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Understanding the Windows File System

Computer systems generally save their information on a hard drive. The way that datais organized is called a file system. Let's talk a little bit about the way Windows organizes it's data, and how to access it.

Storage devices


Within Microsoft Windows operating systems, storage devices are denoted with a letter followed by a colon (:). The hard drive, the main storage medium, is often represented with the letter C:.  In fact, virtually every Windows based computer will label the hard drive C:. Secondary hard drives, optical drives (like your DVD drive), and flash drives will receive the drive letters D:, E:, F: and so on.




In this example here, we can see the computer has one hard drive labeled C:, and two DVD drives labeled D: and E:. Why not start with A:? There's a good answer for that. In the early days of personal computers before there were hard drives, we had floppy drives, and the floppy drive received drive letter A:. Some computers had two floppy drives: one to boot from, the other to run programs. Logically, they were labeled A: and B:. Once hard drives were introduced, they started off with the next letter, C:. Of course, these days floppy drives have become obsolete and are hardly seen in modern computers, so we no longer see the drive letters A: and B:, and to avoid confusion Windows stayed persistent with labeling the hard drive C:.


That persistence stops with drive letter C:, though. If I were to add a second hard drive to the computer in the above example, it would get the drive letter F:. However, if I removed one of the DVD drives first, that would free up drive letter E:, so when I added the second hard drive it would get labeled E:.  Windows just runs down the list of letters as devices are added, regardless of the device (unless it's a floppy drive).

File structure


In a typical setup, everything gets saved in folders and sub folders on the C: drive. This includes the Windows operating system, all of the programs installed on the computer, and all of the user's data (documents, pictures, music, videos, etc). The type of branching file system Windows uses is often referred to as a file tree. For example, there's the root C: drive, and on the C: drive there will be a bunch of folders. In those folders you'll find more folders, more folders in those, so on and so forth.  What those folders are will vary depending on the version of Windows installed, what programs are installed, and the data the user saves to the machine.


For most users, the only folders they need to worry about are the folders where they store their personal stuff. These locations vary slightly depending on which version of Windows is installed.  As of this writing, Microsoft's latest operating system is Windows 7, so let's use that as our example. Windows 7 has four separate folders for users to store their data: documents, pictures, videos, and music folders. In Windows 7 these folders are referred to as "Libraries". The easiest way to navigate to these folders is to click the Libraries button, to the right of the start menu, in the bottom left hand corner of the desktop.



Doing so brings up the Libraries window, and from there you can double click the folder you're looking for. 

If you're using an older OS, however, like Vista or XP, you'll notice you don't have a Libraries button. In that case, the easiest way to get to your data is to click the start menu, then the folder you're looking for.

You can still access your personal folders this way in Windows 7 too.



Folder path (Address)



The address bar is at the top of any Windows Explorerwindow, like your Libraries window.

It's important because it tells you the address (or path) of the folder you're currently looking at.  Once a user understands how to properly read the path of a folder, they
can pretty much navigate around the entire hard drive. In this example, we can see that we're in a folder titled "New Folder" in the Documents folder. While the address bar in Windows 7 does show the current location, it does not display the full path. If we click on some open space of the address bar, like where the mouse is located in the picture, it will display the full path.

The path displayed here is the actual address of the folder, and it tells us a lot. The storage device, as we discussed, is represented by the letter C:, and the backslash (\) is a delimiting character which signifies a directory. So, based on that information, we know that the folder we're in, New Folder, is a sub folder of Documents, which is a sub folder of John, which is a sub folder of Users, and the Users folder is located directly on the root C: drive.  I've included the navigation pane in the above picture to give a better idea of the file tree and how the hierarchy works.


If we wanted, we could type in any address into the address bar, as long as it's valid, and navigate to that folder. For instance, using our picture from above, if we type the following...




... and press enter.  That would bring us to the Pictures folder on this computer.


It's important to note that the directory "John" which is located in the Users directory, is specific to this PC, and will differ on your computer. When you first setup your PC, Windows makes you type in a user name, and thus, that becomes the name of the directory. This is sometimes referred to as your profile folder.  


It's also important to note that Windows will sometimes use a form of shorthand in the address bar.  To illustrate this, if you navigate to your libraries window, then your pictures folder, Windows will simply represent this as:


Libraries > Pictures






Old vs. New


So how come Windows doesn't display the full path all the time? Up through Windows XP it always did, but Windows Vista introduced the new address bar we're using today. Microsoft decided to change it slightly to aid in navigation. First, they removed the backslashes and put little arrows in their place, figuring they would make more sense to the common user. Second, they made the address bar more interactive.  Clicking a folder in the address bar will now bring you to that location, but also, if you click the right facing arrow next to a folder...

... it will switch to a down arrow, and show you a list of all the sub folders in that directory.

We see here, within the Documents folder, there are four sub folders, and the folder we're currently in, New Folder, is highlighted in bold. At this point we could click on any of the sub folders, like Stuff, which would bring us to that folder.




We use shortcuts all the time in our day in, day out usage of our computers. You may not even realize what a shortcut is, but you still use them if you use a computer. In it's simplest terms, a shortcut is a link that refers to a file or folder located somewhere else on your computer. You'll most commonly find shortcuts on your desktop, start menu, and the navigation pane in any Windows Explorer window, but a shortcut can be placed just about anywhere. Shortcuts serve a few different purposes: safety, space, and probably most of all, convenience.


Files and folders can be spread across the C: drive in many different locations. It would be a huge hassle to have to manually navigate to whatever we're looking for each time. Instead, Microsoft makes it easy by placing shortcuts in easy access locations.  Everything in the start menu is a shortcut. Everything in the All Programs list is a shortcut.

Windows 7 puts shortcuts for your data folders and other commonly used folders right in the navigation pane of Windows Explorer.If there were no shortcuts on this computer, every time we wanted to get to our documents folder, we'd have to open a Windows Explorer window, then navigate to:




What a pain in the neck that would be! You'll also find shortcuts directly on

your desktop. You can always tell a shortcut by it's icon. If there's a little arrow in the bottom left hand corner of the icon, it's a shortcut.  

In this screenshot here, the Internet Explorer Icon is a shortcut. It's merely a link to the actual program on the computer, which is in the directory:


C:\Program Files\Internet Explorer


The shortcut saves us the convenience of having to always navigate to that folder to launch Internet Explorer, but it also serves as a safety measure to user error. Because the shortcut is not the actual program, if we were to accidentally delete the icon, it wouldn't remove the program.


The "New Text File.txt" icon below Internet Explorer, however, is an actual file, and not a shortcut. We know this because there's no little arrow in the bottom left hand corner of the icon.  So if we were to delete that icon, we'd be deleting the file.


Some of you may be asking, "What's the purpose of the ".txt" in the file name of that icon?" This brings us to our next section...


File Extensions


Now that we know how to navigate around the computer, and access the folders we need to, let's talk a little bit about the files in those folders. Every file on your computer requires a specific program to view that file, and every file has a file extension. A file extension is a suffix, separated by a dot (.) from the file name.  It tells the computer which program to use to open that file. Without a file extension, the computer would not know which program to use, and would ask you to specify a program every time you double clicked the file.


The ".txt" file extension indicates it's a text file, and text files are opened with Notepad, so naturally, double clicking our file opens it in Notepad.

If the file did not have a file extension, and we double clicked it, we'd get this:

Notice too in the screenshot, the icon changes when the file extension is removed. Again, this is because Windows doesn't recognize what file type it is without the extension, and thus can't give it the appropriate icon. 


You may not see any file extensions on your computer though. By default, Windows is set to NOT display file extensions. While it isn't necessary to see the file extension, I feel it does help users understand their computer. Over time, you'll begin to recognize common file types, and you'll know what type of file you're looking at simply by looking at the extension.  EXE, TXT, PDF, DOC, DOCX, XLS, XLSX, PST, ZIP, JPEG, BMP, MP3, AAC, M4A. These are all very common file extensions that most advanced users will recognize. With file extensions enabled on your computer, a little bit of time and common usage of your computer, you can learn to recognize them as well. Here's how to enable file extensions:


For Windows 7 or Vista, simply type "folder options" into the search bar of the start menu and hit enter. A folder options window will open up, and at the top you'll see three tabs. Click on the "View" tab. Under "Advanced settings:" you'll see an option that says, "Hide extensions for known file types."  


Deselect the box so there is no check mark, as in the screenshot here.

Hit the "OK" button, and now every file on your computer will show its extension.


Enabling file estensions on Windwos XP is mostly the smae, except there's no search bar in the start.


menu, so you need to get to the "Folder Options" window differently. First open a Windows Explorer window. At the top of the window you'll see a toolbar that says File, Edit, View etc. Click the Tools button, then on the drop down menu click "Folder Options..."

This will open the Folder Options window. The remaining steps are the

same as illustrated above. Click the "View" tab, deselect the "Hide extensions for known file types" option, then click the "OK" button.


Why is all this important?


In order to have a happy computer experience, it's important for a user to have a basic understanding of a computer's file system. One needs to know where their data is stored, and how to access that data. Hopefully this

article will help you with that.  The good news is that once you learn your own computer you can take that knowledge to any other computer, because they pretty much all operate the same way. Some of the specifics and how to's outlined in this article won't carry across to operating systems outside Windows, but the basic premise of how data is stored is largely the same. Whether it be Windows, Mac, Linux, Unix, they all use variations of a file tree.

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