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An Explanation of the File System on Your Computer

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Introduction

I am absolutely of the opinion today that the biggest mistake made by the people writing software is that they are making things TOO easy. That is not to say that making things easy is such an awful thing. But with that sort of simplicity also comes a whole lot of users not having any idea at all what is really happening when they do something on their device.
This goes for everything from your laptop to your cell phone or tablet. The biggest hole that they leave in making things so simple is that no one understands how a file system works.

How many times have you downloaded something from an email or something, and then said to yourself, "WTF? Where did that file go?!"
Here in lies the problem. Most software does make it easy for you by saying, "you can find your file HERE", but it still doesn't tell you how to find it later. This usually leads to you downloading the same thing 10 times without even realizing you did.

It doesn't help any that schools make absolutely no effort whatsoever to teach kids about this stuff. I can't even tell you how many times I've gotten frustrated with my own kids being so frustrated because they can't find stuff. And it always leads me to give a lesson in File System 101 in order to help them get the idea.

This is what prompted me to write this up today. This is not intended to be condescending, or anything of the sort. This is just to give you a better understanding of something that is so fundamental to the operation of ALL your devices that it's astonishing how carefully it's been hidden for so long. So much to a point that a lot of you reading this have probably never even thought of it before. I assure you, understanding this will make your life a LOT easier.

The File System and Directory Structure
This article is really about navigating directory structures. If you want a FULL explanation of what a file system is, check Wikipedia. Their entry is excellent.

The basic working arrangement of the file system is the directory tree. A nice visual explanation would be that all the files on your device are organized in a structure very like a tree, with a starting point (root), and subdirectories (branches), with your files at the ends of the branches (no one has ever gotten cute enough to call them leaves).
To illustrate what this looks like, on a windows machine, the path to a file would look like this:
c:\home\work\[yourfile]

The starting point of this is your root. In this case, the physical drive or "c:\". Then there are branches that go out from there.

Setting aside my reference to the "directory tree", the actual visual representation used today is that of folders within folders that hold files. Exactly how you would organize things in the real world, assuming you organize things.

Visually that would look like this:

It is actually important to understand the text version of the path as well as the visual. This is because the device itself couldn't care less about the visual. In the background, the device only knows about that string of characters. This is why you can see the text of the path in the example image above. No matter what that graphic shows, that text is what's important. We'll get back to this in a moment.

This exact same sort of structure is the same on all devices with one crucial difference; The root point. Many years ago, when DOS was the most widely used operating system, the drive letter became the standard. For all Microsoft OS's since, it has remained so. Every drive in your machine will have it's own letter. C is almost always the primary hard drive. D is next, and is usually the CDROM drive, or a second hard drive. All the next letters, indefinitely up the line, represent other devices like USB thumbdrives, and stuff like that. Whatever the case, the drive letter is always unique to that device.
Macintosh devices are not named like that. The system looks for an assigned name, which could literally be anything, and THAT serves as the name of the device. Needless to say, this is one of the reasons that the directory structure on a Mac can be a nightmare. If you don't know which device you are searching, how can you possibly navigate?! Well, it's not as bad as that implies. The Mac will mount devices directly on the desktop with an icon representing what it is. Hard drive, CDROM, etc...

The Files Themselves
You have to start with a basic understanding what files, or documents, actually are. There are thousands of different types. For the purposes of this article, I'm only concentrating on documents.
Another stupid thing Microsoft did when they introduced Windows was to hide file extensions. The single most important identifier of a document. By default they are hidden. The file extension is the 3 or 4 characters after the "." in a filename. That extension is not only so you can identify what type of document you are looking at, but so Windows knows what kind of file it is, and how to handle it.
Say you just downloaded a graphic from someplace. The icon will tell you that it will open with Paint, or Photoshop, but it won't tell you what kind of file it is. It could be a JPEG, GIF, PNG, or any other type, but your machine will show you the same icon for all of them. No way to tell them apart.
I suggest changing that setting. Follow Microsoft's own instructions here...
Mac users are left out of this one altogether. Their file extensions have always been hidden, and always will be.

After all, the documents that you save and/or create, are the single most important thing in your machine. When your favorite services talk about backing up your stuff, they are talking about your pictures, videos, Office documents, etc... They are the only thing that is important. If your machine were to burn to the ground tomorrow, you could simply build another machine just like it, and bring all your documents back. Unless you've never backed them up. Then they're lost forever. Being smart about your backups is another issue, on which I highly recommend you do a Google Search, right after you read this. For now, just know that documents and how they're organized is what we're talking about here. Once you understand THIS, you'll have a much better understanding on how to best organize your files for backup.

Navigating the Directory Tree
For the sake of keeping this article a readable length, I am only going to concentrate on Windows systems for this. Most of you are Windows user after all. And all of what I say here applies to all systems anyway.
The principles apply to your mobile device, as long as it's an Android. All iOS devices keep the file system completely hidden. Anyone who's ever used iTunes knows that it's pretty well impossible to maintain your own library. You have to rely on the software to do that for you.

Let's start by taking a look at your Windows Explorer. This is not to be confused with Internet Explorer. That's for exploring the internet. We want to explore your machine.
Look for the icon on your taskbar that looks like this, and click on it.

In this program, you can see everything on every device on your machine. Microsoft, in their infinite wisdom, has of course simplified everything. So, the entire top half of the left hand side is pointing at things, and never actually telling you WHERE those things are. Please refer to the introduction for why this pisses me off.
You'll see the the basic principal for what I described about the directory tree is there. And for that, you can still navigate. If you want to see exactly WHERE on the tree you are, usually clicking on the top line will cause it to show the actual path rather than the cute name it usually shows.

What it looks like by default:


What it looks like if you click to see the full path:

The reason that most systems try to simplify things like this is that they don't want you poking around the file system. About the only thing I can say in their defense there, is that it can be extremely dangerous to go mucking around here. Move or delete something by accident, and you could mess your whole system up.

To see the actual contents of your drive, go further down that left side list under "computer". There you will see a list of your drives. Double click on the icon labeled "C:". You will see a list of folders on the left. On the right, you will see the contents of the selected folder, both folders and files on the right. On the left side, if there is an arrow next to the folder, it means there are other folders inside of it. You can open these up and view the contents within. The more you open up, the further into the tree you go.
Most of the stuff you'll find here will be of little use to you. As such, you probably shouldn't do anything crazy like moving things. Just viewing the contents, however, won't do any harm. You're just looking around.

On the right side, you'll see that almost all of the files that show have an icon that looks similar to one of the apps installed on your machine. That is the application that will launch if you double click on it. For example, if you see an icon that looks like a piece of notebook paper (and with a .txt extension), it will launch into Notepad if you double click on it.

In terms of document storage, Microsoft tries their best to provide you with directories that are appropriate for various types of files. You can navigate into places like "Documents", and you will see subfolders there for things like, music, videos, and pictures.
This only partially shows where your files are really located. Use the trick I pointed out before to see the actual, physical locations for these folders. This the the single most important part of this exercise. Understanding where your machine puts all that stuff. Even though they try to keep this stuff as standard as possible, the setup and default organization of all this stuff is not exactly standard. It will be different for everyone. This is why there is no point if my showing a screen grab here. Between the 4 machines I regularly use, none of this stuff is the same. It's precisely the reason that I create my OWN folders to organize my documents. I always know where stuff is.

Now that you've seen what that all looks like, you should have a better understanding of how the files are organized in the directory structure for your entire machine. So now let's take a look at a typical File Save dialog box. This is pretty much the same thing you'd see when you're opening a file also. And navigating it is exactly the same as Windows Explorer, only scaled down in size.
When you save a file to your machine, this is the dialog that will open. It is asking you where you would like to put that file. We'll do this now.
Right click on this image. In the menu that pops up, choose "Save image as" . (not yet - read the next paragraph first)
CaptainObvious

Typically, you already have a default "download" folder already set. That is what should be visible in that dialog now.
This is where things get confusing, however. Depending on your browser and settings, it may open up to the last place you saved something to. In my case here, the last place I downloaded to was my work folder where I work on stuff like this...

You may have a default location that it sends files to without even showing you the dialog. And here again is a default setting that is absolutely stupid. Because THIS is where most people get totally lost and say, "WHERE THE HELL DID THAT FILE GO TO?!"

You should change the default setting on your browser to ask you where to put files that you are downloading. That way, you'll know where you put them. This is different for every browser. In Chrome, go to the options, find the link for Show Advanced Settings. On that list, there is a checkbox for "Ask where to save each file". In IE it's set to do that by default. But, again, every machine is different. Do a Google search if your browser if you need help.

Now that we have that straightened out... Use that dialog to navigate your file system, and save the file wherever you'd like. Pay attention to where you put it. Once that's done, you can use the Explorer Window that you opened before to navigate your drive, and see the file.

At this point, you have the basics of the navigation down. You know how and why things are as they are. So we will do one more thing to get you more comfortable with actually working with files. Let's create a folder and move that file you just downloaded into it.

In the explorer window you have open already, on the left side, click on your "Downloads" folder. That will open it's contents in the right. Right click on any empty space there and find "New". Hover the mouse over that, and a new submenu will open. On that menu click, Folder. A new folder will appear there with the name already highlighted and ready for you to type. Name it something. Then, double click on it to open it.

Right click on that same Windows Explorer icon as before and open a new Explorer window. In that window, navigate your drive to where you downloaded that graphic. Once you find that, slide the window over so that both of the Explorer windows are visible.

Use the mouse to drag the graphic from that location to the new folder you just created. The file will be moved there. This of course means that it did NOT copy it. It MOVED it. This is the default behavior when you move files between folders on the same drive. If you were copying to a different drive, the default would be to copy and not move. You can override this behavior in either case by holding down the SHIFT key. Go ahead and try it, you'll see that the text toggles between "Copy" and "Move" depending on the state of that key.

After having gone through this whole thing, you should now have a much better grasp what happens when you download files. Plus, you have some idea how to organize things, all so that you can find them later. Your next step is to dig around on your drive, find all those files that you never knew where they had landed, and get them all organized correctly.

I also highly recommend that once you get all your stuff in one place that makes sense, you back your documents up. You can put them on a thumbrive, burn them to a CD, or take advantage of all that cloud storage space you get for free with your Google accounts.

Please feel free to contact me if you have questions, or if you have some suggestions of how this article could be improved.


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