Windows tips: Shortcuts are wonderful. They're also tricky. Learn how to use them right.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

How to get the most out of Windows file-and-folder shortcuts

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1997, Al Fasoldt

    Shortcuts are small files that point to other files. They're more than that, of course; like everything else in Windows, shortcuts are more complicated and more powerful than they appear. Shortcuts are like street signs that tell you where to find the museum and the zoo. They tell the operating system where to find important things. And that means shortcuts can point to practically anything, not just to programs. Shortcuts can point to documents, folders, printers, drives, Web pages, remote computers -- just about anything you can name. And in nearly every kind of operation, anything you do to a shortcut (except deleting it) is translated as an action taken on the object it points to. (I'll tell you about the major problem with shortcuts in a minute. It's something you need to know, so keep reading.)
   If the concept of shortcuts isn't one of the top five Neat Things about Windows, my name is Bill Gates and yours is not. And anyone who claims to be a power user of the latest version of Windows who does not know how to use shortcuts is wasting a lot of time.
   Shortcuts add immense power to computing under Windows for three basic reasons:
  • They free you from the vagaries of your computer's file-and-folder organization. You're not stuck hunting down files and other items within a directory structure.
  • They put items within your computer's reach even if they are far way -- on a network drive in another office, on a computer in Helsinki, on a notebook PC that could be anywhere.
  • They provide an easy way to launch programs, open folders, review documents, check printer operations and do countless other tasks by pressing a combination of keys.

   If this is so good, what's the big problem with shortcuts? Let's get that out of the way before I explain how shortcuts work. The link between a shortcut and the object it points to is not dynamic. In simple terms, this means the operating system does not automatically revise the shortcut if you move the original object, not does it offer to delete the shortcut if you delete the original item.
   To be blunt, I'll say this another way: Move the original, and you ruin the shortcut. Delete the original, and you're left with a useless shortcut. Oddly, the operating system does know how to revise the Registry (the central database of system information) when you move a folder containing programs, but it doesn't know how to change the shortcuts. Shortcut managers (both freeware and shareware) can find and delete these orphan shortcuts, and a few commercial programs will do their best to mend broken links. But in most cases you'll have to do the work yourself -- creating new shortcuts to replace the ones that don't work any more, getting rid of shortcuts that point to phantom programs or folders, or entering corrected path or filename information into the Properties dialog of a damaged shortcut.
   Microsoft isn't entirely dumb in this matter. Windows has a simple way of finding out which shortcuts don't work. Every time you open a shortcut, Windows looks for the item and shows you a dialog box asking for your help if it can't find it. The way Windows looks for the missing link is technically interesting -- the operating system looks for a file that is the same size and was created or modified on the same date as the originally linked file -- but Windows often can't find the item because the search isn't thorough enough. (Windows won't look on another drive, for example.)
   All that matters is that you try to keep your shortcut links intact whenever you move items that are linked to shortcuts and that you delete shortcuts (or run a utility that does it for you) when you remove the original items.
   One other misbehavior can catch you with your shortcuts down. If you take advantage of the Send To menu, you'll be able to move items from one place to another with nothing more than a right mouse click, a flick of the wrist and one more click. Send To works fine to move folders and most files, but it behaves badly when you try to use Send To to move a program file from one place to another. In fact, the Send To function won't move a program file by itself; it needs help. By default, Send To creates a shortcut in the other location. If you hold down the shift key when you do the click-click for a Send To function, you'll get what you want. The shift key modifies Send To so that it moves the file.
   Let's see why shortcuts are so powerful.
    • They free you from the vagaries of your computer's file-and-folder organization.

   Without shortcuts, you'd have to launch programs by drilling down through a maze of folders to find the actual program files, then clicking on those files. You'd spend a lot of time just opening folders, and you wouldn't have your favorite programs handy -- on the desktop, maybe. They'd be scattered in hundreds of locations. (You could get really clever and use the Run function in Windows to type in the entire path and name of all your programs each time you wanted to run them, but that would mark you as a certifiable nut.)
   Without shortcuts, you also wouldn't be able to open your favorite folders without a lot of digging. And you wouldn't have a way to put a drive icon on your desktop. Without shortcuts, you wouldn't even have a Start Menu. That's because the Start Menu is nothing more than a group of shortcuts. (And that means you should be able to add to it or take items out of it very easily, right? You bet, and I show you how in an article on the Start Menu.
    • They put items within your computer's reach even if they are far way.

   We usually think of a shortcut as a pointer to an item that's deep in some folder on your hard drive. And that is, in fact, what most of them are. But thinking of shortcuts this way limits our appreciation of the real nature of shortcuts. They can point to anything, anywhere. If you've chosen Microsoft's Internet Explorer as your browser, you've probably used shortcuts with long reaches already. Every Internet address stored in the folder called Favorites is a shortcut to a file or folder stored far from your computer. Here's a tip: Those favorites don't have to be kept in the Favorites folder. They can be placed anywhere -- on your desktop, if you want to keep them as handy as possible, or in a folder that you keep on your desktop (my preferred method, since it keeps my desktop from getting cluttered).
   What's not obvious in all this is that Internet shortcuts aren't limited to Web-page addresses. They can be pointers to computers on a network or on the Internet, using what's called the UNC (Universal Naming Convention). Click on a UNC shortcut and you'll log onto a remote computer. Or they can be shortcuts to printers on another computer, or pointers to documents stored on the other side of the globe. Windows is clever in the way it handles these shortcuts: If you click on one that points to an item stored on another computer, Windows checks to see if your computer is already connected to the remote one, invoking dial-up networking (or any other kind of networking) if necessary.
    • They provide an easy way to launch programs, open folders, review documents, check printer operations and do countless other tasks by pressing a combination of keys.

   Of all the important features of shortcuts, this one is least known. If you're already aware of this outstanding feature of Windows -- which lets you assign hotkeys to shortcuts -- give yourself the rest of the day off. (Or call in well; that will really confuse the boss.) Hotkeys are key combinations that activate a shortcut when you press them. Notice that I didn't say these hotkeys run a program, because I'm trying to impress everyone with the fact that hotkeys do much more than that. They'll open folders, for example. (I think that's one of the best things hotkeys can do, and I'll share my secret hotkey for Start Menu editing a little later.)
   Hotkeys can be tricky. Some users have asked me how to get Windows to remember the hotkeys they create. The problem seems to be that Windows operates these hotkeys through the still-buggy section of the main Windows code that handles object interaction. Sometimes, especially if Windows is busy handling multiple tasks, pressing a hotkey combination does nothing. Sometimes Windows responds slowly. For reasons I don't understand, some hotkeys always work, while others sometimes work and sometimes fail to work. (It may be that shortcuts to DOS programs are the ones that work more reliably. I haven't tried to look into this, but that's what seems to be the case.)
   You assign a hotkey within the Properties dialog of a shortcut. (A dialog is a window that contains buttons you press or fields you fill out.) Right-click on a shortcut icon, choose Properties, then click on the Shortcut tab in the window. You'll see Shortcut key: in the dialog that opens. Click your mouse in the field to the right of Shortcut key: and press the key combination you want to use for the hotkey. You'll probably notice right away that Windows likes certain combinations better than others -- Ctrl + Alt is the suggested pair to combine with another key, as you can see if you press a single character such as M or if you press just the shift key. But you can get Windows to recognize Ctrl-Shift and Shift-Alt combinations, too. Windows will let you use F10 or another function key without any modifier keys (a bad idea, as I'll explain shortly), but it won't let you assign the numbers 0 through 9 or the letters A through Z by themselves. The easiest way to see what Windows allows for hotkeys is to try out different combinations.
   Even though Windows will let you assign an unmodified key such as F1 as a hotkey, don't do it. Function keys are used throughout Windows itself (and in programs that run under Windows) for important functions. If you assign a hotkey to F1, for example, Windows diverts every F1 keypress to launch your shortcut. This means you'll never be able to get instant help by pressing the universal Windows help key, F1. (Many users don't realize they can often get help by pressing F1 even when no help menu is visible.) You're better off using Shift + Alt or Ctrl + Alt teamed with a letter key for each hotkey -- Shift-Alt-M for your e-mail program and Shift-Alt-W for your word processor, perhaps. (Microsoft lists key combinations using a plus sign between keys, but I don't. I've listed them here my way and Microsoft's to help prevent confusion, but I'll stick to my method for the rest of this article.) Don't forget that the keys no one ever seems to use except at tax time -- the ones on the keypad -- are good choices for hotkeys, too. And you can even use the Home key and the Scroll Lock key. (History records that the last person to use the Scroll Lock key died in 1985.)
   Once you get used to the idea of launching a shortcut by pressing a key combination, you'll probably want to create a few dozen to handle your everyday tasks. You can use a hotkey to open a view onto My Computer, dial your Internet provider, open the My Documents folder, run your Web browser, launch your word processor, open your Printers folder and so on. Consider imposing some order on these hotkeys by assigning different sets of modifier keys to different functions the way I do. For example, all my hotkeys that run programs use Shift-Alt and all my hotkeys that open folders use Shift-Ctrl. All my hotkeys that perform system functions (opening a printer folder, dialing the Internet, viewing the main system properties dialog and the like) use Ctrl-Alt. I can't memorize all my hotkeys, so this kind of separation of powers helps me recall hotkeys by category.
   Once you have more than six or seven hotkeys, you'll need a hotkey manager to fill a gap in the design of Windows. (I'm being charitable. There is no way within a standard Windows setup even to find out what hotkeys are assigned, other than looking at the properties of all shortcuts one by one.) A good freeware hotkey manager can be downloaded from PC Magazine's ftp (file-transfer) site. It's called Hotkey Detective. The address is ftp://ftp.zdnet.com/pcmag/1996/0611/hkd.zip. Hotkey Detective shows which hotkeys are assigned to particular shortcuts, warns you if duplicate keys are assigned and lets you print a listing of hotkeys. Another handy function lets you quickly open the folder containing the target for any shortcut.
   Even with the aid of Hotkey Detective in tracking down duplicate shortcuts and checking which keys are assigned, I've found it necessary to create a separate folder in my Start Menu just for hotkey shortcuts. I should point out that this takes up more disk space than some of you might want to use. (You end up with duplicate shortcuts -- for each hotkey shortcut you have one in its normal location that does not have an assigned hotkey combination and a separate one that does. But most new PCs these days have very large disk drives, and many of these may be using the efficient 32-bit FAT system for file storage. Under the standard FAT, or file allocation table, shortcuts take up either 16 kilobytes or 32 kilobytes of space on a large drive, but the 32-bit FAT trims this to 4 kilobytes. You may know that shortcuts are very small -- a few hundred bytes -- but the space files take up on a disk is based on the size of a unit of storage, and that's controlled by the File Allocation Table, among other things.)
   Having all your hotkey shortcuts in one place helps you keep them organized, and it also helps you visualize groups of hotkeys. You'll also find it much easier to change a hotkey assignment when you can open a single folder containing all hotkeys and go right to the one you want to change. Of course, the only way to get to the Hotkey folder quickly is to give it a hotkey assignment of its own. That means you have to create a shortcut to the Hotkey folder and place it -- where else? -- inside the Hotkey folder. (Sort of crazy like a fox, right?)
   Don't forget important folders when you create shortcuts and assign hotkeys. One hotkey I could not bear to lose is my Start Menu hotkey -- Shift-Alt-S. This opens the Start Menu for editing. Shift-Alt-U opens the Startup folder (U for StartUp, right?) and Shift-Alt-T opens the Send To folder for editing.
   Also remember that some Control Panel applets are ideal shortcut candidates. Just drag any icon out of the Control Panel's window to create a shortcut. (Windows forces you to make a shortcut, in fact.) If you often twiddle with the mouse settings, make a shortcut and hotkey for the mouse applet, for example.