how much you can hold in the Recycle Bin/Trash -
typically 10% of your hard drive's size. If you are about to exceed
that limit, you'll get a warning, noting that anything else you add
will be erased immediately (with no easy way to get it back).
Periodically, if you're sure you aren't going to change your mind about
the stuff in the Recycle Bin/Trash, you should 'empty the trash' -
right-click (Control-click on Mac) on the Recycle Bin/Trash icon and
pick Empty Recycle Bin/Empty Trash
from the pop-up menu. (Note that there is no easy way to recover
deleted files after you do this).
One difference between Windows and Macs - in Windows, if you delete a
file on your internal hard drive it is moved to the Recycle Bin; if,
however, you delete a file on an external device - an external hard
drive, a USB flash drive, etc - it is immediately erased. It doesn't go
to the Recycle Bin and there's no easy way to get it back if you change
On a Mac, files on both your computer's internal hard drive and
external devices are moved to the Trash. Hidden 'trash' folders are
created on the external devices to store files or folders moved to the
trash. So while these can be easily restored, you won't free up space
on those devices by deleting files (which is probably why you deleted
the files in the first place) until you empty the trash.
Open/Save Dialogue Boxes:
Dialogue boxes pop up when the computer needs you to enter information.
Some of the most common are the ones that various applications use to
open a file or to save (or save as - see above) a file. These are specialized versions of the file managers built-into your
computer's operating system... as is the dialogue box that pops up in your email software to attach a file to a message.
Save vs Save As
|Here's the Open
dialogue box from Windows 10's Notepad accessory. It's got the Quick Access list from the Win 10 File Explorer on the
left, while it seems to have the little View icon used in Windows 7's
You can rename or delete folders and files displayed in the
large pane on the right in the same you might in the full file
management program, even though that's probably not something you want
to do in the middle of opening a file.
Depending on the program, some Open dialogue boxes may start out at a
pre-set default location; others will start out at the last folder
where you opened or saved a file. This one is looking at the Desktop.
You're not expected to type in the space labelled File Name - when you click on a file, the file name will appear in that space automatically.
Save dialogue boxes look
similar - asking you to type in a File name, and click to find the
folder or drive where you want the saved file to be stored.
Again, some programs will pre-set the Save dialogue box to start off in
a particular folder - maybe your Documents folder. Others will go to
the last place you saved a file.
Some people get in the habit of using Save As in their various
documents as a way to make copies of files in multiple places. It's a
bit clumsy, but it works!
Another common confusion is between Save and Save As - typically, these
options appear in the File menu of most applications (programs) that
let you create or modify documents, edit photos, etc.
Here's what's happening - the first time you save a new document, the
computer needs to ask you for some basic information:
- You need to give the file a name
- You need to give the file a location where it should be saved.
The program often suggests location - sometimes a default folder like
your Documents folder. Other times, it may suggest wherever you last
saved something using that program. If you're okay with that location,
just click Okay - but get in the habit of paying attention to where
your files are being saved!
If you make additional changes to the document, or close the program
and later use it to modify that saved document - or if you open a
document that you downloaded or got from someone else but which already
has a file name and a location somewhere on your computer - if you
click Save the computer assumes you don't want to change the name and
location and doesn't ask for that information again - it just saves
But sometimes you may want to have two versions of the file - the
original version and a new version that's been modified in some way.
Maybe you have a stock job resumé and you want to customize it for each
job you apply for. Or you want to save the new version in a different
location - on your USB flash drive perhaps.
If you choose Save As
computer will ask the same questions it did the first time, letting you
give the modified version a different name or save it in a new location
|When you double-click a document or media file it's automatically
loaded in an application that's able to open that kind of file. Word
processor documents open in your word processor (Microsoft Word, for
example). You may only have one word processor installed on your
computer. But for photos or other images you could easily have several
- whether you know it or not. Can you control what application opens
You could open the application
first, then use its File/Open option to locate your document and load
it into the application that way. Here's another way:
Locate the file on your computer - maybe it's on your Desktop, maybe
it's in a folder somewhere on your hard drive or a USB Flash Drive or
wherever - when you see its icon right-click (command-click on a Mac). One of the options in the pop-up context menu will be Open With...
it will offer you a list of what the computer things are your installed
applications that can work with that sort of file. If the program you'd
like to use is on the list and
you just want to use it with this sort of file now and again, just
click on the program name and it will open with your file loaded.
If you want a program that's not on the list or you always want to use a listed program with that file, in this Windows 10 example, click the bottom option - Choose another app (It will be worked differently in earlier versions of Windows, perhaps Choose Program. In any event you'll see something like the following:
||The first image is from Windows XP, the second from Windows 10
The earlier version of Windows let you browse for an application that isn't on the list. Windows 10 has removed that option.
However, notice that both give the option (near the bottom) to always
use whichever app (program) you select to open this sort of file - in
the Windows 10 case JPEG image files. Maybe you'd prefer to always use,
say, the Picasa Photo Viewer in place of the Windows 10 Photos app.
If you do this, all JPEg image files will open that way - but you may
have to repeat the steps for some other type of image file.
Note that these steps are not just for photos or images - you might
think you only have one word processor installed, for instance - try
this on a saved Microsoft Word document and see how many different
programs are on your computer that can read that sort of file.
- Take some time to use whichever file management utility is on your computer to explore
your personal files and folders, to create new folders, rename files
and folders, and to copy and move files and folders to different
locations on your computer's internal hard drive and to and from an
external drive like a USB Flash Drive.
- If your computer's Desktop
is cluttered with files and
folders, try to tidy it up. Aim to only keep on your Desktop files that
you are working on right now - and organize them into folders on your
Desktop. With everything else - move them into folders inside your
personal folders: Documents, Pictures, Music, etc. If you don't know
what something is - or no longer need it, drag it to the Recycle Bin.
Many program installations put icons for the program on your Desktop.
Do you start the program that way? You have icons for all these
programs in your Start Menu - maybe you can delete many of those Desktop program icons.
- Look in your Downloads
folder - most people's is stuffed with downloaded programs and updates,
but also with email file attachments - years worth of invoices,
documents, photos, and more. Take a look - like with the files on your
Desktop, decide what you want to keep - put photos into the Pictures
folder (into appropriate folders). Put documents into the Documents
folder, etc. You rarely - if ever - need downloaded program installers
or updates. If you've installed the program, you no longer need the