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Special Folders

On Microsoft Windows operating systems, Special Folders are folders which are presented to the user through an interface as an abstract concept, instead of an absolute folder path. This makes it possible for an 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 operating system is being used.

Overview

Windows uses the concept of special folders to help present the contents of the computer to the user 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 "Designed for Windows" logo requirements state that an application must 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

The following tables list most of the file system and virtual folders that are available as of Windows XP. The OS version in which each special folder was introduced is given as well.

File system directories

Special Folder Represents Default Location
(in English. Non-English versions of Windows will use directory names appropriate to that language.)
OS
Application Data Per-user application-specific files C:Documents and Settings%username%Application Data 98
Cookies Internet Explorer browser cookies C:Documents and Settings%username%Cookies 98
Desktop Directory Files stored on the user's desktop C:Documents and Settings%username%Desktop 95
Favorites User's Favorites C:Documents and Settings%username%Favorites 98
Fonts Container folder for installed fonts C:WINDOWSFonts XP
History User-specific browser history C:Documents and Settings%username%Local SettingsHistory 98
Internet Cache User-specific Temporary Internet Files C:Documents and Settings%username%Local SettingsTemporary Internet Files 98
Local Application Data User-specific and computer-specific application settings C:Documents and Settings%username%Local SettingsApplication Data 2000/ME
My Documents User's documents C:Documents and Settings%username%My Documents (WinNT line)
C:My Documents (Win98-ME)
98
My Music User's music C:Documents and Settings%username%My DocumentsMy Music XP
My Pictures User's pictures C:Documents and Settings%username%My DocumentsMy Pictures XP
My Videos User's video files C:Documents and Settings%username%My DocumentsMy Videos XP
Programs User-specific "(All) Programs" groups and icons C:Documents and Settings%username%Start MenuPrograms 95
Recent User-specific "My Recent Documents" C:Documents and Settings%username%Recent 98
Send To User-specific "Send To" menu items C:Documents and Settings%username%SendTo 98
Start Menu User-specific "Start Menu" items C:Documents and Settings%username%Start Menu 98
System The Windows system directory C:WINDOWSsystem32 2000
Templates User-specific document templates C:Documents and Settings%username%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.
  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.
  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.

Virtual folders

Virtual Folder Represents OS
Recycle Bin The aggregated contents of the Recycle Bin on all drives 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
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.
  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 physically exists on the hard drive.

See also

References

External links

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