Get up to Speed on Windows XP

Windows XP

Story Contents


Facts & Figures

Home & Pro Differences

Behind the New Wheel

Folders & Special Folders

Looking at 'My Pictures'

Windows Media Player 8

Internet Explorer 6.0

Functional Improvements

Personal Firewall

Remote Assistance

Backup & Restore

Product Activation

Hardware and Setup

Will Your Programs Run?


Beta Conclusions

Folders and Special Folders

The new "Luna" interface, Microsoft's codename for the updated look and feel, doesn't stop with the desktop and Start Menu. The more colorful and more graphically detailed icons and window trimmings continue into every single folder window and other common elements, such as the Control Panel.

As with the Start Menu, experienced users are going to find the Control Panel really annoying. Instead of opening right to the applets, there's a submenu that groups the Control Panels according to nine headings, like "Performance and Maintenance," "Appearance and Themes," and "Printers and Other Hardware." Quite frankly, we found it harder to find things this way, and it added another step. Microsoft's argument is that new users will find things more easily this way. We're not so sure that's true. With something like 300 million copies of Windows running today, changing things in such a way that adds mouse clicks in the name of ease of use is probably counterproductive. Easier for who?

The New Explorer
Microsoft has paid a lot of attention to Explorer folder windows, which have a new larger icon view called "Tiles," as well as specific settings right in the folder for controlling Details view, such as "Attribute." There's also a long list of new and useful attributes you can opt to display. Although introduced in Windows 98, the Thumbnails view is now fully incorporated into all folder windows (you no longer have to turn it on with Properties). Thumbnails shows a little picture of the file contents of each file, and in folders containing images, that can really be a time saver. New in XP is the ability of a folder displayed in a folder window being able to show the contents of that folder with up to four mini thumbnails -- another boon.

There's more, too. All XP folder windows have picture smarts built into them. To enable this, right-click any closed folder, choose Properties, and click the Customize tab. Under the "What kind of folder to you want?" header, choose "Pictures (best for many files)" from the drop-down menu, and click OK. Then simply open the folder and click on any image file. You'll have a large preview of the image in the center of the file window. And you can scroll horizontally and click any image file to see its preview. The folder customize options include two types of picture folders, three types of music folders, and one document folder type. When you choose among these types of folders, you're also changing a list of context-sensitive clickable actions that appear in a column on the left side of the folder window. There's even an option to change the icon for any folder (not just a shortcut to it), and even make a new icon the default for all folders.

Side Panel Ups and Downs
Another important new feature of folder windows is the context-sensitive side panel -- literally a souped-up version of "WebView" from earlier versions of Windows. The new WebView side panels display Tasks (such as "Make a new folder") and Other Places (such as My Documents and My Computer). The side-panel selections change in special folders like My Pictures, My Music, and My Network Places to reflect activities more specific to their functions -- a nice approach.

This new picture preview facility can be switched on for any folder window. It makes working with image files much easier.
Click to see larger image

This new picture preview facility can be switched on for any folder window. It makes working with image files much easier.

But sometimes that's frustrating. The "Make a new folder" task was an excellent feature to add, and it appears on every standard folder window. But it disappears from some special folder side-panels. The notion of making a new folder (without having to open the File menu and choose New > Folder or right-click a blank space in the folder background and choose New > Folder) is such a primary function in any Windows folder that we strongly urge Microsoft to mount this function as a default toolbar button. That seems obvious, but apparently it's not.

But that isn't the only trouble with the side panels. In your average folder window, they take up a lot of space without adding much useful functionality. We could use toolbar buttons that reach out to My Documents, My Computer, and My Network Places. That would take up far less space. Even worse, WebView side panels are not customizable on a folder by folder basis. You can turn off the feature globally, but when you do you also disable the advantages of special folders such as My Pictures. We think experienced users are going to wind up turning off the side panels because they just too big and unwieldy.

If you have any doubt of that, you have only to view a "two pane" Explorer window as it appears in Windows XP. In previous versions of Windows, the Explorer window (popular among more experienced users) showed the folder tree pane on the left with the selected folder contents pane on the right. It was a very useful file-management tool because the tree is the easiest way to walk your folder structure when you're looking for something. But in XP, the two-paned folder window is all but destroyed by the side panel, which wedges itself between the tree and folder contents panes as a third pane. WebView side panels have some advantages, but on balance, they're less useful than they first appear.

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