How to Navigate Windows and Folders in Windows 7

  • 9/16/2009

Understanding Files, Folders, and Libraries

Files associated with programs and tools, as well as the files you create to contain your information, are stored in a hierarchical structure of folders on hard disk drives and other storage devices (such as CDs, DVDs, or USB flash drives). You can look at a representation of this storage structure by displaying the contents of the available drives in Windows Explorer.


Files are stored on each disk drive in a series of hierarchical folders.

Each drive is identified by a letter, and in some cases by a description. Your computer’s primary hard drive (the one where the operating system is installed) is almost always identified by the letter C. (By tradition, the letters A and B are reserved for fl oppy disk drives, which have been superseded by higher-capacity storage media and seem to be becoming quite rare.) If your computer has additional hard drives, they are assigned the next sequential letters, followed by any removable media drives.

In Windows Explorer, you can display a collection of related files and folders in a library. Libraries are virtual folders that aren’t physically present on the hard disk but that display the contents of multiple folders as though the files were stored together in one location. The top-level view of a library displays the files and folders stored at the top level, called the root, of all the folders included in the library.


The Documents library displays all the folders that are included in your personal Documents folder and the public Documents folder, as well as the files and folders stored in the root of those folders.

The default Windows 7 installation includes four standard libraries—Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos. Each of these libraries includes your corresponding personal folder and the corresponding public folder. In addition to the standard libraries, you can create your own libraries, and a folder can belong to more than one library. For example, suppose you are working on a Fall Promotion project for a client, Contoso Pharmaceuticals. If you create one library that displays all the folders of your current projects and another library that displays all the folders associated with Contoso, you can include the Fall Promotion folder in both libraries.

File Types

There are many different types of files, but they all fall into these two basic categories:

  • Files used or created by programs These include executable files and dynamic-link libraries (DLLs). Some of these files may be hidden (not shown in a standard folder window view) to protect them from being inadvertently changed or deleted.

  • Files created by you These include documents, worksheets, graphics, text files, presentations, audio clips, video clips, and other things that you can open, look at, and change by using one or more programs.

The files installed with a program and those it creates for its own use are organized the way the program expects to find them, and you shouldn’t move or remove them. However, you have complete control of the organization of the files you create (such as documents and worksheets), and knowing how to manage these files is essential if you want to be able to use your computer efficiently.

Windows System Folders

When Windows 7 was installed on your computer, it created three system folders:

  • Program Files folder Most programs (including the programs and tools that come with Windows 7) install the files they need in subfolders of the Program Files folder. You may have the option to choose a different folder, but there’s rarely a reason to do so. After you install a program you shouldn’t move, copy, rename, or delete its folders and files; if you do, you might not be able to run or uninstall the program.

  • User account folder The first time you log on to the computer with a new user account, Windows 7 creates a folder for that user account in the Users folder. The user account folder contains 12 subfolders, which we refer to in this book as your personal folders. Eleven of your personal folders are visible in your user account folder: Contacts, Desktop, Documents, Downloads, Favorites, Links, Music, Pictures, Saved Games, Searches, and Videos. One folder is hidden—the AppData folder that contains information about your user account settings for Windows and for programs that you use. As you work on your computer and personalize Windows, it saves information and settings specific to your user profile in these folders.

    In addition to the user account–specific folder for each user account that is active on the computer, the Users folder also contains a Public folder, the contents of which are accessible to anyone logged on to the computer. The Public folder contains nine subfolders. Six of these are visible: Documents, Downloads, Music, Pictures, Recorded TV, and Videos. Three hidden subfolders—Desktop, Favorites, and Library—contain information about settings that are common to all user accounts on the computer. If you want to make files available to anyone who logs on to the computer, you can store them in the public folders rather than your personal folders.

  • Windows folder Most of the critical operating system files are stored in this folder. You can look, but unless you really know what you are doing, don’t touch! Most Windows 7 users will never need to access the files in the Windows folder.

Folder Window Features

In Windows Explorer, every folder window displays two consistent elements: the title bar and the toolbar; you can’t hide either of these elements.


All folder windows include the title bar and toolbar.

The title bar always contains the following tools for moving around and for locating information:

  • Navigation buttons The Back and Forward buttons move between previously visited window content, rather than up and down in the storage folder hierarchy. The Recent Pages button (the arrow to the right of the Forward button) displays a list of folders you have viewed; you can return to any folder by clicking it in the list.

  • Address bar Beginning on the left with the icon representing the item type, the Address bar displays the path from one of the primary navigation groups (Computer, Control Panel, Homegroup, Libraries, Network, Recycle Bin, or your user account folder) to the folder whose contents are currently displayed in the folder window.

    • If the entire path doesn’t fit in the Address bar, a left-pointing chevron appears next to the folder icon.

    • Clicking the arrow or chevron next to the folder icon displays a menu of common storage locations and any path locations that don’t fit in the Address bar.

    • Clicking the folder icon displays the path to the folder from the root of the storage drive (sometimes referred to as the absolute path) or, for system folders, to the primary navigation group.

    • Clicking the arrow that appears after a folder name displays a list of its sub-folders and certain high-level folders; you can switch to another location by clicking it in the list.

  • Search box From the Search box of any folder window, you can quickly search for letters, words, or phrases occurring in the name or content of any file in that folder.

    • Type a search term in the Search box to immediately filter the folder contents. The Search Results list displays the names of files containing the search term and, for most file types, a content snippet and the absolute path to the file. Within the file name and the visible content snippet, the search term is highlighted.

    • Click the Clear button (the X) at the right end of the Search box to clear the search results and return to the folder window contents.

Unlike the title bar, the toolbar can vary based on the contents of the folder displayed in the folder window. The buttons on the toolbar represent contextspecific commands for working with the folder and its content. For example, the buttons change for compressed folders (.zip files) or if you select one or more files. When more buttons are available than can be shown, chevrons (>>) appear at the right end of the toolbar; clicking the chevrons displays a list of other commands.

In addition to the title bar and the toolbar, the layout of a folder window includes other standard and optional components. You can display and hide many folder window components.


Typical folder window components.

In addition to the title bar and toolbar, these components are available for every folder window:

  • Menu bar If you prefer to manage the display of content by clicking commands on menus rather than using the toolbar buttons and column headers, you can display a traditional menu bar at the top of the window, between the title bar and the toolbar. (The menu bar is not open by default.)

  • Navigation pane This vertical pane is open by default on the left side of the window. It displays a hierarchical view of the computer’s storage structure, as well as the storage structure of any available network, organized in five groups: Favorites, Libraries, Homegroup, Computer, and Network. You can browse to folders on your computer or network by clicking locations in this pane.

    • To display the contents of a folder, click the folder name.

    • To expand a folder in the Navigation pane, point to the pane, and then click the white arrow that appears to the left of the folder.

    • To collapse an expanded folder, click the black arrow that appears to its left.

    You can resize or close the Navigation pane to provide additional working space in the folder window.

  • Content pane This primary pane displays the contents of the selected folder as a textual or iconic list. You can’t close the Content pane.

  • Details pane This pane is open by default at the bottom of the window. It displays information about the selected folder or file. You can resize or close it.

  • Preview pane This vertical pane is closed by default, but when open, it appears on the right side of the window. It displays a preview of the file selected in the Content pane. The Preview pane can display the contents of image files, Microsoft Word documents, Microsoft Excel workbooks, Microsoft PowerPoint presentations, PDF files, and other common file types. When the Preview pane is open, it is resizable.

Displaying and Hiding Panes

Each pane of a window displays a specific type of information. You can display and hide window panes to show or hide information, or to change the amount of space available in the Content pane. For example, if your folders typically contain many files and you are adept at navigating in the Address bar, you might want to turn off the Navigation, Detail, and Preview panes so that the Content pane occupies the entire folder window. To display or hide any window pane, click Organize on the toolbar, point to Layout, and then click the pane you want to change.

Keyboard Shortcut You can display or hide the Preview pane by clicking Alt+P.


You control which window panes are visible.