In Windows 8, Windows Explorer has been renamed to File Explorer and updated in significant ways. Most obviously, it drops the Aero Glass effects found in the previous two Windows versions and adopts a flatter new look that is more energy efficient. It also drops the command bar used in previous versions in favor of a new ribbon-based UI that can be dense when expanded. Fortunately, the ribbon is hidden by default, creating a nice, minimalist effect.

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When you open, or expand, the ribbon, you’ll see every possible file-related command, arranged according to function and with context sensitive tabs that appear in certain situations, such as when certain file system objects are selected.

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For the most part, File Explorer works like its Windows 7-based predecessor and even features the same icons for familiarity.

File copy experience

Microsoft has significantly enhanced the file copy experience in Windows 8, making it both faster and easier to use. If you’re familiar with file copying from previous Windows versions, you know that each file (and move) operation creates its own copy or move window, and that each subsequent operation slows everything down to a crawl.

This no longer happens in Windows 8. All file copies and moves now occur in a single window in which you can pause any copy or move processes if you’d like to give precedence to another operation. And file copies and moves occur much more quickly than before, even when you have multiple file operations going at once. File copy/move conflicts are also handled in a far more elegant fashion that before, with simpler remediation.

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External storage

External storage devices like USB hard drives and memory sticks work in Windows 8 much as they did in Windows 7. But there is one difference: The pop-up that appears when you plug-in such a device is now a Metro-style UI and not an Explorer UI as before.

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Start screen integration

In Windows 7, you could pin items from Windows Explorer to the taskbar, and this capability continues in Windows 8. But now you can also pin File Explorer items like drives,                 libraries and folders to the new Windows 8 Start screen. Just right-click the item in File Explorer and choose Pin to Start from the context menu that appears.

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Disk image mounting

Windows 8 now supports two very popular disc (and disk) image formats, ISO and VHD, letting you browse within these special files as if they were physical discs (or disks) connected to the PC. To do so, simply double-click an ISO or VHD file in File Explorer: Windows 8 automatically “mounts” both file types so that they become part of the PC’s file system, just as with any other attached storage device, with a dedicated drive letter of its own.

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Here, a mounted ISO appears as a normal optical disc in File Explorer

There are some differences between how ISO and VHD files behave when mounted. While you can navigate around the virtual file system of both file types, and use all the standard file management actions--adding and removing files from the images, and so on--you use with physical storage, VHDs also provide the full suite of Windows 8 disk utilities to work with. So they're seen as fixed disks, not as removable disks. That said, both can be "ejected" normally: Just right-click the drive and select eject.

SkyDrive integration

While SkyDrive integration is not strictly a Windows 8 feature, many new PCs will ship with this integration preinstalled and it is useful to understand. Using the SkyDrive desktop application (not the Metro-style SkyDrive app), you can sync the contents of your SkyDrive cloud-based storage to your PC desktop and access it from File Explorer normally. This is a powerful feature that users of this site know I’ve covered fairly completely elsewhere.

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Note: SkyDrive integration with File Explorer is currently only available in Windows 8 (all versions), and not in Windows RT.

Final thoughts

File Explorer is only part of the new Windows 8 desktop, and future Feature Focus articles will cover other aspects of this environment, including Task Manager, the new Power User menu, File History, and Storage Spaces.