With Windows 7, Microsoft has made substantial changes to the way you view and manage files within folders, building upon the dramatic improvements introduced in Vista. Compared to Windows XP, Windows 7’s file management is more powerful, more flexible and far more visually appealing.

The details pane displays file properties. You can alter many of these on the fly by typing in a new value and pressing Enter or clicking the Save button.

File views

Windows 7 lets you choose any of five different ways of displaying files, known as file views. The five views are icons, list, details, tiles and content, each of which is useful in its own way.

Icons view displays a thumbnail preview of the contents of a file (or an icon if no preview is available). You can choose between small, medium, large and extra large icons or, if you use the slider control to change views, you can select intermediate sizes for the icons. The large icons view provides the most visual information, but it uses space inefficiently and is not very useful for folders containing many files.

List view provides the most efficient use of space for displaying large numbers of files. It displays a text label alongside a small icon that identifies a file’s type but, unlike icons view, not a preview of its contents. The filenames are displayed side by side in columns.

Details view lets you see some details about a file in addition to its filename.  Filenames are displayed one per line, in tabular view, with columns to display the filename, file type, size and so on. By right-clicking any of the column headings you can choose from a list of additional columns to display, and clicking any column header lets you sort the file list by that column.

Tiles view is a cross between list view and details view. You’ll see a medium-sized icon—it provides a thumbnail preview of the file’s contents if available—plus the file name, its file type and the file size.

The preview pane is a useful timesaver, giving you a glimpse of the contents of a file without the need to open a program to view or play it.

Content view displays each file in a band by itself. It provides an icon or thumbnail preview, the filename, file size and other information that changes depending on the type of file being displayed. For music files, you’ll see the track’s genre; for image files you’ll see the dimensions; with Word documents the author is displayed, and so on.

A simple way to get more information about a file in any of the views is to display the Preview pane on the right side of the folder window (click the Show/Hide preview pane button on the right of the toolbar to display it) or to look at the Details pane at the bottom of the window. The Preview pane lets you see the contents of a file without opening it or, in the case of audio and video files, it lets you play the file without opening it. The Details pane lets you view and change many of a file’s properties and tags. If the Details pane isn’t visible, click Organize -> Layout -> Details Pane to display it. Note that you can resize either of these panes by clicking and dragging the divider between the pane and the file list.

Tip: Changing views

To change views, repeatedly click the ‘Change your view’ button near the right-hand end of the folder’s toolbar, or click the arrow on the right of the ‘Change your view’ button and use the slider to select your preferred view. You can also change views using your mouse: click within the folder window and then hold down the Ctrl key while rotating your mouse wheel.

Sorting and arranging files

Windows 7 provides a plethora of ways to organise your files:

  • Sort them sequentially using a variety of criteria.
  • Arrange them in stacks. This is a little like organising your paperwork by sorting it into piles.
  • Group them to clump files together visually.

When you open a folder or library, the contents are usually displayed in alphabetical order, with folders displayed first, followed by files. By right-clicking an empty spot within a folder or library and choosing Sort By from the context menu, you can change the sort order and sort files by type, size or date modified. If you’re in a library, you’ll see other sorting choices depending on the type of content in the library. Once you change the sort order, the new order will be maintained even if you switch from one view to another.

At the bottom of the Sort By menu you’ll see a ‘More’ option. Click it to see a list of document properties you can use to sort your files. Place a checkmark beside any of the properties to add them to the Sort By menu for the entire library or, if you’re working in a folder, for the folder and its sub-folders.

Grouping works best when you tag your files.

When you’re working in libraries, you can also arrange your files, by clicking the ‘Arrange by’ button on the right of the toolbar. When you arrange your files, Windows creates visual stacks, with each stack containing similar files. For example, you could arrange the Documents library by author, the music library by genre and the Pictures library by tag.

Grouping files is similar to sorting in that it lets you sort your files by their properties, but instead of the files being displayed in a continuous list, they’re lumped together in groups. This makes it easier to see at a glance which files belong to a particular group.

Tip: Quickly organise your desktop

A quick way to bring some order to your desktop if you have a lot of folders, files and other items sitting on it is to sort by item type: right-click an empty spot and choose Sort By -> Item Type from the context menu. This will put system icons and control panel items first, followed by folders, files grouped alphabetically by type, and shortcuts.

Tag your files

Sorting and grouping work particularly well with files you’ve tagged. A tag is simply a brief word or phrase that identifies the content of a file. For example, you could tag photos with words such as family, vacation, Thailand trip 2010, dad, gardens, agapanthus and so on. Tags can be as broad or as narrow as you like and each file can have numerous tags.

Not all types of files support tags, but many audio and image formats do, as do Microsoft Office documents and numerous other file types.

To tag a file:

  1. Make sure the Details pane is visible at the bottom of the library or folder window (if it’s not, click Organize -> Layout -> Details Pane).
  2. Click the file you want to tag in the file list.
  3. Click in the Tag field and type a tag. To add multiple tags, type a semi-colon (;) after each tag.
  4. Click the Save button or press Enter to save your changes.

You can also apply the same tags to multiple files at the same time, provided those files are of the same type, for example, all JPG images or all MP3 music files. To tag a group of files in this manner, hold down the Ctrl key while clicking each file you wish to tag and then follow steps 3 and 4 above.

The different file views are available in Explorer windows—such as the Games Explorer and Control Panel—as well as in file folders and libraries.

Tip: Sorting the Recycle Bin

The various viewing and sorting techniques work in special system folders such as the Control Panel, Computer and even in the Recycle Bin. To recover a specific file from the Recycle Bin, try this:

  1. Double-click the Recycle Bin to open it.
  2. Select Details View from the Change View list.
  3. Click the Date Deleted column header to display the most recently deleted files first.
  4. When you locate the file, right-click it and choose Restore to undelete it and place it back in its original folder, or simply drag and drop the file onto the desktop.

Search also works in the Recycle Bin, so if you can’t locate the file using the previous technique, type a search phrase in the Recycle Bin’s search box.