Special folder

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On Microsoft Windows, a special folder is a folder which is presented to the user through an interface as an abstract concept instead of an absolute folder path. (The synonymous term shell folder is sometimes used instead.) Special folders make it possible for any application to ask the operating system where an appropriate location for certain kinds of files can be found, regardless of what version or language of Windows is being used.

Overview[edit]

Figure 1: Windows Explorer's folder view in Windows XP uses virtual folders as the root.

Windows uses the concept of special folders to present the contents of the storage devices connected to the computer in a fairly consistent way that frees the user from having to deal with absolute file paths, which can (and often do) change between operating system versions, and even individual installations. The idea has evolved over time, with new special folders being added in every version of Windows since their introduction in Windows 95.

Microsoft's "Compatible with Windows" software logo[1] requires that an application make use of special folders locations to locate the appropriate folders in which documents and application settings should be stored.

A special folder can either be a reference to a physical file system directory, or a reference to a "virtual" folder. In the former case, they are analogous to environment variables — in fact, many of the environment variables that are set in a user's session are defined by where the special folders are set to point to.

Virtual folders, however, do not actually exist on the file system; they are instead presented through Windows Explorer as a tree of folders that the user can navigate. This is known as the Shell namespace. On Windows XP systems, the root of this namespace is the Desktop virtual folder, which contains the My Documents, My Computer, My Network Places (Network Neighborhood in Windows 95 and 98) and Recycle Bin virtual folders. Some virtual folders (like Desktop) have an accompanying special folder that is a reference to a directory on the physical file system. Windows Explorer displays the combined contents of a virtual folder and its associated file system folder to the user. This can be seen in Figure 1, which shows the Folder view in Windows XP's Explorer; in the Desktop virtual folder, the four standard virtual folders can be seen, as well as an additional folder, "a folder on the desktop", which is a real folder located in the Desktop directory in the user's profile.

Some third-party programs add their own virtual folders to Windows Explorer.

List of special folders[edit]

The following tables list most of the file system and virtual folders that are available as of Windows Vista. The OS version in which each special folder was introduced is given as well. Items like %USERPROFILE% and %windir% are Windows environment variables.

File system directories[edit]

Special folder Represents Default Location
(in English. Non-English versions of Windows XP or earlier will use directory names appropriate to that language.)
First appeared in OS
Application Data Per-user application-specific files
On Windows 98 and Windows Me
%windir%\Application Data
On Windows 2000 and Windows XP
%USERPROFILE%\Application Data
On Windows Vista and later
%USERPROFILE%\AppData\Roaming
98
Cookies Internet Explorer browser cookies
On Windows 98 and Windows Me
%windir%\Cookies
On Windows 2000 and later
%USERPROFILE%\Cookies
On Windows Vista and later
%USERPROFILE%\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Cookies
98
Desktop Directory Files stored on the user's desktop
On Windows 95, Windows 98 and Windows Me
%windir%\Desktop
On Windows 2000 and later
%USERPROFILE%\Desktop
95
Favorites User's Favorites
On Windows 98 and Windows Me
%windir%\Favorites
On Windows 2000 and later
%USERPROFILE%\Favorites
98
Fonts Container folder for installed fonts %windir%\Fonts 95
History User-specific browser history %USERPROFILE%\Local Settings\History 98
Internet Cache User-specific Temporary Internet Files %USERPROFILE%\Local Settings\Temporary Internet Files 98
Local Application Data User-specific and computer-specific application settings
On Windows 98 and Windows Me
%windir%\Application Data
On Windows 2000 and Windows XP
%USERPROFILE%\Local Settings\Application Data
On Windows Vista and later
%USERPROFILE%\AppData\Local
95
My Documents User's documents
On Windows 98 and Windows Me
C:\My Documents
On Windows 2000 and Windows XP
%USERPROFILE%\My Documents
On Windows Vista and later
%USERPROFILE%\Documents
98
My Music User's music
On Windows 98 and Windows Me
C:\My Documents\My Music
On Windows 2000 and Windows XP
%USERPROFILE%\My Documents\My Music
On Windows Vista and later
%USERPROFILE%\Music
98
My Pictures User's pictures
On Windows 98 and Windows Me
C:\My Documents\My Pictures
On Windows 2000 and Windows XP
%USERPROFILE%\My Documents\My Pictures
On Windows Vista and later
%USERPROFILE%\Pictures
98
My Videos User's video files
On Windows 98 and Windows Me
C:\My Documents\My Videos
On Windows 2000 and Windows XP
%USERPROFILE%\My Documents\My Videos
On Windows Vista and later
%USERPROFILE%\Videos
98
Programs User-specific "(All) Programs" groups and icons
On Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows 2000 and Windows XP
%USERPROFILE%\Start Menu\Programs
On Windows Vista and later
%USERPROFILE%\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu
95
Recent User-specific "My Recent Documents"
On Windows 98
%USERPROFILE%\Recent
On Windows 2000 and Windows XP
%USERPROFILE%\My Recent Documents
On Windows Vista and later
%USERPROFILE%\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Recent
98
Send To User-specific "Send To" menu items %USERPROFILE%\SendTo 98
Start Menu User-specific "Start Menu" items
On Windows 98, Windows 2000 and Windows XP
%USERPROFILE%\Start Menu
On Windows Vista and later
%USERPROFILE%\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu
98
System The Windows system directory
On Windows 95, Windows 98 and Windows Me
16-bit and 32-bit libraries and executables
%windir%\System
Some other 32-bit libraries and executables
%windir%\System32
On Windows 2000 and later 32-bit Windows editions
32-bit libraries and executables
%windir%\System32
16-bit libraries and executables
%windir%\System
On 64-bit Windows editions
32-bit libraries and executables
%windir%\SysWOW64[2]
64-bit libraries and executables
%windir%\System32[3]
95
Saved Games User's Saved Games %USERPROFILE%\Saved Games Vista
Templates User-specific document templates %USERPROFILE%\Templates 98

Notes:

  1. The "Desktop" virtual folder is not the same thing as the "Desktop" special folder. The Desktop virtual folder is the root of the Windows Shell namespace, which contains other virtual folders.[4]
  2. "Local Application Data" differs from "Application Data" in that files located in the "Local" variant are also intended to be specific to the machine it is on. This only has relevance if the user's profile is a Roaming Profile in a Windows Server domain environment.[5]
  3. As with Desktop, the "My Documents" virtual folder differs from the "My Documents" special folder. If the virtual folder variant is asked for, it will appear in a file dialog as a sub-directory of the "Desktop" virtual folder, instead of the user's profile directory as it physically exists on the hard drive.
  4. If the "My Documents" folder is moved (e.g., to a network drive), attempting to access it via the shell variable will go to the original, default location.

Virtual folders[edit]

Virtual Folder Represents OS
Recycle Bin The aggregated contents of the Recycle Bin on all drives for the current user 98
Control Panel Icons for Control Panel (Windows) applets 95
Desktop The Windows Desktop 95
Drives My Computer; contains virtual folders representing everything on the local machine, as well as mapped network drives 98
Internet Resources located on the Internet; WebDAV connections, etc. 95
My Documents Virtual folder of the user's My Documents folder; used as a child of the Desktop virtual folder 98
Network Network Neighborhood (Windows 95 and 98) or My Network Places (Windows 2000 and later); contains virtual folders for representing all network resources 98
Search Results Listing of the results of the last search of the computer (appears only after a search) 2000[6]
Printers Container folder for installed printers 95

Notes:

  1. The "Desktop" virtual folder is not the same thing as the "Desktop" special folder. The Desktop virtual folder is the root of the Windows Shell namespace, which contains other virtual folders.[4]
  2. As with Desktop, the "My Documents" virtual folder differs from the "My Documents" special folder. If the virtual folder variant is asked for, it will appear in a file dialog as a sub-directory of the "Desktop" virtual folder, instead of the user's profile directory as it logically exists on the hard drive.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Windows Software Logo Program
  2. ^ 32-bit executables have this directory mapped as %windir%\System32.
  3. ^ The use of %windir%\System32 for 64-bit libraries and executables in a 64-bit Windows OS is intended to not break existing programs that are recompiled without modifications as a 64-bit executable.
  4. ^ a b The Shell Namespace
  5. ^ Chen, Raymond (2006). "Taxes". The Old New Thing (1st edition ed.). Pearson Education. p. 451. ISBN 0-321-44030-7. 
  6. ^ Paul Thurrott's SuperSite for Windows: Windows 2000 Professional Beta 3 Reviewed

External links[edit]