Windows 7 Feature Focus
Windows Explorer

Note: Parts of this article were excerpted from Windows 7 Secrets Chapter 4: What's New in the Windows 7 User Experience, and Chapter 5: Where's My Stuff? Finding and Organizing Files. --Paul

Windows Explorer first appeared in Windows 95, replacing the many horrible "manager" programs (File Manager, Program Manager, and so on) that plagued previous Windows versions. It was a grand idea, but then Microsoft made the mistake of combining Internet Explorer with the Windows shell. Starting with an interim version of Windows 95, the Windows Explorer shell has been based on IE, and since then we've suffered through a decade of security vulnerabilities and the resulting patches.

In Windows 7, that integration is a thing of the past. Windows Explorer has been completely overhauled, yet again, and it's quite a bit better than the Explorer shell in Windows XP, and also quite a bit different. (It's also quite different from the Windows Vista shell, which can be disconcerting.) Microsoft has also introduced some new terminology into the mix, just to keep us on our toes. So My Documents is replaced by the Documents library in Windows 7, for example. (Likewise with all the other special folders: There are now Libraries for Pictures, Music, and Videos, and you can make your own libraries.)

[ For more information about Libraries, see my Feature Focus article ]

From a usability perspective, much has changed since XP. Let's examine a typical Explorer window, as seen below. The menu bar is gone, replaced by a hidden menu bar (called Classic Menu in Windows Vista), which can be dynamically triggered by tapping the ALT key. The main toolbar is also gone, replaced by Back and Forward buttons, an enhanced Address bar, and the Windows Search box.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Explorer

Below those controls is a new toolbar, which includes context-sensitive commands, that replaces the old task pane from Windows XP Explorer (and the command bar from Windows Vista). In other words, the options you will see in the toolbar will vary from window to window and based on what's selected. On the bottom of each windows is a Details pane, which also changes based on the current window and what's selected.

In the center of the window, you'll see a Navigation pane with various system shortcuts, a large icon display area, and, optionally, a Preview pane.

Let's take a look at the Explorer features that are new or changed in Windows 7.

Enhanced Address Bar

The Windows 7 address bar works almost identically to that in Windows Vista, but if you're coming from XP, prepare for a bit of a shock. Now, instead of the classic address bar view, the address bar is divided into drop-down menu nodes along the navigation path, making it easier than ever to move through the shell hierarchy. This interface is referred to as the breadcrumb bar, though there's no gingerbread house at the end with a witch living in it.

Windows Search

Windows 7 has Start Menu Search, search in Internet Explorer, a new Search window (hidden, but you can tap F3 to see it), and it even has a Windows Search box in every Explorer window. The reason this is useful is that the Windows Search box is context sensitive. Sure, you could search your entire hard drive if you wanted, but what's the point? If you're in a folder, and you know that what you're looking for is in there somewhere, maybe in one of the subfolders, then the Windows Search box is the tool to use.

To search for a document or other file in the current folder or one of its subfolders, just click the search box and begin typing. (You can also tap CTRL + F to select the Windows Search box with the keyboard.) Your results will begin appearing immediately.


The new Windows 7 toolbar combines the functionality of the toolbar and task panes from the Windows Explorer windows in Windows XP in a new, less real estate?intensive space. Like the task pane in XP, portions of the command bar is context sensitive , and will change depending on what items you are viewing or have selected.

That said, the following portions of the command bar will remain constant regardless of what you're viewing:

  • Organize button. Appears in all Explorer windows and provides you with a drop-down menu from which you can perform common actions like create a new folder; cut, copy, paste, undo, and redo; select all; delete; rename; close; get properties, and change the window layout.

  • Views button. Lets you change the icon view style for the current window. This option is uniquely configurable on a folder-by-folder basis.

  • Show the preview pane. This toggles the Preview pane.

  • Help. A button that launches Windows Help and Support. (You can also just tap F1.)

The other options you see in the toolbar will depend on the view and selection. For example, here you can see how the toolbar changes in the Documents library window when you select a document file.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Explorer

Live Icons and Preview Pane

In Windows 7, document icons are "live" and can provide you with a rich preview of their contents depending on which view style you're using, as shown here:

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Explorer

But even when you're using one of the smaller view styles, you can get live previews: Simply enable the Preview Pane (also a global option), and as you select individual documents, you'll see a preview in that pane, which is located on the right side of the window. This is shown below.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Explorer

View styles

In each Windows version, there are a number of shell view styles you can utilize, each of which presents the files and folders (and now, Libraries) you're looking at in slightly different way. These view styles--and the ways in which you access and configure them--have changed again in Windows 7.

Windows XP offered six Explorer view styles?Thumbnails, Tiles, Icons, List, Details, and, for folders containing digital pictures, Filmstrip. There were also ways you could arrange the files in folders, such as by name, type, or total size, or in groups, where icons representing similar objects would be visually grouped together. All of these options could be configured in a number of ways, including via buttons in the Explorer window toolbar, by right-clicking inside of an Explorer window, or from the View menu.

Windows Vista bumped the number of Explorer view styles to seven but, confusingly, it dropped some of the options that were previously available in Windows XP. In Vista, you could choose between Extra Large Icons, Large Icons, Medium Icons, Small Icons, List, Details, and Tiles views.

One thing that both Windows XP and Vista shared, sadly, was that they would often forget folder view styles, either on a per-window or systemwide basis. This is one of the weird areas in which Windows XP and Vista were inferior to previous Windows versions. Thankfully, this situation was rectified in Windows 7: Now, the system no longer forgets view styles as it did in the previous two versions.

The following Explorer view style are available in Windows 7:

Extra Large Icons. An absolutely gigantic view style that takes full advantage of Vista's near photographic quality icons, which are rendered at 256 x 256 pixels.

Large Icons. Similar to the Windows XP Large Icons view, this view style provides 128 x 128 icons laid out in a conventional grid.

Medium Icons. A new style that's unique to Windows Vista, Medium Icons are similar in style to Large Icons, but smaller at 64 x 64 pixels.

Small Icons. A blast from the past: Small icons appeared in Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows Me, and Windows 2000, but were exorcised from Windows XP for some reason, much to the chagrin of many users. Rejoice, it's back.

List. A columnar version of Small Icons view, with the same size icons but a more linear look.

Details. A columnar view style that uses the same icon size as Small Icons but presents them in a more regulated fashion. Details view is quite prominent in Windows Vista, in sharp contrast to previous Windows client versions.

Tiles. A relatively new view style?it debuted in Windows XP and is the standard view style for most Explorer windows in that Windows version?Tiles view presents information about each folder and file to the right of the icon, as with Small Icons and Details, but utilizes a much larger icon (it's the same icon used by Medium Icons view). Because of the extra space available, Tiles view can present more than just the icon's name. What you see will depend on the file type. Microsoft Word documents, for example, include both the name of the file and the notation "Microsoft Word Document." And digital photos include the name and the date the picture was taken.

Content. New to Windows 7, this view style combines the popular Tiles and Details view, as seen below. It's essentially a version of the Details view with larger icons.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Explorer

You can access these styles in manners that are similar to those in Windows XP and Vista, via the Views button in an Explorer window toolbar, via the View submenu on the menu that appears when you right-click a blank area of the current Explorer window, or if you have the Classic Menus option enabled, via the View Menu.

Secret: For some reason, clicking the Views button toggles between all but one of the available view styles. If you want to use Extra Large Icon view, you have to do a bit more work: Just click the More Options button to the right of the Views button to display the Views drop-down menu and then select Extra Large Icons from there.

What's interesting is that these shell view styles are not your only view style options. You can also access intermediary view styles between each of those stock settings using a new slider control that pops down when you click the More Option button next to the Views toolbar button (it resembles a small arrow). This control enables you to fine-tune the look and feel of individual Explorer windows, so you can arrive at a view style that matches your preferences and system capabilities. For example, on a large widescreen display, you might prefer larger icons, whereas a smaller notebook display might look better to your eyes in Details view. It's up to you.

Secret: You can also move the slider with the scroll wheel on your mouse if it's so equipped. Simply open the slide control by clicking the arrow as noted previously and then use the scroll wheel to find the view style you like.

Secret: Or skip the More Options button entirely: While viewing any Explorer window, simply hold down the CTRL button on your keyboard and scroll with your mouse's scroll wheel. The icon sizes in the current window will change in real time.

But wait, there's more...

There's much more going on with Windows Explorer in Windows 7, but you'll have to check out Windows 7 Secrets for the rest. The book is available now from and other booksellers. Click here to find out more about Windows 7 Secrets.