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Windows 8 In-Depth, Part 3: Windows Explorer

Tablet users won’t be the only ones impressed by Windows 8 — some big changes have come to the desktop too, especially the newest version of Windows Explorer. Here are some of the biggest changes in Windows’ default file manager.

The Ribbon

Office users will find Windows Explorer’s new interface very familiar, as it sports an Office-style ribbon across the top. Now, you have access to large buttons for any action you could want to perform, instead of having to root around a tiny context menu. By default, you have three tabs across the top: Home, Share and View. The Home tab contains functions like Copy, Paste, Move to, Delete, Rename, New Folder, Properties, and more. Clicking on the Share tab will let you email a file or folder, put it into a zip file, or even burn it to disc. The View tab manages what Explorer looks like — this is where you can turn on the preview pane, choose your icon view, and set how Windows sorts your icons in the Explorer window.

What’s really cool is that many popular file types will add more tabs into Windows Explorer’s ribbon, with functions tied to that specific file type, For example, if you click on an image file, you’ll get a “Manage” tab under a “Picture Tools” heading that lets you rotate images right from Explorer, start a slideshow, or set that image as your desktop background. Clicking on a disk under My Computer will bring up a Disk Tools tab that lets you eject, format or clean up a disk. Clicking on an EXE file will even let you pin it to the taskbar, run it as an administrator, or troubleshoot its compatibility, all with just one click.

Of course, if you aren’t a fan of the ribbon, you can easily hide it by hitting the little arrow in Explorer’s upper right-hand corner. You’ll still have access to those tabs if you want them, but it won’t stay visible all the time. This is especially nice if you’re, say, on a netbook and Explorer’s taking up a bit too much space.

Last but not least, the new File menu is pretty snazzy. None of the functions inside are all that new, but it does have a really nice “Open Command Prompt” option that’ll open up a Windows Command Prompt in your current folder — either as the current user or as an administrator.

The Quick Access Toolbar

The quick access toolbar is a small set of buttons in the title bar of Windows Explorer, containing a few of the functions inside the ribbon. There, you can put some of your most-used functions for super-quick access. You can customise the toolbar with the small arrow button at the end of it, which will let you put any combination of the Undo, Redo, Delete, New Folder, Properties and Rename buttons on the top left of the toolbar. If you know the keyboard shortcuts for these actions, you probably won’t use the quick access toolbar, but it’s nice to have there if you aren’t a keyboard junkie.

The New Copy Dialog

Anyone who’s ever copied multiple and/or large files in Windows knows that their file moving dialog could use a bit of work. Well, Microsoft has revamped the entire process in Windows 8, making it much easier to move, copy and replace duplicate files in Windows Explorer.

The biggest change you’ll notice is the dialog itself. If you hit the “Details” button, you now see a speed meter that lets you keep track of how fast your files are copying over time. If you have multiple copy operations running at the same time, you can view them all from one consolidated window, and even pause each of them one-by-one if you want to give certain operations priority.

The other big change in file copying is the file conflict dialog. If you’re copying a number of files to a folder that contains files of the same name, you no longer get a series of annoying windows that each asks you about a separate file. Now, the file collision dialog is consolidated into one window with two columns — new files on the left, old files on the right. All you do is check the boxes next to the files you want to keep, and Windows Explorer does the rest — much easier than the way it was in Windows 7.

If you were on the fence about Windows 8 because of its focus on tablets and the Metro UI, fret not — the Windows desktop isn’t being ignored, and some of the new Windows Explorer features are reason enough to check out Windows’ latest release. Have you tried out the new Explorer? Let us know your thoughts, concerns and comments below.