I strongly suggest reading the Work with files and folders in Windows article before setting folder options. This gives you better overview of the settings described here.
Common Tasks in Windows XP display most used tasks for the selected file or folder type. Task list changes in accordance to what you are selecting or viewing. Tasks include copying, moving, renaming, deleting, publishing to web, sharing, printing, burning to CD, etc.
In newer versions of Windows, the pane has been replaced with context-sensitive toolbars or the Ribbon.
On the left is a folder in classic view and on the right is the same folder with Common Tasks enabled:
Common Tasks is enabled by default in Windows XP, but to turn it on later, open Tools menu and click Folder Options...:
Folder Options window opens with General tab active. The very first section is named Tasks, click Show common tasks in folders to enable the Common Tasks pane. Essentially, Use Windows classic folders disables the pane.
Click OK to activate changes.
Windows Explorer usually tries to guess the best view for a folder - it displays photos and videos as thumbnails, documents with details, etc. In mixed folders, this might not work correctly.
If you want to quickly change folder type, you can right-click the folder and choose Properties.
Open Customize tab and choose a template from Use this folder type as a template (Windows XP and Vista) or Optimize this folder for (Windows 7 and 8).
In case you want to apply the preferences to all subfolders of the current folder, check the Also apply this template to all subfolders check box:
You can also choose an existing photo or video for folder picture by clicking Choose File... button. Please remember that the file has to in the same folder, not elsewhere!
To set a folder icon, click on Change Icon... button. You cannot use both folder picture and folder icon, only one of these is used at a time.
Choose an icon from Windows default icons and click OK. You can always restore a folder's default icon later by clicking the Restore Defaults button in this window.
Click OK to finish folder customization. Your folder should now appear as selected.
If you have a favorite view (say Tiles or Details) and you don't want to change view manually for every folder you are visiting, then there is a faster way.
NB! In Windows XP this affects absolutely ALL folders, in Windows Vista and 7 ALL folders of the same type, including any previously customized folder(s). You can still change their view individually later.
Open a folder in Windows Explorer (keyboard shortcut Windows Key+E) and customize the view to your likings.
In Windows XP, Vista and 7, open Tools menu (press Alt key in Vista and 7 to see the Menu Bar) and click Folder Options.
In Windows 8, open View tab on Ribbon and click Options button.
Go to View tab in Folder Options window and click Apply to All Folders (Windows XP) or Apply to Folders (Windows Vista, 7 and 8).
A Folder Views dialog window opens, click Yes:
If you've messed up badly, use the Reset All Folders or Reset Folders button in the View tab of Folder Options window to restore defaults.
Folder options are actually quite important in Windows. Microsoft has stubbornly hidden all file extensions by default since Windows 2000, although this allows spreading of malware. You see, people tend to use visual memory and remember file icons, but this is very often misused by malicious programs that try to hide executable content behind common document icons - Microsoft Word or Adobe Reader files are most common examples. For plain security reasons, it is always recommended to turn the displaying of file extensions back on.
In Windows 8, View tab on Ribbon includes the File name extensions check box for quickly revealing file extensions.
To open Folder options in Windows XP, Vista and 7, press Alt key on your keyboard once. Then open Tools menu and click Folder options.
In Windows 8, open View tab on Ribbon and click Options button.
In Windows 7 and 8, General tab of Folder Options window has Navigation pane section. Those who are accustomed to the list of all folders available can select both Show all folders and Automatically expand to current folder check boxes. Please note that activating these options will make Windows Explorer slower, especially when opening new windows!
Windows 8 also allows showing or hiding Favorites in Navigation pane - this includes shortcuts to Desktop, Downloads and Recent places.
Open the View tab and move to the Advanced settings list.
Windows XP users should always clear the Automatically search for network folders and printers check box, because this option often causes slowdowns in different programs and Windows Explorer.
In Windows Vista, 7 and 8, if your hard disk or computer is already slow, you can stop generating and displaying of thumbnails in folders that contain photos and videos by checking the Always show icons, never thumbnails box. This speeds up folder browsing.
Also in Vista and 7 only - in case you do not want to remember that pressing the Alt key reveals all menus, click to check the Always show menus box. In Windows 8, this option affects configuration windows (such as Network or Display appearance) only, because all menus in Windows Explorer have been replaced with Ribbon.
In Windows 7 and 8, you can hide all removable drives (such as readers for SD, MMC and CF cards) that have no disk inserted. The Hide empty drives in the Computer folder option controls this.
The most important option here is the Hide extensions for known file types. Always clear this check box to stop opening malicious items by accident.
You should also check the Do not show hidden files and folders (Windows XP and Vista) or Do not show hidden files, folders, or drives and Hide protected operating system files (Recommended) boxes - this prevents accidental deletions of important settings, system files and folders.
In Windows 8, the Hide folder merge conflicts option prevents "A folder with the same name already exists" warning dialogs from appearing while copying or moving folders. You can safely keep this option turned on, because prompts for file conflicts are still displayed.
Click to select the Launch folder windows in a separate process box. This means that each Windows Explorer window is an independent process and if one window hangs (stops responding), you can kill it using Task Manager and keep safely working with other Windows Explorer windows.
In Windows XP and Vista, there is a separate option that controls storing view settings for folders. Always enable the Remember each folder's view settings option to keep folder customizations.
If you like to continue from where you left off after restarting your computer or logging off, check the Restore previous folder windows at logon box. This restores all open Windows Explorer windows after you log in the next time.
In Windows Vista, 7 and 8, leave the Show drive letters box checked, this helps identifying hard drives and removable drives.
In case you don't like the pop-up descriptions while you hover mouse pointer over items such as Computer, Documents, etc, you can turn it off by clearing the Show pop-up description for folder and desktop items box.
Windows Vista, 7 and 8 users can improve Windows Explorer performance if they turn off the Show preview handlers in preview pane option. This one disables all content previews for documents, photos and videos, but also makes the Preview Pane useless.
In Windows 8, the Show status bar option controls whether you can see the number of selected items and use quick access buttons for switching between Details and Large Thumbnails views.
In Windows Vista, 7 and 8, you can have check boxes for selecting files and folders instead of using mouse with Shift and Ctrl keys on keyboard. If you like this, check the Use check boxes to select items box.
Use simple file sharing (Windows XP Professional only) and Use Sharing Wizard (Windows Vista, 7 and 8) control whether you can use a simple wizard-driven interface for setting user access to shared files, folders and resources. In Windows XP Professional, enabling this option hides the Security tab of file or folder properties window. You can read more about file system permissions in this article.
Click OK to save changes and close the Folder Options window.
In case you messed something up, or you need to reset advanced settings, use the Restore Defaults button.