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How To Use Windows File Explorer

Windows File Explorer (sometimes called Windows Explorer or simply Explorer), is the central hub of all your files, folders and drives on your computer. It’s the way in which you find your way around the labyrinth that is a modern computer.

We’ll look at File Explorer, its various parts, setting it up to better suit us and then how to use it effectively.

Open Windows File Explorer.

To open Windows File Explorer, left-click once on the File Explorer icon (the yellow folder) on your Taskbar.

Or you can use a keyboard shortcut. Press the Windows key and the letter E.

If you can’t see File Explorer on your Taskbar, we covered replacing it here File Explorer Missing From Taskbar

File Explorer icon on Taskbar. Also keyboard with the Windows key and letter E key marked.


File Explorer In Quick Access Or This PC Mode?

File Explorer can open up in one of two different views, or modes, Quick Access or This PC.

The default setting is usually Quick Access, but on your home computer, it makes more sense to have File Explorer open to This PC because it makes navigating between drives so much more intuitive.

You can easily tell how File Explorer has opened on your computer by looking at the address bar at the top of the window.

This PC highlighted in Explorer address bar.
File Explorer open in This PC mode.
Quick Access highlighted in File Explorer address bar.
File Explorer open in Quick Access mode.


Set Windows File Explorer To Open As This PC.

Most likely you’re looking at Windows File Explorer in the Quick Access view on your computer.

So we’re going to change that. It’s quick and easy to do, it’s just 5 clicks of the mouse.

Once it’s done, it’ll make navigating your computer just that little bit easier and we’ll all be looking at roughly the same window throughout the course.

Quick Access indicated by arrow in navigation pane of File Explorer.
Near the top left corner of the screen, you’ll see QUICK ACCESS.
Right-click once on QUICK ACCESS.
On the menu that opens, left-click once on OPTIONS.

In the top box, you’ll see it says “Open File Explorer to – Quick Access”. We want to change that.

Left-click once in the box. Then left-click THIS PC on the drop-down menu.

Left-click the OK button when done.

Changing File Explorer view from Quick Access to This PC.

Now close File Explorer using the X in the top right corner of the screen and then re-open it. We should all be looking at File Explorer in the THIS PC view.

Should I Be Doing This?

I know that many people worry about changing settings on their computers. “Should I be doing this”? Well, you definitely should be doing it.

Windows is designed to be “customised”, it’s supposed to be set up the way you want it. You’re not supposed to just accept the default settings.

And changing File Explorer’s view to This PC will make navigating your computer much easier in the future, especially when you’re moving from one drive to another.

USB sticks, external hard drives, even a CD/DVD drive, they’re all there as soon as you open File Explorer.


Navigating Windows File Explorer.

We’re all looking at File Explorer and it’s open in the “THIS PC” view. Great. Now it’s time to look around File Explorer, because there is so much going on here.

We’ve already briefly looked at the address bar at the top of the page. We’ll come back to that a little later.

Over on the left-hand panel, you’ll see a list of your folders. This area is called the Navigation Pane.

The ones at the top are in what’s called the Quick Access area.

We’ll come back to that in a moment.

Navigation pane highlighted in Windows File Explorer.

The Quick Access area of the Navigation Pane is not to be confused with the Quick Access view in File Explorer that we’ve just changed. To that end Microsoft have given them exactly the same name.

Yeah I know, that’s not helpful, especially when you’re just learning. A word of warning, it happens a lot.

Your main folders (the Windows default folders) are under This PC.

If you can’t see them, then This PC is closed or collapsed.

Move your pointer over This PC, and a tiny arrowhead will appear beside it.

Left-click the arrowhead to open or expand This PC.

Arrowhead indicated beside "This PC2 in File Explorer window.

Also, if you can’t see your Devices and Drives in the main window, left-click the small arrowhead to open the section.

C: drive highlighted in File Explorer window.

The Quick Access Folders In File Explorer.

The folders in the Quick Access area of the left-hand panel (the navigation panel) aren’t there permanently. They’re not fixed as such. They are the folders that you use most often.

As you use your computer, Windows will start to figure out which folders you’re using and add them to Quick Access.

As an example, let’s say you’re doing a lot of work on your photos, so you’re using the Pictures folder a lot, opening and closing it.

Then the Pictures folder will suddenly appear in the Quick Access area.

Any folder that you use often will appear here.

Pictures folder marked in Quick Access panel.

But folders can also disappear from Quick Access. If you stop using a particular folder it can and will be replaced by something else.

The idea is to make navigating to the folders you’re currently using most often easier and quicker.

Pictures folder has been removed from Quick Access panel.

It can be a little disconcerting when a folder that you’ve become accustomed to accessing from the Quick Access area, suddenly isn’t there. But we’ll come back to that. For now, we’re just having a look around.

This PC – File Explorer.

Under This PC you’ll see all your default Windows folders, eg,

  • Desktop (did I mention that you’re Desktop is actually a folder?)
  • Documents
  • Downloads
  • Music
  • Pictures
  • Videos.
This PC navigation are of File Explorer.

Most, if not all, of the folders that you create to store your files in, will be created within these default folders.

The folders here are always here. They don’t move, they’re permanent. Just below your folders, you’ll find all the drives that are attached to your computer.

Everyone will have a Local Disk (C:). Although it could be called hard disk, hard drive or something like that. You might have other drives, and maybe a CD/DVD drive. Any USB sticks or external hard drives that you plug into your PC will appear here.

File Explorer – The Main Window.

In the centre pane, or main window, of File Explorer, at the top, you can see more quick access folders and below those, you’ll see your drives.

The main window’s function is to show, or display, what’s inside the folder or drive you currently have open.

Currently, you’re looking at This PC. What is actually on this computer. What you’re seeing is a sort of an overview of your computer.

At the top are your default folders, and below those are the drives that are attached to your computer.

But if you click on, let’s say, you’re Pictures folder in the navigation panel.

The main window changes to show the contents of your Pictures folder.

And just in case you didn’t realise you had opened your Pictures folder, take a look at the address bar.

This PC > Pictures

And then if you navigate to your Documents folder by clicking Documents in the navigation pane, the main window changes again to show the contents of your Documents folder.

Take a quick look at the address bar again.

This PC > Documents.

This is how you navigate around your computer using Windows File Explorer.

How To Navigate Your PC Using File Explorer.

Now that you’ve been introduced to Windows File Explorer, it’s time to see how you might use it at home to find your files.

Let’s say you’ve got a file on your computer called “Phone Bill August” and you wanted to open it. To check it maybe.

You saved it in a folder called Phone Bills (where else?), which is inside the Household Bills folder, which is inside your Documents folder.

Can anyone else remember those Russian dolls, one inside the other?

Anyway, to open that file, you’ll need to go to (or navigate to) the folder Phone Bills.

Documents folder > Household Bills folder > Phone Bills folder > Phone Bill August.

Folders shown stacked inside each other.

So to find the file, you could open File Explorer, and then left-click Documents in the navigation pane.
The main window will show the contents of the Documents folder.
Find and double left-click the folder Household Bills.
In the main window, you can see what’s inside the Household Bills folder.
Find and double left click the Phone Bills folder.

Each time you change folder, check out the address bar. It’s following you, leaving a trail. The deeper you go into your folders, the longer the address bar “trail” gets.

Now finally we can see the file we’re were after.

Easy, yes? Of course it is. All you’re doing is opening one folder to get to another and then another. Anyone can do it.

And if you keep an eye on the address bar, you’ll always know exactly where you are.

File Explorer address bar marked.

Using Quick Access For Faster Navigation.

The folders under This PC are permanently there. But the folders in the Quick Access area aren’t.

Windows will “promote” folders that are being used often in to the Quick Access area, and “demote” (remove) folders that have fallen into disuse.

But you can do the same thing. You can manually add and remove any folder to or from the Quick Access area to speed up navigating to that folder.

Taking the example above, let’s say you wanted to have Quick Access to the folder Phone Bills.

Navigate to the folder you want to “pin” to the Quick Access area.

Left-click the folder once to select it, then right-click on it.

The options menu will open.


Pin to Quick Access option marked on options menu.

By pinning the folder into the Quick Access area, it will save you having to navigate through the Documents folder and then the Household Bills folder.

A single left click on the folder Phone Bills will take you straight there.

The advantage of pinning a folder into Quick Access is that you can “jump” directly into that folder without having to navigate through all the outer folders.

Obviously, space is limited in the Quick Access area, but by pinning your most used or most important folders here, you can make navigating your computer much quicker and simpler.


Are They All The Same Folder?

You’ve probably noticed that some folders appear in different places of File Explorer. So the question is are they the same folder?

The quick answer is yes, they are.

The Documents folder in the Quick Access area, and the Documents folder under This PC, and the Documents folder in the main window are all the same folder.

You simply have 3 ways to get to the same place.

The same goes for all the other folders.

Documents folder highlighted appearing in 3 places in File Explorer.

Drives & Letters.

On a typical computer, the first drive is your main hard drive.

It may be called hard disk or local disk or sometimes system disk.

Regardless of the actual name, you should see the letter C in brackets beside it.

Local Disk C: highlighted in File Explorer.

Windows gives every drive (or disk) a letter, starting from the letter C and then moving along the alphabet.

The letters are used as a numbering system. To differentiate between the drives.

When Windows was first released, they could easily have just used numbers to differentiate between drives, but for whatever reason, they didn’t. They went with letters and it’s been that way ever since.

Technically speaking, your first drive doesn’t have to be drive C: It could be any letter of the alphabet, indeed I remember either HP or maybe it was Acer, who used to begin the drive letters from around the middle of the alphabet.

But now, on modern machines, you’ll probably be starting from C.

On my machine, I also have a CD/DVD drive installed.

You can see that it’s been given the letter D. Which is obviously the next letter along the alphabet.

You might not have a CD/DVD drive, many modern machines aren’t fitted with them.

And you may have more than 1 hard drive. You could easily have 2, 3 or more.

The important point is that they’ll all get assigned a letter, starting from C.

If you plug in a USB stick (drive), an external hard drive or an external CD/DVD drive, or even if you attach your smartphone to your PC, it will appear here, in Windows File Explorer.

It sometimes takes a few moments for it to show up, but it will appear.

USB drive appears in This PC area of File Explorer.

Notice that immediately the USB drive appears, it’s given a letter in brackets. Every drive attached to your computer has to have a letter. A drive letter.

To access any of the drives, you can either double left click on it in the centre pane, or single left click it in the navigation pane. Whichever you find better.

Concluding Windows File Explorer.

Although at first sight, Windows File Explorer can look intimidating, it really isn’t. It actually makes sense.

There’s a lot more to Windows File Explorer than we’ve covered here and we’ll get to that later in the course.

For now, you just need to be able to use File Explorer to move from folder to folder and drive to drive. To be comfortable with it because it pops up all over your computer.

Try opening a folder that you’ve got on your Desktop, or just open your Pictures folder, Documents folder, and what you’ll be looking at is File Explorer.

When you’re trying to save a file, or install a program, or download a file from the Internet into a specific location, you’ll see various “Navigation” windows open up. They are all variations on File Explorer and work pretty much the same way.

But all that is still to come.

Next Page

It’s All About Folders

A place for everything and everything in it’s place. Using folders just makes sense.

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