Explaining the Views Available in Windows Explorer and File Explorer

One of Windows Explorer/File Explorer's strengths is the number of different ways the user can see the contents of a drive. Whether it's a bare-bones listing of file names or a view that shows graphics in large sized thumbnails, the program makes it easy for everyone to see the data in a form that best suits the content. Both Windows Explorer and File Explorer will try to tailor the view automatically to the most prevalent type of files in the folder. In this article we'll show how to browse Windows Explorer/File Explorer using all the available views and explain the differences between the views.

NOTE: Windows Explorer, the built-in file manager, has been part of Windows for a long time. In Windows 8, the name was changed to File Explorer, but although you'll immediately see more options in the Ribbon, when it comes to Views, it works in the same way as its predecessors.

How to Access the Views in Windows Explorer (Windows 7)

The fastest way to open Windows Explorer is to click on the small file folder icon in the taskbar, which is there by default.

If for some reason you do not see this icon in your taskbar, see our tutorial How To Customize the Taskbar in Windows 7 & Windows 8.1.

There are three ways to see the available views and the default view is Medium Icons:

  1. Once Windows Explorer is open, look in the upper right corner of the window. You will see a small drop-down menu with an icon next to it that will look different depending on the view you've chosen. Click on the downward facing arrow and you'll see a list of options: Icons (extra large, large, medium, small), list, details, tiles, and content.

  2. Right-click in any empty space on the right side of the Windows Explorer window. From the menu that appears, click View. You'll be given the same list of choices as above. Your menu will look slightly different depending on what you have installed on your computer.

  3. Open Windows Explorer and press the Alt>em> key on your keyboard. This will bring up a toolbar at the top of your screen. Choose the View menu and you'll see the same list of choices. Your menu will look slightly different depending on what you have installed on your computer.

How to Access the Views in File Explorer (Windows 8.1)

You can find File Explorer from the Start screen by typing file explorer.

From the Desktop, click on the file folder icon in the taskbar, which looks and works the same way as it does in Windows 7.

When File Explorer opens, you'll see that it has a Ribbon and a lot more options than Windows Explorer does. For this tutorial we'll only be concerned with the View menu.

Click on the View tab at the top, and look at the section called Layout. Here you will see that the View options are the same as they were in Windows 7: Icons (extra large, large, medium, small), list, details, tiles, and content.

The Content View Explained

NOTE: The following explanations apply to both Windows 7 and Windows 8.1. Illustrations are from Windows 8.1.

In the Content view, each file and folder is displayed on a separate row, on which you will see detailed information about each file and folder: date when it was last modified, size, author of the file, length (for audio and video files) etc.

For pictures and video you will see a small preview of the content instead of the file icon.

This view is useful when you need to browse through documents and quickly find information about the author or content of each item.

The Tiles View Explained

The Tiles view displays a medium-sized icon representing each file and folder, along with information about their types and sizes. This view combines the information you'll find in the Icon view and the List view, so you get more than with either of those views individually, but it is not as detailed as the information you'd get with the Content or Details view.

The Details View Explained

In the Details view, the Windows Explorer or File Explorer window will show columns of information: Name, Date Modified, Type, and Size. Each file will have its own small icon representing the file type. As you can see in the screenshot, these icons are standardized and don't show a preview of the actual content.

Each column can be sorted by clicking on the column heading, to arrange each list in ascending or descending order. This is very helpful when viewing a lot of files at once, since they can be sorted by name, date, file type or size. To learn more about the ways a Details view list can be sorted, see our tutorial Transform Windows Explorer with Filtering Options.

The List View Explained

The List view is the least detailed view of all. As its name indicates, all you will see is a list of folders and files, each with an identifying icon. This would mainly be useful if you are browsing a folder with only a few files or subfolders in it.

The Small, Medium, Large & Extra Large Icons Views Explained

The Icons views differ only, as you can tell, in the size of the icons that are displayed for each file.

The Small Icons view displays icons that are only representative of the contents (Word document, PDF, executable, graphic file, etc). It does not show a preview or thumbnail of the file's contents. This view is very useful if you just want to browse through a list of a folder's contents (much like the List view). The difference is that in any of the icon views, the files are displayed tiled across the screen, rather than in a single-file list. In this example, the files are all photographs, but many of them retain the generic file names from the camera and the small-icon view isn't much use.

The Medium view gives you a better idea of the file contents, but it might not be a large enough thumbnail to tell which is which among several similar graphics files. It would work fine for folders that contain mainly non-graphics files.

The Large and Extra Large icons views show, as you can tell, much larger icons that will give you a better view of graphics and video files. Enlarging the generic icons for PDF files and executables won't tell you any more than the smaller icons will.


As you can see, both Windows Explorer and File Explorer give you plenty of options to browse through and easily identify your files and folders. For every folder, the Explorer program will try to set the most useful view, but you can change to one you prefer at any time.

Do you have any tips you've discovered about Windows Explorer or File Explorer? We would love to hear about them. If you've found annoyances or issues, we'd like to hear about those, too. Please leave a comment and let's discuss it.