Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

In an effort to avoid confusion, Windows will hide certain files and folders by default. Naturally that often leads to more confusion.

I often use Windows XP search to find a file that is somewhere on my computer. The search query will give the path of the specific file, but then if I go into Windows Explorer and try to find the path myself, I can only find part of the path, and then a dead end. Why is this?

Windows is trying to be helpful, of course! It's "protecting" you from seeing things that it thinks might confuse you or somehow it thinks just "shouldn't be seen".

Of course in helping to avoid confusion it just confuses more. I know I don't want Windows to "help" me like this, so there are a couple of options I turn off every time I configure a new machine.

The issue here is what are called "hidden" files. There's a simple setting for each and every file or folder on your system that you can set that says "hide this from everyday view":

Properties of a hidden file

By default hidden files are not displayed in Windows Explorer.

That's what I change.

"Windows is trying to be helpful, of course!"

Fire up Windows Explorer, and then:

  • Click on the Tools menu

  • Click on the Folder Options... menu item

  • Click on the View tab

  • In the Advanced Settings list, scroll down until you see both Hidden files and folders, and Hide protected operating system files.

You should be looking at something like this:

Folder options, highlighting the hidden files settings

Make sure that Show hidden files and folders is selected. I also uncheck Hide protected operating system files - for much the same reason: I just don't want Windows hiding files from me.

Now as you navigate to the path that the search results gave you I think you'll find that a few more files and folders are visible along the way.

Article C3114 - August 12, 2007 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

August 13, 2007 10:39 AM

Another thing to mention is "hide extensions for known file types". Although it is unchecked in your screenshot, it is checked by default. Leaving this checked can cause confusion, as well as vulnerabilities to "social engineering" spam and viruses.

It can be confusing, for example, to see several files all with the same name. (They have different extensions, but the default is to hide the extension.) Or, to search for "something.doc", and only see "something" in the folder.

As for vulnerabilities, consider an e-mail attachment with "nakedladies.jpg" as the filename that is shown, when in reality the name is "nakedladies.jpg.exe" and contains a virus/trojan/whatever. (The inadvisibility of clicking on attachments from unknown senders in the first place is another thread.)

Russ Lucas
February 2, 2008 10:47 AM

I am familiar with the "switches" shown above to show hidden files, but every time I set the "show hidden files" checkbox, it gets reset immediately, and so I am unable to view these files in order to eliminate a file buried in my "Local Settings" folder, which is causing a virus to attempt to change data in memory. Is there another way to set this parameter so I can fix my system? (Norton has been unable to eliminate the threat so far, even in Safe Mode.)

July 3, 2009 9:55 AM

I have tried the usual stuff and no dice, icluding everything you mentioned in this answer here. I could see them a few days ago and can still see them by doing a global search. If I just search the main directory they are in, Ithe search will not see them. I have to do it at the Drive level for the search to work.

July 15, 2010 8:10 AM

This might be off-topic a little - it's more like "Why can't Windows find a file that Windows search tells me is there?"
If I use Windows Search, or even navigate to the directory directly and double-click on the file, most of the time it opens OK. But sometimes (always - if I open the application first, and use the in-program 'browse' to find the file in it's directory), it tells me that "Windows cannot find the specified file. Check if you have spellt the name correctly".
Sinse I'm not typing anything, simply selecting the file from a list that Windows presumably generates for me from the directory contents, how can it get it wrong?

January 14, 2011 2:08 PM

@Bob, there's a decent chance that the file is inside a zip archive, and while it can be seen it can't be executed from there. Check the path. If there's no drive letter, it's probably the results from a zipfile. I think there's a way to turn off Windows treating zipfiles as directories, if this is a problem.

August 12, 2011 7:25 AM

In response to Dale:
I am still experiencing the problem. I'm not trying to "run" a program, i'm trying to open a file. The file definately isn't in an archive.
If I double-click on a file to open it with it's default program, I get the error. if I then double-click again (whether or not I close the program first) it opens normally.
I don't know if this is related, but I sometimes see the contents of a directory disappear (i.e. the open folder window goes blank) only to reappear again a few seconds later. I also sometimes get windows of folders close themselves (though I think this only happens to network folders - I'll have to do some more investigations)

October 5, 2012 6:52 PM

I have a partition that was set up for my music, but I need it for documents.
after I deleted all the music files, there was still 83 GB used space. I followed the advice above and many files appeared. Can I delete them to make space for my documents or will that cause problems? Thank you. kb

Mark J
October 6, 2012 1:39 AM

The answer to that question is a definite maybe. Unless you know what each file is there for, there's no way of knowing what you can delete. As a general rule, I'd say, when in doubt don't. It is safe to delete thumbs.db files. What is thumbs.db, and can I delete it?

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