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Plain talk about computers, Part 3

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Plain talk about computers, Part 3

Technofile for May 11, 1997

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers

Modern computers give you two ways to deal with documents. You can do something with the document—you can click on it, for example—or you can find the program that created the document and figure out how to deal with it.

Guess which way is easier?

Yet most computer users pick the harder way. That's because most of us know that computers can't do anything without software, and that means they need programs. And that must mean we need programs, too. It means we have to struggle around the menus on our computers to find the right programs in order to get something done.

Wrong. This week, in the final installment in my miniseries on the basics of using computers, I'll tell you why that's wrong. I'll also explain how to take advantage of the first technique. I promise you'll save both time and effort.

Here's the idea: Documents—letters you write in your word processor, financial statements you fiddle with in your personal-finance program, images you capture off a Web page—are the real things in computing. Programs are just so much twaddle.

What this means in simple terms is that the things you work with, the stuff you want to see in your folders and on your desktop, are documents. You want to see that e-mail letter you got from your daughter, as a clickable icon. You want to see an icon for last month's budget statement. You want to be able to click on the icon of a picture and have it open on your screen.

Right? Isn't that the way you want to work with your computer?

Then why do most of us do it the hard way? Why do we look through a jumble of icons for the right program and then perform the comedy routine of running it, going to a menu, choosing Open, searching through the list that comes up, backing out of that list to look somewhere else, and finally locating what we want?

Because we are creatures of habit. Because that's how most of us learned how to use a PC in the first few weeks of that new adventure.

Here's how to shed that habit. There are three simple steps, if you're using Windows 95 or a Macintosh.

    • Try to save documents in only a few locations. Microsoft, maker of Windows, uses a folder named My Documents for all documents created by any of its Office 95 and Office 97 programs. It's a good idea, because documents are easy to find when they're in one place. Carry that one step further by saving your other documents in the same kind of central folder whenever possible.
    • Create a shortcut (or an alias, if you use a Mac) to your central documents folder on your desktop. This puts your documents a click or two away.
    • Open that folder and double-click on the document you want to open.

Simple, right? You save a lot of steps and a great deal of time because you let the computer do all the associating of programs and documents. By focusing on the documents, you're paying attention to the important (and, sometimes, irreplaceable) items on your disk drive. And you're letting the computer handle the rest.

A few tips to guide newcomers before we leave this subject:

    • File associations aren't always done automatically. You can create them yourself.

You can create your own file associations in both Windows 3.x (the old version) and Windows 95. (And, of course, in the heavy-duty version, Windows NT.) This idea—that you can change the way the operating system responds when you click on an icon—is a very powerful feature of a modern PC. I'll describe some ways to do this shortly.

    • File associations sometimes conflict with each other.

File associations in Windows PCs are based not on some esoteric code within a file but on something almost absurdly simple—the characters at the end of the name of a file. These characters are called the filename extension. They always follow the last period in a filename. (In Windows 3.x, there can be only one period in a filename, but in Windows 95 and Windows NT there can be many.) MyFile.txt is an example, as are MYFILE.TXT and This is my note to Mom on Mother's Day, 1997.doc and even What.Kind.Of.Fool.Am.I.README.TXT (a name that works fine in modern versions of Windows!).

Because the operating system relies on filename extensions to know which program should open a file, and because some extensions (such as TXT and DOC) are quite common, you'll find an occasional program that insists on opening a file that "belongs" to another program. Or you'll want to fix a conflict when a new program you've installed changes the associations you've been using. A full explanation of how to deal with this awaits another article, but we'll take a short tour of how to handle this problem below.

First, how do you create your own file associations?

Here's how to do it in Windows 3.x (Windows 3.1 and 3.11). (There are two ways, but I'll describe the easiest method.) Run File Manager. Click once on a file within one of File Manager's windows that has the filename extension you want to associate with a program. (In other words, if you want all READ.ME files to be opened by a certain program—all files with a ME extension, in other wordsd—click once on any file that has ME as its extension.) Then click on the File menu, then on Associate…. Choose one of the programs listed in the box that opens, or use Browse… to choose a program from any location on your system. That's all there is to it.

Here's how to do it in Windows 95 and NT. (There are many ways, but, again, I'll keep it simple.) Double-click on the icon for any file that does not have a file association. Windows will open a dialog (a window) that asks you to choose a program that can open the file. Click on the checkbox at the bottom of that dialog to tell Windows it should always use the program you choose. Find the program in the list, or browse to a program that's not listed, then select it. That's it.

What if file associations conflict with each other?

A common example for old-timers is the DOC filename extension. Old MS-DOS texts (and some modern ones) use DOC as the extension for documents that explain how a program works. These old-style DOC texts are nearly always ASCII texts—plain texts, without any word-processor codes. With the ascendancy of Microsoft Word, DOC has become the standard filename extension for Word documents. If you double-click on a DOC file, and if you have Microsoft Word installed on your PC, Word will open the file.

This is fine if the file is a Word document, but a waste of time if the file is a plain ASCII text. (Word takes a long time opening files anyway. And, although it will, all on its own, figure out that a file with a DOC extension is not a Word file at all but an ASCII text, it has the gall to stop and ask you if the file is really a standard text! This behavior can be changed, however; look in the configuration options.)

So plain texts are better opened in Notepad (or in a replacement for Notepad, which I'll discuss shortly). In Windows 3.x, you're stuck with a couple of choices. You can run your text editor, then manually open the file from the File menu, or you can drag the icon for the file over to the text editor window and drop it there. In Windows 95 and NT, you can add an option to the context menu of the type of file you're dealing with. I'll deal with that another time in some detail. But if you want to try your hand at it now, just open an Explorer window (a folder window, in other words), choose View, then Options, then File Types, and navigate to the type of file you want to add an association to. Follow the prompts when you find it to create a new action (use Open with when you add an action, for example).

A personal note: Ordinarily, I'd say at this point that you might want to associate Notepad with such files as READ.ME, but I don't recommend Notepad to anyone. There are dozens of good replacements for Notepad for both old and new versions of Windows, so take my advice and pick up a good Windows text editor and dump Notepad. My personal choices to replace Notepad are:

For Windows 3.x:

For Windows 95 and NT:


All of these are free.

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