Microsoft needs to fix Windows 11 File Explorer tabs for them to be useful

I’m a big fan of Windows 11. The initial release was a much-needed breath of fresh air after Windows 10 had grown so stale, and updates like Windows 11 version 22H2 introduced big changes that made it even better. Among my favorite features in Windows 11 version 22H2 was the tabbed File Explorer, which was enabled later, in October, and was something that many Windows users have been waiting a long time for.

And yet, nearly four months after it was made available, I realized I rarely use File Explorer tabs. It’s not because the feature isn’t useful — it certainly is — but the implementation isn’t in line with other tab-based apps, preventing it from being a more appealing feature. Despite the tabs, File Explorer is still designed to open individual new windows in most cases, so it’s easy to forget the tabs even exist. While there’s a lot of its implementation that works, Microsoft needs to put more work into it to make it a legitimately helpful feature.

What the tabbed File Explorer gets right

Screenshot of a Windows 11 File Explorer window with two tabs

I will admit that part of the problem is me. I could’ve probably made better use of File Explorer tabs, even with the current implementation. In some ways, it’s good that Microsoft didn’t just add tabs to the top of the File Explorer window and call it a day. You can use keyboard shortcuts to open or close tabs just like in a browser, for example.

Most importantly, if you’re using a “proper” mouse (instead of the touchpad on your great laptop), you can middle-click on a folder to open it in a new tab immediately and middle-click a tab on the tab bar to close it. I do this all the time on my web browser, and I frankly expected Microsoft to overlook those features, but that wasn’t the case. Though it’s worth noting that while middle-clicking opens a new tab, browsers also let you open links in a new tab by holding Ctrl and left-clicking. In File Explorer, this opens a new window instead. On the bright side, File Explorer lets you drag and drop files between tabs, too.

I don’t use these capabilities frequently in File Explorer, though, and I think it’s because it’s easy to forget that tabs are a thing now. Microsoft just doesn’t do enough to highlight the benefits of this feature.

Tabs should be used by default

Here’s the thing about tabs in a web browser: It’s not just the ability to open a new tab that matters. Browsers are designed to keep you in the same window most of the time. If you click a link inside an app or a game, that link will only open a new window if there isn’t one already. Otherwise, links open in a new tab inside your existing window, making it much easier to keep track of everything you have open.

Screenshot of a web browser displaying a page, with another app containing a link to that page next to it

The File Explorer is not like that, and I can understand why. Unlike with a browser, you’re not sharing links to local folders that you can click on. However, there are still many situations where this behavior would make a ton of sense.

An example that I run into all the time is file downloads. I use the Vivaldi browser, and when I finish downloading a file, Vivaldi sends a notification to let me know. Clicking that notification opens the folder’s location on your PC, and because of the current behavior, you’ll open a new File Explorer window every time. You can apply this to any browser that lets you open the Downloads folder.

But there are cases of this even in Windows itself. If I’m not relying on Vivaldi notifications, I use the Recommended section of the Start menu, and I generally right-click a file and then choose Open file location. You can guess what happens — another File Explorer window opens. I almost always have multiple instances of File Explorer running, even though I would rather use tabs.

Screenshot of the Windows 11 Start menu with a context menu showing an

I’m sure someone out there probably prefers the current behavior, but the fact of the matter is it’s not the way other tabbed apps work. There’s a reason why those apps work the way they do, and Microsoft needs to follow suit to make File Explorer actually good. I would go as far as to say that the File Explorer link in the Start menu, which I always enable on my PC, should at least allow you to open a new tab by default.

It’s not just about having the feature — experiences have to be designed around it, and users have to be shown its benefits. We’ve gotten used to the old File Explorer behavior for decades, so Microsoft has to give users a little push to use the tabbed interface. Hopefully, that’s something the company will address sooner rather than later.