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Open any Windows application and take a look at its Open and Save As dialog boxes. Notice how they look pretty much like the dialog boxes in any other application? That’s because Microsoft provides programmers with a set of common dialog boxes. Any programmer may  use these pre-designed dialog boxes to provide standard file management for their application. In fact, Microsoft encourages programmers to use the common dialogs in order to give Windows users a more consistent experience from one app to another.

You may have observed that in Windows 7, that single dialog box approach seems to have been derailed. That’s because some applications still use the old Windows XP dialog boxes instead of the revamped Windows 7 version. The most obvious difference between the two styles of dialog box is that XP’s rather restrictive Places bar is replaced by a more extensive navigation pane in the newer dialogs.

One of the features which has remained consistent – but not obvious – from XP to Windows 7, is the availability of right-click options within the file dialog boxes.

Right-click within a dialog box to gain access to a variety of file management tasksRight-click shortcuts

Give it a try:

  1. Open an application and then press Ctrl-O, or click the Open icon, to display the Open dialog box.
  2. Right-click any of the files or folders displayed in that dialog and you’ll see a context menu pop open. This is the same context menu you’ll find in Explorer windows.

From that context menu, you can perform all sorts of file tasks, from renaming or deleting a file to scanning it with your anti-virus software.

So while you normally use the Open or Save As dialogs simply to open or save a file, you can, in fact, achieve a whole lot more through them.

This is useful for a variety of tasks:

  • Deleting unwanted files;
  • Quickly performing a task you’d otherwise perform later, such as converting a document to a PDF;
  • Scanning a file for viruses;
  • Playing an MP3 music file (or, if you have WinAmp installed, you can queue a whole folder full of audio files to play);
  • Adding a folder to a Windows Library;
  • Performing a variety of on-the-fly actions when you notice something which needs changing, such as a filename.

The exact options you have available will depend on the software installed on your computer. For instance, you won’t be able to do PDF conversions unless you have Acrobat or another PDF program installed.

Limitations and extensions

There are some limitations on what you can do via the dialog boxes, too. For example, if you’re working on a document in Microsoft Word and you open the ‘Save As’ dialog box, you won’t be able to right-click another Word document and select Open to open it for editing as well. That’s because the dialog box you’re using has focus, meaning you have to close it before you can do anything else within Word.

There’s nothing stopping you from opening a document within another program, however. For example, you can open an Excel spreadsheet from within Word’s ‘Save As’ dialog box.

  1. Press F12 in Word to open the ‘Save As’ dialog box.
  2. You’ll note that the only files displayed are those you can edit in Word, such as .docx, .doc, .pdf, .txt and so on. To display Excel files, type *.xls or *.xlsx in the ‘File Name’ box and press Enter. (If you prefer to display all files, type *.* in the ‘File Name’ box and press Enter.)
  3. Right-click an .xls file and select Open from the context menu to open it in Excel. While you’re editing the Excel spreadsheet, your Word dialog box will remain open, patiently awaiting your return. In fact, you could perform the same trick within Excel, opening a JPEG image for editing from within the Excel ‘Save As’ dialog box, in true babushka doll fashion.

Microsoft Word lets you perform another handy trick via the file dialog box: you can copy the contents of one document into another one.

  1. Press F12 to display the ‘Save As’ dialog box.
  2. Right-click any Word document and select Copy.
  3. Click Cancel to close the dialog box.
  4. Press Ctrl-V to paste the contents of the file into the document you’re currently editing.

Note that this technique doesn’t work if you try it with any other type of file or in most other programs; either nothing happens or you end up inserting the file itself — not the contents of the file — into the document you’re editing.

Top tip: Resizing dialogs

In Windows 7, you can resize a dialog box by dragging the dimpled ‘handle’ in its bottom-right corner. You can also double-click the dialog box’s title bar to maximise it and then double-click it once more to restore the box to its former size.