Managing Files

We've learned about the operating system's environment for containing files, the Desktop and Windows. Now let's talk about the files themselves.

Files & Containers

When you look at iconsOf course you know what an "icon" is! It's a visual metaphor, a small image which represents something on the computer. on your computers, you will see two types: Files and Containers. Files contain information; either data within documents, or instructions within programs. Containers are empty holders which you can fill up with data; volumes are physical disks, while folders are imaginary containers. There are other kinds of icons (shortcut icons, for example), but these are the main types.

Files (Programs, Documents)
Files are usually either Programs, or Documents
Programs are tools. They do things. They make text documents, pictures, or sounds; they allow you to play games, look at the Internet, or do anything you can do on a computer. The icons usually look like little pictures of what the program does, or like a logo. Programs are sometimes called Applications or Software.
Documents are information. They are made by programs. They contain text, pictures, sounds, movies, or special information for any program. The icons look like a little piece of paper with one corner folded down.
Containers (Volumes, Folders)
Containers are either Volumes or Folders
Volumes are physical containersSomething you can touch, or hold in your hand of data, like a CD, DVD, Floppy, Hard Drive and so on. They usually look like a small picture of the Hard Drive, Floppy, CD, etc. They can contain files and folders.
Folders (also called "directoriesA "directory" is a list; in a CLI, you would see the contents of a directory by having them listed for you.") are imaginary containersThey don't actually exist; you cannot touch them. They are simply an arrangement of data in the memory space. of data. They do not really exist. They are just a way to separate files from each other. If we had no folders, then all the files would be together in one place. Folders allow us to organize the files into separate areas. They can contain files and other folders, but they cannot contain volumes.


Hierarchy: Where Exactly Is the Desktop?

Finding things on a computer can be confusing. While the visual metaphors help, the organization might be a bit confusing. To see things a bit more clearly, open a folder and click on the "Folders" button.

My Computer on the Desktop: Not Really...

You will notice that the task management area at left has changed to something like this:

If you cannot see the level below "My Computer," with the volumes in it, then just click on the little "plus" (+) sign to the left of the "My Computer" icon.

Notice that the Desktop is at the top. According to the computer, this is the "highest" location you can go to. But notice that the Desktop contains the "My Computer" level. Files inside your computer cannot be 'outside' the computer! How can there be a place inside your computer showing things which are outside of it?

In fact, your data is all located inside of Volumes. "My Computer" doesn't have any files, either. So, how is that visible also?

The answer is that these two "locations," The Desktop and My Computer, are both imaginary places. They were created to make more sense to people, as part of the "visual metaphor" theme of the GUI.

So, where is the actual Desktop? In reality, it is buried deep in the folders. In fact, it is actually in two different places! Let's see if we can find them.

My Computer: The Volume Level

In "My Computer," you will see (1) your volumes including hard drives, CD, DVD, Removable drives, etc., (2) The Control Panel (usually), and (3) Network and other Shared folders & documents. Notice that the basic volumes appear even if they are empty; the Floppy and CD/DVD volumes will be visible even if there is no floppy or CD.

The volumes are named A:, C:, D: and so on. What's that?

When the Microsoft OS was first created (it was called "DOS" back then), volumes were assigned letters, beginning with "A". At first, personal computers did not have hard disk drives (HDD). Most computers had two floppy drives: one for the OS, and one for programs and files. These two floppy drives were always "A:" and "B:". Two were necessary because the OS always had to be in a drive, and could not be removed; therefore, programs and documents had to be kept on a separate drive.

When hard drives were introduced, the OS was kept there. The HDD was given the "C:" designation. Eventually, the HDD was so often used that a second floppy drive was unnecessary. However, too many programs depended on the HDD being on "C:". Therefore, the "B:" drive was dropped and not replaced. Later, CD drives were added, and they got the "D:" name. Whenever you connect any additional volumes, they automatically get the next letter name; for example, if you plug in a USB Flash drive, it often becomes "E:".


Local Disk (C:) — Your Hard Drive

Let's take a closer look at that folder list. Notice the little boxes with a "+" sign on the left; if you click on it, it will "open" the folder, showing you the folders inside. If you click on one of the volume or folder icons, the full contents will appear in the window to your right. Go ahead and click the "+" for "My Computer," and then expand the computer's HDD, called "Local Disk (C:)". You'll see some folders, especially these three:

  • Documents and Settings
  • Program Files

"WINDOWS" contains the OS--don't go in there and fool around! You could damage the system if you don't know what you're doing. "Program Files" contain all of the applications. If you need to find a program but it doesn't appear in your Start Menu, it can often be found here. However, again, don't fool around with anything you don't understand, you might damage them. Finally, there is the folder called "Documents and Settings."

Your Account: Documents and Settings

Go ahead and click on the (+) sign to the left of "Documents and Settings." You should see something like this:

In the "Documents and Settings" folder, you will see at least two more folders, perhaps more. One should be called "All Users," and another should have the name of the main account on that computer--in this case, "Administrator."

Let's talk about User Accounts for a moment. For example, let's say your family--father, mother, sister, and brother--all use the same computer. Every person wants their own area. Maybe your father wants the Desktop image to be something he likes, but you and your sibling want different images. Maybe you want your email to be separate, so no one else in the family can see it. You all want your own section of the computer where you can have all the documents and settings to be special for you. This can be done by creating "User Accounts." You can create new accounts in the Control Panel, by clicking on the "User Accounts" icon.

Each account is given a folder in the "Documents and Settings" folder. That's why you see more than one folder in there. Each one is a user account. Each user folder will have its own folder system. When you open that up, it looks like this:

Each account has several areas:

  • Cookies: keeps information such as passwords and browsing history for web pages
  • My Documents: the "My Documents" folder which you can see in the Start Menu and usually on the Desktop
  • Start Menu: keeps information about items in the Start (Windows) Menu
  • Desktop

That last folder, the Desktop, is the real Desktop; the "Desktop" at the top of the chain is just a combination of (1) the Desktop down in the user account and (2) the Desktop in the "All Users" account (which has items that all users share together).


If you want to move from one place to another, using the "Folders" sidebar is one way. Usually, however, people simply move directly through the folders. There are two ways of doing this: (1) moving "up" and "down" the directories, or (2) going "forward" or "back" in the "history" of your browsing.

The first way is the most common. To go "down" or "into" the next folder lower in the chain, just double-click on the folder. To go "up" the chain into the next highest folder, you can (1) click on the "Up" directory button in the toolbar, or just hit the "Backspace" key on your keyboard.

The second way is similar to what you do in a web page browser: you can go "Back" or "Forward" through the windows you have already navigated so far using the first way.

You might also notice that when you click on a folder inside a folder window, the new folder window opens up inside the old folder's window. You never have two folders at the same time unless you go somewhere else to open up another window. This is also similar to the web page browser. Microsoft made this change in Windows 98, as Internet browsing was becoming a familiar standard.

If you don't like this, you can hold down the "Control" key when you open a folder icon. That will open the folder in a new window. Go ahead and try it.

Alternately, you can change the basic settings. In any folder window, go to the "Tools" menu and select "Options." Here, you can select the option to "Open each folder in its own window." In that mode, holding down the "Control" key will do the reverse--open the new folder in the same window.

Selecting and Moving Icons

There are many ways to select and movie icons. Everyone knows that if you click on an icon, you select it--the icon becomes dark, meaning that any action you take will be directed at that icon. If you double-click the icon, you will open it. If you click and drag the icon, you can move it to a new location.

Here are a few advanced moves:

Drag-and-drop: if you click and drag an icon and then move it so the cursor is above a folder icon, you may notice that the folder icon darkens. This indicates that if you let go of the cursor button, the dragged file will "drop" into the folder, and it will move from its original location to the folder.

Cut/Copy & Paste: You can cut, copy, and paste files and folders the same way you can do with data in a program. Copy and paste will make an extra copy of the file; Cut and paste will move the file.

Sometimes you want to move, delete, or otherwise affect several files and folders at once. There are several ways to select more than one file at a time:

Click-and-drag to select: To do this, you must begin with the cursor over a blank area. Click and drag the cursor over the desired icons. You will notice a translucent rectangle forms from the start point to the end point, and any icons within the rectangle become selected.

Click-Control-Click: Usually, when you click on one icon and then on a second one, the first icon is de-selected. However, if you hold down the Control key while clicking on new icons, the first one stays selected, and you start adding the new ones. Control-clicking on a selected icon deselects it. This also works with the "Click-and-drag to select" option above; if you click-and-drag and then Control-click-and-drag, you can select multiple groups of icons.

Click-Shift-Click: If you click on one icon to select it, and then hold down the Shift key and click on another icon, then all icons between them are selected.

Control-A: Doing the "Control+A" keyboard shortcut will select all icons in a directory.

Once you have selected multiple icons, they will all move together; a click-and-drag will move all at the same time.