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Tips & Tricks

Why to Get Excited about Plain Old Explorer

By Dan Pinnington

While perhaps a bit on the basic side, the Windows file management utility Explorer has a big bag of tricks that enable you to do all sorts of amazing things.

 

Every once and a while, you no doubt have to go fishing around on your hard drive looking for a file. Or, you may just want to do some housecleaning on your computer. Unless you have separately installed a fancier tool, odds are you will use plain old Explorer, the Windows file management utility that comes built in with the operating system. (Just to be clear, I'm not talking about the Web browser Internet Explorer.)

To get to Explorer, you can click on Start, Programs, Accessories, then Explorer. But why take the long way? Press and hold the Windows key (i.e., the key with the Windows logo on it, just a couple of keys to the left of your spacebar), and then press E, and an Explorer window will instantly appear on your desktop—cool! This is one of my all-time favorite keyboard shortcuts, and my best guess is it will soon become one of your favorites, too.

Now let's jump in to a few tips and tricks that will let you do some exciting things with Explorer.

Explorer Navigation

By default, Explorer opens with two panes. The Folder pane, on the left, lists local and network hard drives, as well as various folders on your computer. The Details pane, on the right, lists the contents of the item you have selected in the Folder pane.

When you work within Explorer, you need to move around expanding and collapsing folders as you go. You can use a mouse to do this, of course, but that isn't the only (or always the fastest) way. Read on.

You can cycle through the Folder and the Details panes and the Address bar with the Tab key. (Shift+Tab will take you backward.) In either pane, use the up or down cursor keys to, respectively, move up or down a folder list. Also, use the right arrow to expand, and the left arrow to collapse, the selected folder or hard drive. With Tab and the four cursor keys, you will fly around your hard drive faster than you ever have before.

In either pane, the Backspace key will take you to the folder above the current one. And in the Details pane, the Enter key will take you into the current folder, or open a file if you have selected a file—in both cases, doing the same as a double-click.

In addition, you can jump down an alphabetical list in either pane by entering the initial letter of the file or folder you are looking for. And if you type them quickly enough, Explorer will recognize multiple letters and jump to the first item that matches the letters you entered.

Renaming Files and Folders

The next time you need to rename a file or folder, don't waste time and energy right-clicking on it and selecting Rename. Instead, select the item, press F2 on your keyboard, and edit the name. Note that pressing almost any key on the keyboard will delete the existing name—which is fine if you want to type something entirely new. However, if you want to keep part of the existing name, press Home, End, or the right or left cursor key and it will remain.

Resizing and Sorting Columns

Occasionally you'll find that the columns in the Details pane are not wide enough to display every listed item in full. To change a column's width, hold the mouse pointer over the vertical line at the right edge of the column's title, and when the pointer changes to a double-pointed arrow, drag and drop the column to the desired width. You can do the same thing with the right edge of the Folder pane.

To quickly resize a column to fit its widest entry, simply hold the pointer over the same vertical line, and when the pointer changes to the double-pointed arrow, double-click.
You can also sort information by column in the Details pane by clicking on the column headings. A little triangle appears to tell you whether you are sorted in ascending or descending order.

Now pay attention—this is big—you should also remember that you can change column widths and sort items in many other dialog boxes and applications—such as, for example, in the File Open, File Save and File Save As dialog boxes. Real cool!
And you can even add more columns in the Details view, some of which, depending on your interests, will give you very helpful info about your folders or files. Simply right-click on the column headings area of the Details pane to see a list of other columns that you can view.

Selecting Multiple Items

To select every folder and file in the Details pane, press Ctrl+A. To select multiple adjacent folders or files, click on the first item you want, hold down Shift, and click on the last one. In the alternative, select the first item, hold down Shift, and use the arrow keys, or PgUp or PgDn, if you want to move through a very long list.

To select multiple nonadjacent files or folders, click on the first item, then hold down Ctrl while clicking on each of the others you want to select.

What if you want to select most—but not all—of the folders or files in the Details pane? Interestingly, it's much easier to select the ones you don't need. Hold down Ctrl as you select the files you don't want, then Select Edit, Invert Selection, and Windows will turn your selection inside out, leaving you with just the files you want.

Desktop Searching

Try Explorer to do desktop searching by pressing Ctrl+F to open the Search Companion. It makes it easy to search for files and folders, printers, people's names and more. You can specify several search criteria. For example, you can search for files and folders by name, type and size; find a file based on when you last worked on it; or search for files containing specific text.

You can even use wildcard characters to enhance your searches. Use an asterisk (*) as a substitute for zero or more characters. For example, "letter*.doc" will find Word documents letter1.doc and letterpinnington.doc. Searching for "letter*.*" would find files of any type. And, you can use the question mark (?) as a substitute for a single character in a file or folder name.

Still More Explorer Tweaks

If you want to personalize other Explorer settings or default behaviors, click on Tools, Folder Options and review the options in the General and View tabs. Although note, please, that you don't want to make changes in the File Types tab.

Happy exploring with Explorer, everyone.

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