Microsoft has spent years trying to move its user base ever slowly away from the fixed drive letter scheme that it instituted with the first version of MS-DOS over 20 years ago. Windows 95 gave us long file names, for example, freeing us from the 8.3 file name limitation. Windows 2000 introduced the Distributed File System (DFS), which allows physically separate disk drives and partitions to be linked together as a contiguous storage space that is accessed as a simple folder or share. And now, in Windows Vista Beta 1 (see my review), we see the most important file system advance yet, given the limitations of our drive letter-based file system. It's called virtual folders. And it will forever change the way in which you use your computer.

Before we get started, I should mention that Apple's latest operating system, Mac OS X 10.4 ("Tiger," see my review) offers very similar functionality. However, Microsoft announced and demonstration Windows Vista's virtual folders functionality a year before Apple revealed that it was working on that feature, so let's not making any copying accusations just yet. Suffice to say that this kind of functionality is incredibly useful for real people, and thus is an obvious candidate for inclusion in any modern operating system. That Apple arrived at a set of functionality that closely mimics what Microsoft had previously demonstrated is not surprising or outrageous.

The lowdown

Virtual folders are specially formatted XML files that aggregate the results from a database query into a presentable format that acts exactly like a normal folder in Windows Vista. Put another way, virtual folders store search results. So when you search for a group of files--using certain criteria--you can save those results as a virtual folder. Because they are database queries, virtual folders are dynamic. That is, their contents change over time, depending on what's going on in your system.

There are two types of virtual folders. Microsoft builds in a number of useful and obvious virtual folders and some of them, like All Documents, appear in the Start menu instead of the special shell folders (like My Documents in XP) that used to appear there. In fact, All Documents is a perfect example of a virtual folder, because it is exactly what it sounds like: A listing of all of the documents on your system. In Windows Vista, you have a Documents folder--that is, a normal folder--that replaces My Documents from XP. Typically, you will save documents there as before. But if you also store documents on the desktop or in other locations, the All Documents virtual folder will display those documents as well. It is literally a listing of all of your documents.

The second kind of virtual folder is one that you make yourself. These virtual folders are created by running a search through the Windows Search Engine and then saving the results as a virtual folder. You can place these virtual folders anywhere, including your desktop. How you organize them is up to you.

What is a virtual folder, really?

If you create a virtual folder called "Paul's personal files" on your desktop, what you're really creating is a file called "Paul's personal files.vfolder" that encapsulates the search you tried to make. So for example, I ran a search in which I searched for "paul thurrott," in items of any type, where the Keywords meta data field contained "personal." This file is an XML file and looks something like this:

This is obviously a pretty simple query. More complex searches would result in more complex XML. The point behind all this is that the virtual folder doesn't contain a list of files. It contains a query. So if you change something in the system, like create another file that is marked with the "personal" keyword, that file will automagically appear in the "Paul's personal files" virtual folder. It's instantaneous and automatic.

Create your own virtual folder

OK, let's look at creating a virtual folder. As I mentioned previously, virtual folders start life as a search, so the first step is to perform some kind of search using the Windows Search Engine. In Windows Vista Beta 1, this means you open the Start menu and click Search. This opens the Search window (Figure). Here, you populate the search accordingly. To keep things simple, we'll try something that should work for everyone. Assuming you have a few document folders floating around your system somewhere, simply type your name into the edit box next to "Search for" and hit enter (or click Search). The search results area will fill up with appropriate files (Figure).

If you have enough documents of different types, you'll see that Windows Search only displays the first 10 results from any data file type. So I can see 10 documents, 10 photos, and 6 videos on my test system, but there are a total of 13 documents, 343 photos, and 6 videos that meet the criteria on that system. Windows Search provides a link to see all of the relevant items, of course.

Now this is a basic search, but what the heck. To save it as a virtual folder, click the Organize button on the toolbar and the select Save search from the drop-down list that appears (Figure). By default, Windows Vista Beta 1 will try to save the virtual folder in the C:\[User name]\Virtual Folders folder, which is of course where all the pre-built virtual folders are stored. However, that may not be convenient for later use, so you can save it to your desktop (Figure), Documents folder, or wherever you'd like. You can also give it any name you'd like.

When you open up the virtual folder you just created, you will see a window that is identical to the previous Windows Search window, except that it will use the name of the virtual folder as its title (Figure).

To prove that the virtual folder is really dynamic, we'll create a new text file and see if it appears in the list. Open the Start menu and choose Documents to open the All Documents virtual folder (Figure). Then, in the left-side Navigation Pane, choose Documents. Right-click an empty area of the documents folder and choose New and then Text Document. Give it a name like "_My new text file.txt" so that it alphabetically appears above other document names. Then, using the Author field in the Preview Pane (typically at the bottom of the window), ensure that your actual name is listed (Figure). If it isn't, select it and type in your name.

Now, reopen the virtual folder you created earlier. Voila! The new file is listed, as promised (Figure).

Caveats about virtual folder

For virtual folders to work really well, you're going to want a lot of data files with Vista-friendly meta data. That means you're going to want to go in and mark your files with the appropriate author information, add keywords and ratings, and so on. Previously, we often associated meta data with just music files, but photos, videos, Word documents, and numerous other data files can have various kinds of meta data associated with them. The more of this you have, the better virtual folders will work.

For example, imagine that you actually take the time to add keywords like "work," "personal," or whatever to all your Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and other files. Now, when you launch a search, it's very easy to find results that are just related to work, or to your personal life. How you organize this information is up to you, of course, but properly attributed documents can more easily be queried and isolated.

One thing I'd really like to see is the ability to add your custom virtual folders to the Explorer shell's Navigation Pane. Right now, there doesn't appear to be any way to do this, but it's possible it will be added later. As it is now, if you save a virtual folder to the default location, the Virtual Folders folder, you'll never see it again unless you manually navigate there, which is both a pain and a requirement for understanding the shell hierarchy that most people, don't (and shouldn't) have. Until/unless that happens, you're best off saving virtual folders to places you can easily find, like the desktop.

Conclusions

Virtual folders are a wonderful addition to the Windows shell and a major step along the way to a drive-letter-less future. I'm told that virtual folders will become even more powerful with the advent of WinFS in 2007, though it's unclear what that storage engine will add beyond instant updating and perhaps performance. Today, in Beta 1, virtual folders are already well-done and nearly ship-ready. They can only get better as Windows Vista marches toward its late 2006 release.