Computer Basics: What Is the Difference Between a File and a Folder?

Updated on June 5, 2019
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Paul's passion for technology and digital media goes back over thirty years. Born in the UK, he now lives in Florida, USA.

Understanding the terminology is important when you are learning about computers. One thing that beginners can find difficult is understanding the difference between files and folders.
Understanding the terminology is important when you are learning about computers. One thing that beginners can find difficult is understanding the difference between files and folders. | Source

The Essentials: Folders and Files Defined

All of the data on your computer's hard drive consists of folders and files, so it is important to understand what the terminology actually means. While there are quite a few differences between folders and files, some of which I will list in the section below, the essential concepts for a beginner to understand are that:

  • Folders act as containers for files and sometimes other folders, they are treated as storage spaces, and are used for organizational purposes.
  • A file, on the other hand, is a unit of saved data, such as text or program code. There are many different types of file, examples can include a word document, an audio song track, or a photo-editing program.

What is the Purpose of Folders?

Folders, sometimes referred to as directories, are essential for computers to run efficiently, without them there would be no organization of data and the computer would spend a lot of time searching for files. Folders are especially useful for programs, because they enable the swift location of the files that the program needs to perform its tasks smoothly.

5 Differences Between Files and Folders

Below is a summary of the main differences:

  1. Folders act as containers for files and other folders, but files can't contain files or folders. Files are storage units for data, they can take many forms, including text documents, audio tracks, movie clips, and computer programs.
  2. You can create new folders or sub-folders within a folder, but you cannot create a new folder within a file.
  3. Folders essentially take up zero space on the computer. Files can take up anything from a few bytes to many gigabytes.
  4. Folders are typically represented by a Manila folder icon. File icons vary according to the type of file.
  5. Folders don't have file extensions, but files do. (File extensions are the group of letters after a period in a file name, indicating the format of the file, such as ".doc", ".pdf", ".mp3" and ".txt").

Causes of Confusion #1

Having taught basic computers, I am aware of some of the main reasons why people get confused over the difference between folders and files. One problem is that the icon commonly used to portray a folder on computers is an image of the folded card receptacle found in traditional office filing cabinets that's known as a "Manila file folder". The inclusion of the word "file" in the term "Manila file folder" misleads some people. It's best just to think of it as a "Manila folder" to avoid confusion.

Causes of Confusion #2

Although it is generally true that folders hold files and other folders, but files don't, there are occasional cases where files can act like folders. One common example is compressed files, such as ZIP files. These contain a number of files and folders that have been manipulated and merged together in order to save space without data loss. The two main advantages of compressed files are that they make downloading faster and also enable more data to be stored on removable media, such as a USB memory stick. Although compressed files are treated as individual files by some programs, modern operating systems are able to also effectively treat them as folders. The operating system decompresses them, enabling users to browse them as folders.

Without folders to organize data, your computer would take much longer to find the files it needs to operate.
Without folders to organize data, your computer would take much longer to find the files it needs to operate. | Source

File Path Formats

The unique location of each folder and file on a computer is specified by something known as a "path". The format of paths vary according to the computer's operating system. Below is an example of a path format found on Windows systems.

"C:\Users\Paul Goodman\Pictures\iceland\lagoon.jpg"

Directory paths are sometimes easier to understand if you read them from right to left. Here is a photo entitled "lagoon", which is in a folder entitled "iceland", which is in a folder entitled "Pictures", in a folder entitled "Paul Goodman", in a folder called "Users", which is locate on the C drive of the computer's hard disk drive.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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    © 2019 Paul Goodman

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