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Make a consistent drive letter or path to a removable drive

Here's how to make consistent paths from Microsoft Office to documents on removable media.

by Office Watch

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Jenny N writes:

"I have a problem with Word when working with documents on my flash drive. If I insert the drive days later and try to use the recently used file list, Word sometimes says it can't find the document.

I've worked out that when I insert the flash drive it's not always using the same drive letter - it's F or G drive but occasionally even later in the alphabet.

How can I change the flash drive letter or, even better, make it appear as the same drive letter each time? "

Jenny's problem isn't with Word but it does show up a growing problem with Windows and how it works with plug-in drives.

Migrating drive letters is a problem when programs remember fixed paths to documents. All Office programs do that in their MRU (Most Recently Used) list but you can workaround it simply by opening the document directly using Windows Explorer.

However some programs don't let you alter the path once it is set. Microsoft's SyncToy is very handy with external drives but is rendered useless when the path to the linked folders changes (ie there's no way to edit the folders paths once a folder pair is created).

Adding to the problem can be network settings that force you to allocate a drive letter/s to shares on the network.

There are some solutions. One is both manual and tedious yet it is the one that you'll see in many Windows tips columns.

Office Watch suggests a better solution which works well and gives you a consistent and unchanging path to each external drive.

What Windows does

Each time you insert a removable drive (USB memory 'key', digital camera memory or external drive etc) Windows will 'mount' the drive and assign it to a drive letter.

Windows automatically assigns the next available drive letter when you insert a drive. For example if the 'highest' drive in use is F then the new drive will be assigned 'G' and so on. Some devices like memory card readers have multiple slots and will be assigned several drive letters.

The problem comes because there's no direct way to control the exact drive letter that's applied when you insert a new drive. You can't assign a particular drive letter to always be used when you insert a certain portable drive. Drive letter assignments depend on the order in which you insert and remove external drives.

Manual assignment

The short term and tedious solution is to manually change the drive letter assigned to the external drive.

Go to Control Panel | Administrative Tools | Computer Management and look on the left under 'Storage' for the Disk Management tool.

Select the external drive, right-click and choose 'Change Drive Letter and Paths …' then remove the existing drive letter assignment and use the Add button to assign your preferred letter.

If the drive letter you want is not on the list it means that it's already been allocated to another drive. If you really want that drive letter, you'll have to remove the drive linked to that letter or re-assign that drive first.

Warning: don't do anything with the Disk Management tool unless you're very certain of what you're doing. People who decide to 'play around' with the Disk Management tool can end up with broken or erased drives.

You have to do this every time you insert that external drive - Windows doesn't 'remember' your choice.  If you don't add or remove drives a lot then you might be lucky and the same drive letter will always be allocated when you insert a portable drive.  However, people like Jenny are swapping drives a lot often with multiple drives connected at once. When that happens Windows can't allocate drive letters consistently.

That's why we recommend assigning 'high' letters towards 'Z' to drives you want to have a consistent drive letter, because they are less likely to be taken automatically by Windows.

Permanent assignment basics

Before we show you how to assign permanent paths to external drives, here's a bit of background.

Drive letters aren't the only way to reach a file, in fact they are quite old-fashioned. There are better and more flexible ways to point to folders, drives or computers than C: or D: etc.

It sounds strange but we do it already. Even a small network you'll probably access files by pointing to a machine and folder for example //France/Paris/Eiffel.doc is a document Eiffel.doc in the folder 'Paris' on the machine 'France' . Similarly on the internet a link like http://news.office-watch.com/default.aspx is the same (a document called 'default.aspx' on the machine news.office-watch.com) except you also specify the type of transport used across the internet with the 'http:' prefix.

When administrators assign drive letters to network computers they often don't need to. It's done out of habit, consistency or to deal with old programs that must have a drive letter. Modern networks have clever ways to assign permanent network paths, but that's beyond the subject of this article.

We've mentioned all this hoping you'll be more comfortable with the idea of dropping the whole idea of drive letters for external devices. That's the key to unchanging paths to external drives.

Permanently assigning drive paths to external drives

Modern Windows releases will let you allocate a path to an external drive instead of a drive letter. The path looks like a folder on your hard drive but it's really a re-direction to the external drive.

This path is 'saved' by Windows so the same path works for the external drive whenever it is plugged in.

Here's how to do it:

Go to Control Panel | Administrative Tools | Computer Management and look on the left under 'Storage' for the Disk Management tool. This is a really useful tool and we're just focusing on one element of its power here.

Disk Management tool - opening screen image from Make a consistent drive letter or path to a removable drive at Office-Watch.com

Warning: don't do anything with the Disk Management tool unless you're very certain of what you're doing. People who decide to 'play around' with the Disk Management tool can end up with broken or erased drives.

In the example you can see there's a physical 'Disk 0' containing drive C plus a small partition used by the computer maker. Note that Drive C is labelled 'NTFS' which is important for this tip. We're NOT touching Disk 0 at all - hands off!

Disk 1 is an external hard drive plugged in via the USB socket, in this case a cute LaCie 55GB device.

Tip: I always label external drives via the volume label, this makes it easier to work out which drive you're using when several are plugged in at once. Usually I include the capacity as well.

Right-click on the external drive and choose 'Change Drive Letter and Paths …'

Disk Management tool - change drive letter option image from Make a consistent drive letter or path to a removable drive at Office-Watch.com

Then click on Add to create an additional path to the device:

Disk Management tool - Add drive letter or path blank image from Make a consistent drive letter or path to a removable drive at Office-Watch.com

The drive letter option is greyed out because a letter is already allocated by Windows. But the option we want is available 'Mount in the following empty NTFS folder'.

Click on browse to point to an empty folder.

Disk Management tool - Choose empty NTFS folder image from Make a consistent drive letter or path to a removable drive at Office-Watch.com

The first time you do this you'll have to decide where to put the empty folder and probably create some new folders using the 'New Folder' button. See below for some tips on that.

Click OK to see a new path to your external drive.

Disk Management tool - Add drive letter or path with new path image from Make a consistent drive letter or path to a removable drive at Office-Watch.com

And OK again to confirm the change.

Switch over to Windows Explorer and go to the folder you just created - in this case C:/External Drives

Disk Management - View mounted devices in Explorer image from Make a consistent drive letter or path to a removable drive at Office-Watch.com

You can see there's two items - one we just created and the other is for another, currently unattached, device called Wolverine.

Each is called a 'File Folder' but have shortcut icons instead of standard folder icons.

The LaCie 'folder' has a size (the capacity of the device) because it's plugged in, the other is zero because it's not online.

Open Windows explorer and go to the folder you set on the hard drive - for example C:/external drives/LACIE55GB and lo! the contents of the external drive will appear just as if it was part of the hard drive.

Disk Management - View mounted folders in Explorer image from Make a consistent drive letter or path to a removable drive at Office-Watch.com

All sub-folders appear under the 'root' path you've created. For example a document in the \Paris folder on a flash drive will now appear as C:\external drives\flash\Paris\

Now open a Word document from the flash drive, but instead of going to say G:\docs point to C:\external drives\flash\docs . You can work on the document as usual, save and close it then remove the external drive.

Disk Management - View document in Word via NTFS re-direction image from Make a consistent drive letter or path to a removable drive at Office-Watch.com

Come back later, plug-in the drive, go to the MRU list in Word and open the document normally.

Where to put the empty NTFS folder

You can put the re-direction NTFS folders almost anywhere on your hard drive and call them most anything you want.

We've gone for a folder called 'External Drives' because its obvious and put it directly off C:/ because these days most people don't browse around the root folder of hard drives.

You may prefer to put the re-direction folder in /Documents and Settings or /Users (depending on your version of Windows).

Each empty NTFS folder is given the same name as the volume label for device - eg LaCIE55GB but that's not required. We've just done it that way for consistency.

More Info

This isn't magic and it's not even a new feature. It's been in Windows for some time but could get more use now that more people have external storage.

  • This isn't caching or copying the contents of the external drive. You're not taking up space on your hard drive.
  • The drive space used by the mounted external drive on the fixed drive is trivial and not linked to the capacity of the plugged-in storage.
  • Once you remove the external drive the contents are unavailable. If you try to go to the linked folder you'll get a 'refers to a location that is unavailable' error.
  • Any version of Windows with an NTFS hard drive will let you allocate a path to an external drive instead of a drive letter. This includes Windows 2000 Workstation, XP and Vista. Chances are good that your fixed drives use NTFS because it's been the default in Windows for some years. If not, there's a conversion process from FAT32 to NTFS.
  • Only the fixed drive accepting the mounted path has to be NTFS - the external drive can be in any format accepted by Windows. In fact it's common that small external devices use FAT32 formatting.
  • Because the external drive appears as part of the fixed drive some Explorer defaults will change. If you drag a file between drives, Windows will copy the file unless you choose otherwise. If you drag a file between an external drives folder and a real fixed drive folder if will be moved (not copied) because that's the standard drag behaviour between folders on the same drive.
  • This applies 'per computer' - the same external drive in another computer will be assigned a drive letter in the usual way. For true consistency setup mounted external folders on each of your computers so that your external drive shows up in the same 'folder' on each of your computers.
  • Any 'new' external drives you plug in will be assigned a drive letter in the usual way.

Article posted: Monday, 28 July 2008

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