Windows Explorer

A folder is a "container" in which you store documents (files). This is true of manila folders in filing cabinets as well as folders on your computer's hard disk. Your hard disk is home to many folders. Most of them are system folders and program folders that contain files used by Windows XP and other programs on your computer. There's really nothing in those folders for the average person to be tinkering with.

In addition to all those system and program folders, your copy of Windows has three folders set aside for your personal use. You use these folders to store your own documents. Recall that a document can be anything you might otherwise print on paper, such as typed text and photographs. Though a file that you can "play", like a song or video, is also a document.

The three folders that Windows creates for you are named My Documents, My Music, and My Pictures. They get their names from the fact that you use them as follows:

Icons that represent folders that are currently closed tend to have a manila file folder emblem as part of their icon, as in the examples shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Examples of folder icons

Computer folders aren't exactly like manila file folders, because a computer folder can contain any number of subfolders within it. For example, your My Music and My Pictures folders are actually contained within your My Documents folder. You can see that for yourself by opening your My Documents folder. To do so, click the Start button and choose My Documents from the right side of the Start menu. Your My Documents folder opens up onto the desktop. From its title bar, you know that the main pane below is displaying the contents of your My Documents folder, as in the example shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: My Music and My Pictures folders are contained within My Documents folder

The icons named My Music and My Pictures are in the My Documents folder. So why put My Music and My Pictures "inside" My Documents. Because, technically anything you might want to view on the screen, or print, is a document. A letter you type, a video you download, a spreadsheet you create, they're all documents too. Music and pictures are just somewhat unique as documents. So Windows sets aside a couple of subfolders for those particular types of folders.

Of course, the My Music icon in Figure 2 represents your My Music folder, and the My Pictures icon represents your My Pictures folder. You can open either folder by double-clicking its icon. If you double-click the icon for your My Music folder, you'll be viewing the contents of your My Music folder, rather than your My Documents folder. You'll see that folder's name in the title bar, and its contents in the main pane, as in the example shown Figure 3. (Your My Music folder will contain different icons). Note that the Back button in the toolbar is also enabled now.

Figure 3: Now viewing the contents of a My Music folder.

When you click on the Back button in the toolbar, you're taken back to the folder you were viewing previously. In this case, that would be your My Documents folder. If you then double-click   your My Pictures icon, you'll be viewing the contents of your My Pictures folder. That folder's name will appear in the title bar, and the icons in the main pane will represent files and/or folders in your My Pictures folder. Clicking the Back button while viewing the contents of your My Pictures folder, will again take you back to your My Pictures folder.

As you view the contents of various folders, the current folder's name appears in the title bar, and the icons change to show the contents of the current folder. But some things don't change (or at least, not much) as you go from folder to folder. The things that don't change much are the title bar, menu bar, toolbar, and Explorer bar, all pointed out in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Components of Windows Explorer

None of the above-listed components is part of the folder you're viewing at the moment. Instead, they all belong to a program named Windows Explorer. If you're viewing this on the screen, and Figure 5 has had enough time to download, Figure 5 will show you an animation of going from folder-to-folder. Notice how the menu bar and toolbar don't change at all, and the title bar and Explorer bar change very little, as one goes from one folder to another.


Figure 5: Animation of going from folder to folder in Windows Explorer

To recap, a folder is a container in which you store files, and Windows Explorer is a program that allows you to navigate around through your folders.  Windows Explorer is like other programs in that it has a title bar, menu bar, and toolbar at the top. It also has a taskbar button when it's open. You can move, size, minimize, and maximize Windows Explorer's window just like any other program's.

Windows Explorer is unique among programs in only a couple of ways:

Finally, be aware that there are two Windows XP programs that have the word "Explorer" in their names:

This mini-tutorial has been strictly about Windows Explorer. Internet Explorer is actually a Web browser. You don't use Internet Explorer to explore the contents of your own computer at all. You use Windows Explorer to explore the contents of your own computer.

Alan Simpson