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Windows NT 5.0 Feature Focus: Folder Options

Back in the early days of Windows 98--then known simply as "Memphis"--I noted that setting folder options was complicated and requested that something be done to clean up the interface a bit. Over the course of the next year or so, the Internet Explorer team became responsible for Shell enhancements and a new folder options item was added to the View menu of any My Computer/Explorer window. The resulting dialog box allowed you to set options for the current folder, but it wasn't detailed enough and some options, like "Web view" were actually located elsewhere. In the end, the folder options available to the Windows 98/Internet Explorer 4.0 user were better than the stock Windows 95 style, but still lacking in many areas. An enterprising programmer at Microsoft created the TweakUI utility to correct some of these problems (and add a host of other features to Windows 9x) but the basic problem, inconsistent and underpowered folder options, was never resolved.

As with many things, Windows NT 5.0 changes all that. Now an integrated component of the system Control Panel (Picture), Folder Options can be used to set folder options on a folder- or system-wide basis. Depending on how you access Folder Options--via the Control Panel applet or from the View menu in a My Computer/Explorer window, you may see different options. Let's take a look at both cases.

Using the Control Panel applet
To set system-wide folder options, you would generally use the Folder Options applet in the Control Panel. This program (Picture) consists of three pages that may seem familiar at first: General, View and File Types. But even a cursory look at this window will show that things have changed, in some cases dramatically.

General page
The General page allows you to determine how Web integration is applied to your system's user interface. All of the Web features of the Shell--Active Desktop, folder Web view, and mouse-click style (HTML-like single click, or older double-click)--are available from this page. One holdout from the early days of Windows 95 is still available as well: The ability to browse folders in a single window or each folder in its own window. In Windows 95, the default was for each folder to open its own window, as you would, typically, with a Macintosh. Microsoft discovered that most people were more comfortable with using a single window, however, so Windows NT 5.0 defaults to using a single window.

Incidentally, I also lobbied Microsoft to include the ability to switch back and forth between Explorer mode (tree view on the left) and My Computer mode (no tree view) in any Shell window, rather than offer two confusing ways to browse the Shell (Windows Explorer and My Computer). Well, Windows NT 5.0's "simplicity initiative" jumped right on that idea: There's now on option in all Shell windows (View->Explorer Bars->All Folders) that toggles this feature. Confusingly, however, My Computer and Windows Explorer still exist as "separate" ways to browser the Shell.

View page
The View page (Picture) resembles its Windows 98/IE 4.0 counterpart at first glance, but a quick look through the Advanced Settings list (Picture) reveals otherwise. An extensive collection of options is now available, including many that replace similar functions in TweakUI. This is probably the most extensive, and important part of this applet. Most impressive are the "Expand" options under Start Menu Settings. This is another thing I've been clamoring for years: Specifically, the ability to cascade the Control Panel item on the Start Menu so that you can access an individual applet rather than have to open a window to access those features (Picture). This gets the big thumbs-up.

File Types page
Mostly unchanged from previous versions, the File Types page (Picture) lists registered file types and the programs they are associated with. There are a couple of new options here, however, including the Find Extension drop-down list box, which allows you to search the list for file extension. And when you check out the properties for a file extension, you can now set filetype-specific options as well. The Text Document type (Picture), for example, shows that specific file extensions can be shown, even if the option to view file types is set to off. Additionally, certain file types can option directly in a Shell window, if its supported, rather than launch a separate application window.

It's worth noting here that Windows NT 5.0 also supports a fuller implementation of "Open With" than previous versions of Windows. In Windows 98, you can Control-right-click an icon and choose "Open With" from the pop-up menu, but Windows NT 5.0 includes this option without the need of the keypress. Also, when you do choose to open a file with an application that isn't the default association, this application will be added to an "Open With" sub-menu off of the pop-up menu. Very nice.

Setting specific folder options
If you'd like to change the folder options for a specific folder, and not globally for the whole system, you can browse to that folder in My Computer or Explorer and choose "Folder Options" from the View menu, much as you would do in earlier versions of Windows. This gives you the same dialog you get with the Folder Options Control Panel applet, with one addition: A fourth page called Offline Folders (Picture) is now available.

Offline Folders
While Offline Folders is a possible subject for a future technology showcase, a quick overview is in order. In Windows NT 5.0, you can cache the contents of folders that you access across the network so that you can access them while you are disconnected from the network. Primarily, this will be of benefit to laptop users that are sometimes, but not always, physically connected to the network. The Offline Folders page of the Folder Options dialog allows you to determine how this functionality is set up and an Advanced options (Picture) dialog determines how your computer reacts when it attempts to access a network folder that it is no longer physically connected to.

All-in-all, the Folder Options in Windows NT 5.0 are vast improvements over similar features in Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT 4.0, and Internet Explorer 4.0. To be picky, there are still areas for improvement--such as the Explorer/My Computer view switching I mentioned earlier--but should Folder Options not change before the final release of Windows NT 5.0, I'll be happy with the current implementation. It's a big step up over previous versions.

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