Chapter 7 - Files and Folders

Say we're finally cleaning up our desk area and have a pile of papers we need to store in our metal file cabinet. We can tackle this job in one of two ways:

Option 1: Open a drawer, throw them in and slam it shut
Option 2: Type a label and put each in its proper categorized folder.

Granted, choosing Option 1 will get the job done more quickly, but where would we be after a few months of "throw them in and slam it shut"? Could we find that one paper we need?

Unfortunately, in the computer world, too many people choose Option 1. One of the most common frustrations I hear from newbies is, "I know I saved it but I have no idea where it went."

My mom still longs for the old days of the typewriter, when finding your day's work was as easy as looking at the pile of pages to the side.

"You were in complete control," she says. "Whatever you did came out on paper and it was right there. Whatever I do, it goes in somewhere, I don't see it and I don't know what is going on."

Learning your operating system's file system is the most important step in getting comfortable with your computer. But don't worry. It's time to start demystifying that system right now.

Files and folders

When it comes to files and folders, the computer is not too different from our real-world example. Think of your hard drive as the file cabinet. Think of your computer files as the papers and the folders as, well, hanging file folders.

Your hard drive is organized much like a file cabinet, with drawers full of folders storing your documents and programs. Its structure is similar to that of a family tree, with folders coming off of folders much like younger generations are placed under their elders.

Creating a folder

Computer folders are just like their real-life counterparts. They all look the same, so it's important to label them with something that makes sense. Let's create a folder on our desktop.

On the Mac, click on a blank area of the desktop, then click on the File menu and choose New Folder. It will place a folder with its temporary name, "untitled folder," highlighted.

Notice that unlike the Mac, Windows doesn't have that permanent menu at the top - which finally brings us to what that right mouse button is for. It's time to right-click!

Make sure you're pointing to an empty part of your desktop (an area free of icons) and click your right mouse button to bring up a menu of commands. You can also get there by pressing the Windows-only key that looks like a cursor pointing to a menu. It's to the right of the spacebar.

Move your mouse to New and it will cascade into a sub menu with a lot of new things you can create. Choose Folder and left click. Doing so places a folder with its temporary name "New folder" on your desktop and leaves it highlighted so you can change its name.

(A quick note for Windows users: the Windows desktop is a special subfolder called "Desktop" that's actually buried under the "Windows," "Documents and Settings" folder on your main hard drive.)

We've created this folder on the desktop, but you can create a folder most anywhere. You can create a folder on your hard drive, inside another folder, in your My Documents file or anywhere else.

Merrill, from Tampa, Fla., says the Windows My Documents folder provides a great central location to organize all the important files you need to save.

"I really like this system," Merrill says. "I use My Documents as the main file cabinet, with subfolders for 'Word Files,' 'Excel file' and so on.

Figure 7a: Alphabet soup

Back in the days of DOS, drives on your computer were identified by letters. The A: drive was the first floppy drive, the B: was the second floppy drive and C: was the hard drive.

As with much of Windows, some of those old DOS conventions hang on. That's why the floppy drive is still A:, your primary hard drive is C: and any other drives you may have (CD-ROM, Zip disk, second hard drive) also are assigned a letter. You'll seldom see a B: drive anymore, as there is really no reason to have a second floppy drive.

Mac users don't have to worry about drive letters, as the MacOS is not based on DOS.

"Under 'Word' files, I keep separate folders for 'Letters,' 'Reports,' 'Family history,' 'Aunt May,' 'Form Letters,' etc. This not only makes it easy to find things, but it also makes it easier to back up my computer."

Those who are uncomfortable creating new folders and browsing around to find their files still have options. Barbara, from Leesburg, Fla., says her son set up a folder for her to save all her documents so she doesn't have to search around.

"I have a section called 'Mom' and that's where I save things to," she says. "I don't go making new folders."

Naming files

If all of our folders were called "untitled folder" or "New folder," we'd have a tough time finding anything we did. Those are the generic names our operating system gives to new folders we create.

To change a folder's name to something more useful, click on the name of the folder to select it (the letters, not the icon). When it's selected, click on it again (or right-click and select Rename). It will "highlight" the name (which means putting the block of text in reverse colors) to allow you to change it to whatever you want - well, almost anything. Although the Mac is more liberal, Windows objects if you use any of the following characters in a file name: * / \ | < > ? :

When getting started on a computer, it's best to come up with a consistent naming scheme so you can find and identify your files. If you title everything with generic names such as "file23" and "file24," you'll have to open a bunch to find that important letter down the road.

She likes to start the name of her files with the date to serve as a catalog.

"I try to put them by date and the first few initials of what I'm writing," she says. "I keep everything in date order - kind of like a diary."

Deleting files

The easiest way to get rid of files and folders is to drag and drop them on the Trash or Recycle bin. A dialog box will appear asking if you're sure you want to get rid of it. (A dialog box is any pop up window that asks us a question and won't go away until we answer.) Click on yes or no or hit Y or N on the keyboard.

You can also get rid of files and folders by highlighting them, clicking on the Edit menu and choosing Delete. Windows users have another method: Right-click on the file and choose Delete (or you can hit the Delete key on your keyboard.

Remember that although you're sending a file to the Trash or Recycle Bin, you're not completely disposing it until you empty the container. If you're trying to free up disk space, start by checking how much is sitting in your Trash or Recycle Bin.

Rummaging through the trash

If you haven't yet emptied the container, you still can recover a file you didn't mean to get rid of. Double click the Trash or Recycle Bin and you'll find all of the files you've deleted since the last time you "took the garbage out." Just drag the file and drop it back on the desktop or another folder. You can close the Trash or Recycle Bin like you do with any other window.

Windows users can also highlight the file and choose File and Restore, or right-click on the file and choose Restore.

Emptying the trash

If you drop some leftover salmon in your kitchen trash can and leave it for a week, you're air freshener is not going to be much help. Fortunately, old items left in the computer's trash or recycle bin won't start to smell, but it is a good idea to periodically empty it - especially if you're often throwing away large files.

In Windows, right-click on the Recycle Bin and click on Empty Recycle Bin. (If it's already empty, that option will be grayed out.) It once again will ask you if you're sure you want to do this.

On the Mac, go to the Special menu and select Empty Trash. It, too, will make sure you really want to do this.

Browsing files

If a salesperson approaches me in a store but I really don't want to buy anything, I'll typically say, "Thanks, just browsing." With any luck, I won't be bothered again.

Our computer takes a more laid-back approach to letting us browse, allowing us all the time we need to peruse our hard drives' files and folders.

In Windows, double click My Computer on the desktop (in Windows XP, click on the Start button then My Computer). Then double-click your main hard drive (which should be labeled C:). On the Mac, double click Macintosh HD.

Scroll up and down (and maybe left and right) and you'll see all the files and folders on the hard drive. If you want to open one of those folders and see what's in it, double click the folder and you'll see the contents.

If you want to change how these windows look, you can click on the View menu at the top of the window (Windows) or the top of the screen (Mac). Choosing to switch the view to a list or arranging them in alphabetical order will change how the files appear, but not their contents. In addition to sorting by name, you can also sort by date last accessed, file type and size.

Windows offers another program to allow us to browse through files and folders. It's called Windows Explorer, and it can be found under Start and Programs. (A shortcut to Windows Exporer is to right click on the Start button). Explorer offers us a split window in which we can see the tree structure of the drives so we have a better idea of where we're browsing.

Finding files

Even if we're sticklers about keeping organized, there may be times when you save a file and don't remember where you put it. It's kind of like when you put something really important in a place where you know you won't lose it. Unfortunately, that place is also one in which you'll never find it!

Fortunately, the computer recognizes our imperfections and offers us a Find feature. In Windows, press the Start button and select Find, then Files and Folders. (In Windows XP, press Start - Search and choose All Files and Folders.) On the Mac, click on the Apple and choose Sherlock.

If you know the file name, you can type it in the box in Windows Find or the one to the left of the magnifying glass in Sherlock. If you only know part of it, type in a few letters and click on Find Now or the magnifying glass.

When searching for a file, it's important to consider where you are looking. If you know saved a file to your hard drive, looking for it on the CD-ROM is not going yield any results.

If you want to check everywhere, set your Find In or Look In field to My Computer, which will look through all the drives. Or you can choose to only search your desktop, your My Documents folder, a floppy disk or a particular hard drive (if you have more than one).

On the Mac, make sure the Macintosh HD icon is selected in the Sherlock toolbar. (Note: Sherlock also can be used to search the Web.)

If you're not exactly sure of the name of the file you are looking for, you can use wildcards to help you narrow your search. The asterisk (*)can be used to represent any number of unknown characters while the question mark (?) can take the place of one unknown character.

If you wanted to search for all files beginning with the letters "win" you could type "win*" in the search box, which would yield results including windows.exe, winword.exe, wing recipes.doc, etc. It will list any file that begins with "win," regardless of what follows it. Typing "*ing" would list any file ending in "ing" while "*bills*" would yield all files with "bills" anywhere in the file name.

If you wanted to find a file that was named either "farther" or further," you could type "f?rther" and it would give you both. In this example, it would list any file that began with f, had any character in the second position followed by "rther."

So what to do with search results? Well if you found the document you were looking for and it comes up in the search results window, you can double click it and your computer will launch the program used to work on it.

For instance if you were looking for a file by typing in "letter" and a Word file named "Letter" showed up in the search window, double clicking on that would launch Microsoft Word and open that file.

So how does it know what program is needed to open various files? By knowing its file type.

File types

Every file in both Windows and MacOS has a type, which lets the operating system know what program it should use to launch the file.

Figure 7b: Common file types
  • Text and documents: .TXT, .DOC, .PDF, .RTF, .WP, .WRI
  • Images: .AI, .BMP,.CDR, .EPS, .GIF, .JPG, .PNG, .TIF, .WMF
  • Sound: .MP3 .AIF, .WAV, .AU, .RA, .RAM
  • Movies: .AVI, .MOV, .MPG, .QT, .MP4
  • Spreadsheets: .WKS, .123, .XLS
  • Databases: .MDB, .DBF,
  • Web pages: .HTM, .HTML, .SHTML
  • Compressed files: .HQX, .SIT, .ZIP, .TAR

Miscellaneous system formats
.EXE - Executable program file
.FON, .TTF - Fonts
.SCR - Screen saver
.ICO - Icon
.DLL - Dynamic link library
.COM - Older application format
.SYS - System configuration file
.BAT - Executable batch file
.BIN - System binary file
.DAT - System data file
.DRV, .386, .VXD - System device drivers
.INF - System hardware info
.INI - System initialization file
.REG - Windows registry file
.TMP - temporary file

In Windows, the DOS name of that LETTER file we mentioned is actually LETTER.DOC, with the .DOC telling Windows that the file should be opened with Microsoft Word.

The period followed by three characters at the end of a Windows file name is called an extension, and those three characters let Windows know what kind of file it is. If Windows finds a file with the extension .TXT, it will assume it's a text file and open it with Notepad. If it comes across a file with an extension it does not recognize, it will ask you which program it should use to open it.

Windows typically hides these extensions from us, but they do come up from time to time when we open files.

The Macintosh takes a more subtle approach to file types. Each Mac file carries has a four letter code (such as JPEG) for one type of graphics file, but it's more of an internal thing. That's why you'll seldom see Mac files named LETTER.DOC or README.TXT.

NEXT - Chapter 8 - Essential stuff