Looking at the files on your computer

It doesn't matter how long you've been working with computers, at some point during any given 'session' you're going to say to yourself 'Now where the heck did that file go? I was just working on it, and now I can't find it....'. It always surprises me when I'm working with people how often they really have no idea where their computer is storing the files that they are working on. It's also one of the things that people are least likely to ask about, because the feeling is that it should somehow be 'common knowledge', an instinctive thing that should have been hardwired into the brain at birth, like geese flying south or salmon returning to the stream they were hatched in. Well, guess what? It's not, you're not stupid (well, that I know of), and we'll try to shed a little light on it right now.

We'll start with the basics of your average everyday 2005 PC. It's going to come with the following components, or drives:

  • a: -> 3 1/2" floppy drive (actually, floppy's aren't really floppy anymore, but that's a different story)
  • b: -> very rarely used anymore, a drawback to the 'old' days when you needed two floppy drives to work efficiently on your computer. Back then you would boot your computer from one floppy drive, then save your files on the other one. Ah, for the old DOS days, a simpler time....
  • c: -> Your actual hard drive, probably somewhere in the 20 - 60 GB size. This can be particularly confusing to a lot of folks, because somewhere along the way some people have gotten into the habit of referring to that big box that's sitting on or under your desk as a 'hard drive'. It's not, that's your computer, which has at least one hard drive inside it. The hard drive itself is just a plain, metal box about the size of a small paperback book with a couple of wires sticking out the back of it.
  • d: -> Your CD drive or burner, maybe in combination with a DVD player or burner.

OK, that should be close. Some computers have several CD-Rom and/or DVD drives, and some have more than one hard drive. If yours has some of those you will just have more drive letters to choose from. Now, as with everything else on your computer there is more than one way to do this. Many years ago, in a prior life, I used to repair hot tubs. There would be times when I was making an appointment to go to someone's house where I wasn't familiar with the area. The thing that drove me absolutely nuts is when someone gave me directions to get to their house, and then said something along the lines of 'or, instead you could take...'. I only needed one way to get there, preferably the one that was the simplest and most direct. So instead of telling you 5 different ways to do this, I'm going to just describe one way, the way that I think is the most direct. If you are used to doing this a different way and are comfortable with that way then by all means, keep doing it that way. If someone tells you a different way they are not wrong, it's just what works for them.

Now, I like to use Windows Explorer instead of any of the other many means of looking at my hard drive. I think the easiest way to open Windows Explorer is to right-click on the Start icon in the lower left side of your desktop, then move your mouse over 'Explore' on the pop-up menu and left click on it:

Windows Explorer Popup

That will open up Windows Explorer, and will probably default to the folder 'Start Menu' on your user configuration. There are a couple of things to remember when looking at the files on your computer:

  1. The common Windows installation these days allows for multiple users to work on the same computer, and will sometimes install programs and files for just that user. I've always had mixed feelings about this, because I suspect that the percentage of users that find this helpful is really low, and that it causes much more grief than is really necessary.
  2. Microsoft makes some assumptions about the capability of the average computer user that I feel is misguided, and by default hides some very important information from you. But more about this later...

OK, anyway, you should now be looking at a screen that looks approximately like this:

Windows Explorer 01

Now, I say approximately because yours will vary based on the users set up on your computer and the programs you've got installed, along with any customizations you may have made to the way your explorer screen looks. If you're on a network it's even more confusing, but we aren't going to go into that here. What we will go into are some basic things you should know about what you're looking at.

Let's start with some real basics, and go through a couple of quick definitions.

  • Folders - those little yellow icons that look like, well, folders. Back in the old days these used to be called directories, and you'll still see and hear that term used. These are really just areas set up on your hard drive that help you stay organized. You can create as many folders on your hard drive as you want, and can put folders inside of other folders.
  • Files - these are the actual bits of code that make your computer do interesting things, and are created by various software programs. Some files are the software programs, and most software programs need to use a bunch of different files for them to work correctly. Whenever you do a 'Save' from any program, like say Microsoft Word, you are saving a file to your hard drive, and placing it into one of the directories or folders mentioned above. You can find a painfully detailed definition of a file here.

Windows Explorer 02

OK, so let's look at the picture of my computer above, start at the top and work our way down.

  • Desktop - these are the items that you see on your computer desktop, or what you see on the screen. Those little pictures you see on the screen are called icons, and they represent the program that they will run. The icon is not the actual program, the program is installed on your computer's hard drive. The icon is just a shortcut to the program, which means it just points to the part of the program that will start it up for you. That's why if you delete one of these icons from your desktop you are not actually getting rid of the program. All you're doing is removing the picture shortcut from your desktop, the actual program is still alive and well on your hard drive.
  • My Documents - this is the default directory target for most computer programs. If you create a document in Microsoft Word, and click on the Save icon or select File -> Save from the menu it will most likely try to save the file here. If you've lost a file this is a good place to start looking. This is also the folder that is typically the most disorganized mess on anyone's computer, mine included. The thing you need to remember about My Documents is that each user on your computer has their own My Documents. If you look at the bottom of the picture above you will see another folder called My Documents, which is under the user dcanfield on this computer. This folder is where the actual files are stored, the other one at the top is just a shortcut to this one. If you have multiple users on your computer they will each get their own My Documents folder when they log on to the computer. The shortcut at the top will point to their My Documents folder, not yours.
  • My Computer - a visual representation of the hardware inside your computer. This may show other things liked mapped network drives, but we're going to breeze over that for now.
  • 3 1/2 Floppy (A:) - your floppy drive, where you can copy files to and from on small floppy disks. Not used as much these days, folks usually just e-mail files or copy them to USB drives that have considerably more storage capacity.
  • Local Disk (C:) - the primary hard drive inside your computer. Yours may not say 'Local Disk', as you can rename this to almost anything you want. This is the default set up though, and should look close to what you have.

When you click on an item in the left pane the contents of that item will be shown in the right pane. Clicking on one of the little [+] signs next to a directory in the left pane will expand that directory, showing all of the other directories that it contains. If it does not contain any sub-directories it will have nothing there. If it is already expanded it will show a [-] sign instead. If you would like to quickly collapse all of the directories in the left pane simply click once on the Local Disk (C:) and then press the [-] sign on your keypad. Alternatively, pressing the [+] sign on the keypad will expand the directories, but only down a couple of levels.

Go ahead and look around on your hard drive, click on the folders and get aquainted. The more familiar you are with the folders and files on your hard drive the better off you'll be in the long run.