A Windows 11 Preview File Explorer Window

Microsoft’s upcoming Windows 11 release includes a cosmetic overhaul of File Explorer with several major changes when compared to the Windows 10 version. Here’s a quick look at the new design and features.

Meet the New File Explorer

Functionally, File Explorer in Windows 11 works almost exactly like File Explorer in Windows 10: It’s a way to interact with the files stored on your computer using a windowed interface. But several details about how you perform that task have changed.

A Windows 11 Preview File Exploerer window

You have the usual features: minimize, maximize, and close buttons, a toolbar, navigation buttons, a path bar, a search bar, and a sidebar (That’s a lot of bars.), and a main area where you can change how you list out your files. (Currently, there’s a known bug in the Preview release that makes the title of the window white-on-gray, but that will be fixed soon.)

In Windows 11, all File Explorer windows have rounded corners, there’s a new toolbar, and many files and apps use new icons. Also, you’ll find that the right-click context menu is quite different. We’ll go over these one by one below.

A New Toolbar (without a Ribbon)

The new toolbar in Windows 11 File Explorer

Compared to Windows 10, Windows 11’s File Explorer features a dramatically simplified toolbar. Gone is the complex, compartmentalized ribbon interface with tabbed “File,” “Edit,” and “View” options. In its place, you’ll find a series of simple icons that help you perform basic tasks (such as create new folders, copy, paste, rename, and delete), sort icons, or change the view in the window below.

There’s also an ellipses (three-dot) menu for overflow items such as mapping a network drive, selecting all items in the window, and opening options.

The Windows 11 Preview ellipses menu in File Explorer

Although sometimes the act of simplifying an interface by hiding options can make it harder to use, in this case, it seems like Microsoft has struck the right balance (although your personal taste will vary).

A Similar Sidebar

The Windows 11 Preview File Explorer sidebar

The sidebar in each Windows 11 File Explorer window operates almost identically to the sidebar in Windows 10. You can pin items to it, move them around by dragging with your mouse, and access quick shortcuts to special folders, drives, and network shares.

A Simplified Right-Click (Context) Menu

One of the most dramatic shifts away from tradition in Windows 11 File Explorer comes from the new right-click (context) menu. If you select an item and right-click, you’ll see a series of icons that represent the common cut, copy, paste, rename, and delete operations. Between Windows 95 and Windows 10, these have been written out in a list.

RELATED: Windows 95 Turns 25: When Windows Went Mainstream

New Icons

Almost every new major version of Windows has brought along a set of new icons for the ride. Windows 11 is no exception, and it includes a fresh set of colorful icons for its built-in apps with a flat, shaded look to them. It also includes new File Explorer icons that represent generic folders, documents, and special folders like “Pictures” and “Downloads.”

RELATED: A Visual History of Windows Icons: From Windows 1 to 11

The Desktop

The Windows 11 Preview desktop

The desktop in Windows 11 operates almost exactly like the desktop in Windows 10. It’s a special folder (that lives in your User folder in the file system) that can hold files, folders, and shortcuts just like every release of Windows going back to Windows 95. Like with Windows 10, you can show all icons in a variety of sizes, quickly changing them with the right-click menu or by holding Ctrl and scrolling your mouse wheel.

RELATED: How to Make Windows Desktop Icons Extra Large or Extra Small

Dark Mode

Windows 11 Preview dark theme

Like Windows 10, Windows 11 includes the option to use a dark window theme that’s easier on the eyes in dark environments. When paired with a dark version of the Windows 11 desktop background (thanks to the dark theme in Settings > Personalization > Themes), you get an attractive overall experience.

RELATED: How to Enable Dark Mode in Windows 10

Folder Options

Windows 11 File Explorer Options

Not everything is new in the Windows 11 Insider Preview—there are plenty of legacy dialogs lurking behind the scenes. The File Explorer Options menu is a good example. If you click the ellipses button (three dots) in the toolbar, you can select “Options” and bring up a “Folder Options” window that looks nearly identical to the one currently found in Windows 10, albeit with a few new icons replacing old ones. (Also, in the initial release, the Folder Options window still doesn’t support Dark Mode.)

More changes to the File Explorer interface might occur between now and Windows 11’s full release in the fall. For now, it seems like Microsoft is committed to streamlining the File Explorer experience, which could very well improve usability overall. Here’s to hoping!

RELATED: Windows 11: What's New In Microsoft's New OS

Profile Photo for Benj Edwards Benj Edwards
Benj Edwards is a former Associate Editor for How-To Geek. Now, he is an AI and Machine Learning Reporter for Ars Technica. For over 15 years, he has written about technology and tech history for sites such as The Atlantic, Fast Company, PCMag, PCWorld, Macworld, Ars Technica, and Wired. In 2005, he created Vintage Computing and Gaming, a blog devoted to tech history. He also created The Culture of Tech podcast and regularly contributes to the Retronauts retrogaming podcast.
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