I strongly suggest reading the Work with files and folders in Windows article before setting folder options. This gives you a better overview of the settings described here.
Please note: Windows Explorer has been renamed to File Explorer in Windows 8, 8.1, and 10. I'll just use the word "Explorer" sometimes.
Windows/File 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. The keyboard shortcut for this is Alt+Enter.
Open the 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, 8, 8.1, and 10).
The names and number of available templates vary in different versions of Windows.
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 the folder picture with the Choose File button. Please remember that the picture file has to in the same folder, not elsewhere!
Libraries in Windows 7, 8, 8.1, and 10 do not have folder picture and folder icon options.
To set a folder icon instead, click or tap the 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 (e.g. Tiles or Details) and you don't want to change view manually for every folder you use often, then there is a faster way.
NB! In Windows XP this affects absolutely ALL folders; in Windows Vista and later it affects only folders of the same type, including any previously customized folder(s). You can still change their view individually later.
First, open a folder in Windows/File Explorer (keyboard shortcut Windows Key+E) and customize its view to your likings.
In Windows XP, Vista, and 7, open the Tools menu (press Alt key in Vista and 7 to see the Menu Bar) and click Folder Options. The keyboard shortcut is Alt+T+O.
In Windows 8, 8.1, and 10, open the View tab on Ribbon and click the Options button, or use keyboard shortcut Alt+V+Y+O.
Go to the View tab in the Folder Options window and click Apply to All Folders (Windows XP) or Apply to Folders (Windows Vista, 7, 8, 8.1, and 10). Keyboard shortcuts Ctrl+PageUp and Ctrl+PageDown switch forwards and backward between available tabs. The second keys might also be labeled PgUp and PgDn.
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 the Folder Options window to restore default views.
Folder options are actually quite important in Windows. Microsoft has stubbornly hidden all file extensions by default since Windows 2000, despite the fact that this allows the 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 the most common examples. For plain security reasons, it is always recommended to turn the displaying of file extensions back on.
In Windows 8, 8.1, and 10, the View tab on Ribbon includes the File name extensions check box for quickly revealing file extensions. Keyboard shortcut Alt+V+H+F also does the job.
To open Folder options in Windows XP, Vista, and 7, press the Alt key on your keyboard once. Then open the Tools menu and click or touch Folder options.
In Windows 8, 8.1, and 10, open the View tab on Ribbon and click or tap the Options button. To reveal or hide Ribbon contents permanently, use shortcut key Ctrl+F1.
In Windows XP, the very first section is named Tasks, choose Show common tasks in folders to enable the Common Tasks pane to see most used tasks for the selected file or folder type on the left side of Windows Explorer.
In Windows 7 and 8/8.1, the General tab of the Folder Options window includes the Navigation pane section. Those who are accustomed to the list of all folders available at all times might want to tick Show all folders and Automatically expand to current folder checkboxes, but please note that activating these options will decrease Windows/File Explorer performance, especially when opening new windows.
Windows 8 and 8.1 also allow showing or hiding Favorites in the Navigation pane - by default, this includes shortcuts to Desktop, Downloads, and Recent places. You can add any folder to Favorites by dragging it to the list.
In Windows 8.1 and 10 File Explorer, Libraries are hidden by default. Tick the Show libraries checkbox in Windows 8.1 to reveal these. Windows 10 method is described next.
In Windows 10, the General tab of the Folder Options window looks quite different.
First, the Open File Explorer to combo box allows choosing between Quick access and This PC.
Quick access displays frequently opened folders (the same list is always visible at the top of the Navigation pane) and recently opened files upon launching File Explorer. This is useful if you mainly open the same files or folders. You can also pin your most used items to the list to keep them there permanently.
This PC displays common folders (Desktop, Documents, Downloads, etc) and the list of devices, drives, and network locations (if available). This one is useful for those who mainly use File Explorer for browsing different drives.
The last section, Privacy, is brand new in Windows 10's File Explorer. The Show recently used files in Quick access and Show frequently used folders in Quick access turn the automatic learning of your favorite items on and off. If you like Quick access, leave both checkboxes ticked. The Clear button deletes your usage history, so does unticking the checkbox(es) and clicking OK or Apply.
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. It also causes failed login events if you use your laptop in another network or location.
In Windows Vista, 7, 8, 8.1, and 10, if your hard disk or computer is already slow, you can stop generating and displaying thumbnails in folders that contain photos and videos by ticking the Always show icons, never thumbnails checkbox. This speeds up folder browsing.
Disabling Windows XP's Do not cache thumbnails option also makes folder browsing quicker.
If Windows is installed on an SSD (Solid State Drive), the performance gain is negligible.
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, 8.1, and 10, this option affects configuration windows (such as Network or Display appearance) only, because all menus in File Explorer have been replaced with Ribbon.
In Windows 7, 8, 8.1, and 10, 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. Windows 10 shortens this option to just Hide empty drives.
The most important option here is the Hide extensions for known file types. Always clear this check box to prevent 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, 8.1, and 10, 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/File Explorer window is an independent process and if one window hangs (stops responding), you can kill it using Task Manager and keep on working with other Explorer windows. If Windows Explorer runs as a single process, killing it would hide Desktop icons, Taskbar, and all open 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, tick the Restore previous folder windows at logon box. This restores all previously open Explorer windows after you log in the next time. Alternatively, if you want to stop opening folders at logon or after a restart, clear this check box.
In Windows 8, this option can be used to display Desktop instead of the Start screen after signing in. Windows 8.1 has a separate setting in Taskbar and Navigation properties for displaying Desktop.
In Windows Vista and later, leave the Show drive letters box checked, this helps to distinguish between hard drives, partitions, and removable drives, plus helps in troubleshooting stability problems.
If you want to, Windows/File Explorer can display compressed and encrypted items with an alternate color. If you use either of these features, tick the Show encrypted or compressed NTFS files in color box.
In case you don't like the pop-up descriptions while you hover the 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 check box.
Windows Vista, 7, 8, 8.1 and 10 users can improve Windows/File Explorer performance (and security in rare cases) 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 (Alt+P) useless. Just closing Preview Pane in Windows/File Explorer achieves the same performance gain effect.
In Windows 8, 8.1, and 10, the Show status bar option controls whether you can see the number of selected items and use buttons for switching between Details and Large Thumbnails views.
In Windows 10, the Show sync provider notifications option controls whether Microsoft ads for their own services are shown in File Explorer. This is on by default, but most users prefer to turn it off to avoid annoyances.
In Windows Vista and newer, you can have checkboxes for selecting files and folders instead of using the mouse or/with Shift and Ctrl keys on the keyboard. If you like this, tick the Use check boxes to select items box.
This option is enabled on all touch-screen devices by default.
Use simple file sharing (Windows XP Professional only) and Use Sharing Wizard (Windows Vista and later) 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 the file or folder properties window. You can read more about file system permissions in this article.
Windows 10 moved Navigation pane options to advanced folder settings. All options here are disabled by default. Enabling the Show libraries option adds good old Libraries to the bottom of File Explorer's Navigation pane. The Expand to open folder and Show all folders checkboxes should be left unticked for performance reasons.
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.