Russ Harvey Consulting - Computer and Internet Services

Windows Basics

General concepts & terminology

Terminology | Mouse Clicks | Menus | Folders | File Extensions | Hardware

The Start button has been a key factor in Windows since Windows 95 was launched.

New to Computers?

Fears related to “new” technology are nothing recent. The First Tech Support Guy is a humorous spoof about our discomfort with anything new.

Introduction to Windows Basics

This page discusses basic Microsoft Windows concepts and terminology. It discusses how to perform some basic Windows tasks. This page is not exhaustive, and will be developed as the need arises.

Some of the content is legacy and may not apply to the version of Windows you're running.

Helpful Outside Resources

A good introductory magazine would be a great resource, since it will have more pictures and diagrams than I have placed here (and costs much less than a book). Tech books have a short shelf life and therefore are more expensive than novels.

Be sure any material you purchase covers the version of Windows you're using. Get something that you understand yet will teach you new concepts.

Conventions Used on this Page

I'll use the term default to refer to the standard options enabled when Windows is installed without customization. If your computer is older or slower, I'd suggest removing any extras such as customized backgrounds or themes.

Computer Terminology contains a description of many of the general terms used when describing computers and their operation that may not be fully explained on this page.

Windows Terminology

The images on this page were mostly taken from Windows 7 and may look different than your computer. However, they will serve to introduce you to the general concepts and will gradually move more towards current Windows 10 illustrations.

Starting with Windows 8, the touch-screen is prioritized, focusing less on a mouse and keyboard and becoming more like the experience of using a tablet or smart phone.

Windows 10 is a mobile-first, cloud-first touch-based operating system that can use a mouse for navigation. As such, it is moving away from the traditional Windows interfaces and precepts. The user has far less control over this version of Windows than any prior version.

Windows 11 has taken this further with the changes made to the task bar and Start Menu.

Common Windows Items

The following are just some of the terms used to describe the Windows desktop you are likely to run into. Most are indicated in the diagram below the list:

While this list is based upon Windows, other operating systems like Mac and Linux use a lot of the same terminology.

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Files & Folders

The Windows folder can be thought of in the same manner as a folder in a filing cabinet. It is designed to hold files and other folders (which are called “nested” folders).

If you remember the pre-Windows DOS environment, directories served the same purpose as folders except that they are not represented by a GUI which most modern operating systems are, including Windows.

The Window

The window (from which the term "Windows" is derived) has various elements. In Windows, the desktop and most windows are also folders.

The most common elements of a typical window are labelled in the Windows 10 diagram below which can help to communicate what you're dealing with when speaking to another person or documenting a procedure for future reference:

Various components of a Windows 10 window labelled

This folder is one of the optional desktop folders called the User's Files.

Windows 7 displays these elements somewhat differently. The most common are labelled in the diagram below:

Various components of a Windows 7 window labelled

Some of these folders are not standard in Windows 7 such as Dropbox and Screen Captures.

Windows Hidden Folders

Many of the system folders are hidden by default but can be displayed in Windows if you change the default settings.

Be careful when making changes to system files and folders — you can seriously damage your data and settings.

Application Data

Application data for many of the programs in Windows is stored in a series of hidden folders.

In Windows XP this information is stored in the “Application Data” folders; in Windows Vista and later it is stored in the “AppData” folder:

In most cases the [User] folder is named “Owner” or your name or some variation depending upon the settings chosen when Windows was installed.

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Mouse Clicks

Right or Left?

A basic computer mouse

You'll see at least two buttons on your mouse (most current mice have a middle button and may have others). The type of click means the button you push when you click. Left-handed users will have to reverse these instructions.

When you right-click to obtain a menu, you will select the menu with the left button (generally just referred to as selecting or clicking — the left mouse button click is assumed).

Context Sensitivity

When you right-click on various locations on the screen the results vary (known as context sensitive):

When you right-click on various locations on the screen the resulting list of options vary (known as context sensitive).

A very useful selection is Properties option when you right-click on an object. This will give you information about the icon or object you are selecting. The menu options differ between various versions of Windows.

Useful Properties

Some of the more useful Windows options and properties available are found by right-clicking key icons on your desktop (if they don't appear on the desktop, look under the Start button).

For Experienced Users

Some management tools accessed via these menus should only be accessed by knowledgable users. You can seriously damage your Windows installation or stop it from running altogether if you misconfigure the settings.

Unless you understand the consequences, you shouldn't change any of the options.

Windows 10

Windows 10 works somewhat differently and hides many of these options. Users can find these settings by right-clicking the Start Button:

The items listed and their order have changed significantly since Windows 10 was first released.

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The Windows Menu System

Beginning with Windows Vista there was a move away from the default inclusion of text menus because computer monitors and screens have become wider but not as tall (16:9 aspect ratio rather than 4:3). Vertical screen real estate became more valuable and the menu at the top of the screen began to be hidden or replaced.

Legacy Menus

In legacy Windows there is a consistency of the order and nature of menus across various programs. There will almost always be the File, Edit, View and Help menus in the same order although other menus specific to the program you are using may be in between some of these:


You'll often see sub-menus indicated by a small arrow (or triangle) at the end of menus with additional choices. If you hold your mouse over the menus, they will open up to display their contents or you can click on them.

Keyboard Alternatives

If you look at menus, you'll see that some items have keyboard alternatives. While most menus show a capital letter, the lower case keyboard stroke works just fine.

In legacy Windows versions, some letters are underlined. Using the Alt key in combination with the indicated letter, you can navigate the menu without a mouse, useful if your mouse is not working or if you are typing a document and don't wish to leave the keyboard to use the mouse.

Touch Devices

With the trend towards touch screens, the physical keyboard is a dying breed (replaced with an on-screen touch-board) so these keyboard alternatives are bound to die. This is unfortunate because it is easier to hit Ctrl+I to begin italics and Ctrl+I again to end italics than to leave the keyboard to make the necessary mouse or touchscreen moves. Similarly, Ctrl+B and Ctrl+U begin bold and underline.

Hidden & Hamburger Menus

Many current programs (especially browsers) now hide menus by default.

Many programs now use a “hamburger” menu () to indicate the presence of a hidden menu. Other programs use either a stylized vertical (⋮) or horizontal (…) ellipsis.

Text menu options may still work or are simply hidden (Firefox users can choose the Customize option then look for Show/Hide Toolbars).

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Windows & File Extensions

Common Extensions | Hidden File Extensions | Unhide File Extensions

File extensions are the part of the filename that is after the dot in Windows. For example, readme.txt has txt as its extension indicating that it is a text file.

Modern Windows More Flexible

Old DOS programs used to be limited to eight letters/numbers before the dot and three after (hence the term 8.3 was commonly used). Spaces weren't allowed and many characters were "reserved."

Current Windows systems allow spaces and can use up to 256 characters before the dot and at least four behind (e.g., Letter to Mary December 25, 2009.docx).

Unfortunately, using large file names can have consequences if you're storing documents in a significant number of nested folders such as

Such files may not be able to be copied or backed up into similar folder and file structures because of limitations in Windows.

Extensions Tell What Type of File

The 3 or 4 character extension (the part after the final dot) tells Windows how to deal with a certain file by identifying the type of file it is.

By associating a certain extension with a default program to deal with that sort of file, you can open the program by double-clicking on the filename. The type of file is usually indicated by its icon as well.

You can select an alternative program to open the file by right-clicking on the document icon and selecting Open with and choosing the program you want from a list.

For example, I set Irfanview as my default viewer for JPG files, but use Photoshop for most image editing. Irfanview opens the file much quicker but Photoshop is much more capable in its editing capabilities.

Common Extensions

There are hundreds of extensions, many of which are proprietary (e.g., specific to a particular program) and quite a few that are legacy (no longer in active use). Some of the more common ones are:

Many programs can open these extensions other than the ones indicated.

Unlisted Extensions

If you wish to learn what a file is used for, you can visit's list of common file extensions (if you don't see the extension in the common files, click a letter at the top that the extension you're looking for begins with).

Dangerous Extensions

There are many more of these than you are likely to see. Some Windows extensions can indicate programs that can do harm to your computer. Unless you know exactly what a file will do, it is better to ignore it than to get yourself into trouble by clicking on it.

You should always be careful with files that have the following extensions, particularly if attached to an email message, because they can be used to install malicious or unwanted programs:

Most users should not see any of these sorts of files attached to legitimate emails. It is far more likely that it was included with the intention of infecting your computer with a virus or malware than being something you genuinely need coming from a trusted source.

Unfortunately, scripting in Microsoft Office has lead to vulnerabilities in those common files as well. Never open an unexpected document, even from a known source, without checking it for malware.

Hidden File Extensions

Windows hides "known" extensions by default. These are extensions that Windows "knows." You may not.

Some files are risky (e.g., those that can infect your computer). Not knowing the extension and whether it is safe to open could be dangerous. That is why you should unhide known file extensions in Windows.

An Example

Suppose the phonelist.txt.scr file is attached to an email.

With file extensions hidden (the Microsoft default), the file phonelist.txt.scr would be displayed as phonelist.txt.

You might assume the file is a text file and therefore safe to open. You'd be wrong (and would probably be sending your computer to the repair shop):

Even if you believe that you've received the message from a friend, they may have thought they were forwarding a screen saver. The file could also have been attached by a malicious program on their computer or someone could have hacked their email address.

You need to have the file extensions displayed on your computer and to never trust unknown files.

Unhide “Known” File Extensions

You should re-enable the display of these extensions using one of the methods below.

Unhiding File Extensions in Windows 10

“Show hidden files, folders and drives” dialogue box.
File Explorer Options was called Folder Options prior to Windows 10.

  1. Search for “File Explorer Options” in Settings or look for it in the Control Panel.
  2. Click the View tab then de-select “Hide extensions for known file types.”
  3. Click OK to finish.
  4. You should now be able to see previously-hidden file extensions.

You can also make the changes in the View tab on the

Enabling “File name extensions” on the ribbon's View tab.
File name extensions on the folder's ribbon.

  1. Open a File Explorer window.
  2. Click the View tab then ensure that “File name extensions” is checked.
  3. You should now be able to see previously-hidden file extensions.
  4. This setting should remain until you disable it.
Click the "View" tab on the ribbon at the top.
  • Activate the "File name extensions" box in the Show/hide section to toggle file extensions on or off. File Explorer will remember this setting until you disable it in the future.
    How-To Geek
  • Unhiding File Extensions in Windows 11

    1. Open a File Explorer window.
    2. Click the View tab on the ribbon at the top.
    3. Hovering your mouse over “Show” then select “File Name Extensions” from the menu that appears.
    4. You should now be able to see previously-hidden file extensions.

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    Hardware Specifications

    Your computer's specifications includes the version of Windows you're running, your hardware, Windows registration or activation status and product ID information.

    Locating System Information

    This information is available under System in the Control Panel. Depending upon what version of Windows you're viewing this on, you can choose one of these options:

    System Information Displayed

    For example, it might show:

    The Windows Experience Index

    Viewing System in Windows Vista, 7 and 8 also displays the Windows Experience Index. Learn more.

    This information isn't automatically provided for Windows 8.1 and later.

    Got RAM?

    RAM is usually one of the least expensive upgrades to your system; sufficient amounts will make a world of difference to your computing experience.

    While the "minimum requirements" might be less than shown above, a computer with the bare minimum will run Windows but not necessarily the programs you use (or it may be extremely unresponsive).

    If your system is sluggish or you see a lot of drive activity (thrashing), adding more RAM may improve performance.

    What If You Can't Upgrade?

    At a certain point, upgrades no longer work (nor are cost-efficient) and you'll want to invest in a new computer. Don't try to save a few dollars by scrimping on the capability of your new computer. It will cost you more in the long run. Spend more now to get better performance and to allow for future expansion and upgrades.

    If your needs are simple (email, web surfing and uncomplicated documents) you can consider running Linux. Not only are most Linux distributions free, but they will run on many older Windows machines and provide all the basics if your needs are simpler. Linux will continue to be supported in the current version or upgradable to future versions — all at no charge.

    You can search for missing or updated drivers using StartPage. The search query is passed onto Google without revealing your IP address and other private information. Learn more….

    Be Specific

    Typing in a phrase will help you to find what you're looking for (e.g., "HP color laserjet CP1215 Windows 10 drivers").

    The more specific you are the more likely you are to find what you need. The search example above is more likely to return acceptable results than a “HP drivers” search query.


    Just because a search results in a listing for your drive it doesn't mean that you should follow that link.

    Look for links that point to the manufacturer's site (e.g., for the HP example above).

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    Updated: November 1, 2023