Behind the File Dialogs – Part 1

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We talk about some of the less obvious things you can do with the File Open and File Save dialog boxes in Microsoft Office (and many other programs for that matter).


Over in an Office Watch article we’ve started a discussion on how people choose to save their documents. From the feedback so far it seems there’s as many ways to arrange files and folders as there are people!

Here in Mere Mortals I thought it was a good time to talk about some of the less obvious things you can do with the File Open and File Save dialog boxes in Microsoft Office (and many other programs for that matter).

The exact features in the Open and Save dialogs depend on your version of Office and Windows, so not everything we talk about here may apply to you. We won’t be covering all the dialog box features, instead we hope to help you use it more effectively.



Getting around your folders in the dialog boxes is fairly easy and obvious. In recent versions of Office you can make your life a bit easier by making the dialog box larger – just grab the bottom right corner and drag.

There are two ‘Back’ buttons next to each other that work differently.

The first is a folder icon with an arrow – this moves you back one step on the folder tree. For example if you are in /Fred/Dagg/ and click this button you’ll move to the /Fred/ folder.

The second is like a browser back button – it takes you to the last folder you viewed in the dialog box. That may be the same as the parent folder you get with the other back button but if you’ve jumped around folders and drives could be elsewhere. In other words this Back button lets you move back through the history of folders you’ve visited while the dialog has been open.

Naturally the folder you want won’t be displayed – that’s Murphy’s Law. It’s possible that you already have the folder open in Windows Explorer. If that’s the case you can copy the folder path from the address bar in Explorer and paste it into File Name field in the dialog, press Enter and the dialog will jump to that folder.

The ‘My Recent Documents’ icon on the left can useful in finding docs you’ve used recently. Unfortunately Microsoft clutters up this display with document types that are usually not relevant. For example in Excel you’ll see not only .XLS recent docs but also .htm web pages. This is because you can save Excel docs to web page format.

You can filter the list of files displayed by changing the ‘Files of Type’ option from, say, ‘All Microsoft Office Excel files’ to ‘Microsoft Office Excel Files’ which will show only the commonly used *.xl? formats.

Tip: Can’t find a file? Maybe it’s been saved with the wrong extension. Try switching to ‘All Files’ to see if the file you want is there.

The filter on files displayed is normally useful but can be a trap – more than once I’ve heard complaints that an entire folder of files has disappeared. The thought has crossed my mind when tired or jetlagged.

The Look in pull down list at the top of the dialog will let you jump to commonly used places like My Documents, Desktop and Network Places.

Under the Tools list there’s a Search option but it’s the glacially slow Windows search function. Better to use one of the Desktop Search products to find what you need in a fraction of the time. For more check out our Desktop Search Handbook

The view of files in the File dialogs is controlled by the View pull-down list on the dialog toolbar. Personally I use the Details view almost all the time – it displays the most files on the screen and you can sort the list by clicking on the column headings.

Clicking on the ‘Modified’ column will display the most recently touched files in that folder.

Lastly you even have some options for opening a document. Just click on the Open button (or double-click on the file you want) or you can pull-down the list attached to the Open button to see some alternatives.

Open Read-only – the document will open but you can’t save it in the same name (you can Save As to another file)

Open as Copy – a copy of the document will be created, given the same name prefixed with ‘Copy of’ and opened.

Open and Repair – though recent versions of the Office programs will work out if a document is corrupt and automatically try to repair.



If you access folders on other networked computers then it’s worth creating a Network Place to give you fast access. All the Network Places are listed when you choose the My Network Places button on bottom left. Just click on the icon and you’ll jump to the machine and folder preset.

You can’t create new Network Places from the File dialogs, sadly you can’t even create them when you are already logged into a network share in Windows Explorer. You have to go to Network Places in Windows Explorer and choose the Add Network Place option.

In the next article we’ll continue this theme with advice on File Save and other nifty tricks you can do from the File dialogs in Office.


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