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Are tabs in File Explorer enough, or would you like them for all apps?

File Explorer Tabs Hero Fixed
File Explorer Tabs Hero Fixed (Image credit: Windows Central)

Windows enthusiasts rejoiced — or at least were pleasantly surprised — by the news that Microsoft appears to have plans to bring tabs to the File Explorer. Insiders discovered hidden functionality for the File Explorer in the latest preview build of the OS. In their current state, tabs look nice but only support basic features. That's to be expected since Microsoft hasn't officially announced them. While not fully functional, it appears that tabs will make their way to Windows 11 at some point in the near future.

People have requested tabs in the File Explorer for a long time, and we actually almost got it a few years ago. Back in 2017 and 2018, Microsoft worked on a feature called Sets. Rather than just adding tabs to the File Explorer, Sets added tabs to any app on Windows. It integrated with Edge and was designed to place apps, web apps, and other types of programs side-by-side. While Sets wasn't made exclusively for the File Explorer, it could be used to have a tabbed interface for managing files.

Sets was in working state in Windows 10 Build 17618, but it was ultimately canceled. Microsoft never shared its reasoning for dropping support for the feature. With the death of Sets, Microsoft also killed off tabs within the File Explorer, much to the chagrin of Windows enthusiasts. It doesn't seem like Microsoft will bring back Sets, but the company does appear to have plans for bringing tabs back to the File Explorer.

Our question is if Microsoft has taken things far enough when it comes to tabs. Are you content with the company only adding tabs to the File Explorer, or would you like to see Sets return? Perhaps you don't like tabs at all. Whatever your opinion may be, we'd love to hear from you through this week's poll and in the comments below.

Sean Endicott
Sean Endicott

Sean Endicott is the news writer for Windows Central. If it runs Windows, is made by Microsoft, or has anything to do with either, he's on it. Sean's been with Windows Central since 2017 and is also our resident app expert. If you have a news tip or an app to review, hit him up at sean.endicott@futurenet.com.

25 Comments
  • I use multiple monitors, one of which is a 40" 4k, so a pretty big desktop, which means I can fit many windows on my screen at the same time. However, I still love tabs as the simplest, fastest way to group related tasks together. Sets would have been fantastic for me, but just providing the option for tabs in more apps is a solid win. In all of that, I'm assuming that we can also drag and drop a tab outside its original host window to put it in a new window (like we can in Edge and other browsers). If I had to choose between Windows only supporting tabs in the same window or only separate windows, I'd choose separate windows every time, but even better would be the ability to use both together.
  • Tabs in File Explorer is a good first start. Now let's implement tabs in Office 365 and Notepad. It's not that important for me to group different apps together with a tabbed interface because of the way I work, but many others could benefit from this ability. Many apps already offer a tabbed interfaces such as Adobe Acrobat Reader, Windows Terminal, etc. There are also third party utilities that provide a tabbed UI for Windows. I personally use the Stardock product. It shouldn't be that difficult for a company with the resources of Microsoft to implement tabs without using Edge as the engine. I also use a 40" 4K monitor which provides a lot of real estate for multiple windows, but using File Explorer tabs makes it easier and saves time moving files around.
  • In word, excel, ppt, mail, and few others
  • I don't use Ms office, I use LibreOffice and thinking about it, that is not a bad idea, I have used a bit of software called only office a few tiumes and that has tabs, it is possible to open a spreadsheet, a word processor document in different tabs or multiple of each in tabs. It is not a bad bit of software, but not as good as Libre office.
  • I was so disheartened when they dropped Sets. I have always been kind of worried that I may have contributed to the death of Sets because I sent in so much Feedback of how I wished it would work. I had this grand vision of Timeline and Sets working in concert with Cortana to help me dial in focus. I use multiple email accounts in the desktop version of Outlook. I'd love to have those inboxes in different tabs than having to scroll over the side bar. I hate the way Excel handles multiple windows and love the idea of keeping all my Excel work grouped in one corner, neat & tidy. What I don't understand are people who open 25 or 30 tabs on their browser now. How does that work fit folks? Anyway, I vote for tabs across all apps and I'd love to see Sets come back.
  • It's always interesting to me to hear about people who use their systems very differently from how I do. I too would have loved sets (from Dan and Zac, sounds like MS may have dropped that because it was dependent or code from the old version of Edge, which is no longer part of Windows, maybe Sets will come back in some form down the road w/o needing the old Edge). I like the idea of tabs for grouping related work, but often I need to be able to see multiple windows at the same time, and for that tabs don't help. So for me, I want both tabs for grouping related work and the ability to use separate windows for when I need that for visibility. Both are useful, but where tabs just help with organization (a nice-to-have benefit), the ability to use separate windows to see the all of their respective information at the same time is sometimes essential to getting work done (a critically important need). For me. I know different people have different work styles. I may have 5 or 6 browser windows open, each with 3-10 tabs in a related subject/work area, with different Edge profiles for each of my different companies/clients, so that could be up to about 50-60 tabs on some occasions, usually probably average about 20 tabs open. But my mother will have many, many dozens of tabs (maybe more than 100) at the same time in the same window, and it's not by accident, she does that intentionally. I don't know how she can function like that. She uses 1 window and has so many tabs across the top that each is a sliver, far too small to even make out its icon (I'm trying to get her to try the vertical tabs feature in new Edge so she can at least see what each tab is), which seems to me would make them completely useless, like nothing more than an unreadable browser history, but, hey, it's what she prefers.
  • The only thing I used Sets for was Explorer, so yes, this is enough for me. Far better to have it natively in the app too, rather than the clunky Sets method.
  • It depends on the software, I hate the word app, it makes Windows sound like a mobile phone OS.
    Anyway, I am not sure if it will be a good thing for file explorer to be honest, copying and moving files will be more of a pain than putting two explorer windows side by side. I tried a bit of software called files and that have tabs, but not really that great to use. Dual panes are better. Tabs in browsers is good, sometimes, but sometimes it is nice to separate them when you want to see two websites side by side.
  • I like one commander which has both dual panes and tabs
  • I am mucking around with directory opus, I used to use it on the Amiga, I like it.
  • I want tabs in Calculator.
  • What is the use case for that?
  • Making a joke in a comment section. That being said, being able to have multiple math streams at once can be beneficial. Especially if you need to calculate multiple longer sequences of numbers without losing information from either.
  • I want to see sets make a comeback
  • Depends on the app. 3rd party apps already do it if it makes sense. Most apps don't need it (sound recorder, calculator, calendar, mail, maps...). The fear is MS reprioritizing tabs rather than fixing the outstanding and glaring miscues.
  • Tabs in Applications are an outdated model that promotes slower workflows. In Explorer - THEY MUST BE OPTIONAL. Ironically, the taskbar model of Windows 95 DID AWAY with the need for in Application MDIs like Tabs. I If you want Tabs for Explorer - open Options - Turn on Open in a New Windows - and TADA - the tabs are the flyout on the taskbar. Tabs in a browser are also not the best, but I get they work for some people. Again, the flyout on the Taskbar are tabs - and if your browser had a new Windows for each instance - it would function the same, but using the taskbar as the Tab interface. There should be caution when regressing to older UI/UX models. For example, Windows pushed back against 'Menu Bars' from the beginning, with even now most Apps and Software not needing a Menu Bar. In early Windows, instead of making the Menu Bar a locked OS item at the top of the screen, they were implemented in the software, so that the 'context' of the menu bar was never confused between what Application was driving the menu at the top of the screen. This was a good thing. With Vista and moving forward, Windows pushed to kill Menu Bars, because computing resources no longer needed a simple list of words and commands, and the UI could implement those features more visually. The Ribbon in Office is one example, and it is better than digging through Menus to find Commands and option flyouts in the menus.
    Menu Bars are a 1970s CHARACTER user interface concept - that were to be a placeholder until graphical displays could show more pixels and more advanced graphics. For these to still be used on Macs is embarrassing for Apple. So, with this in mind - we need to be careful about 'wanting' something, because users are locked into older workflows or don't know about better new interface models and workflows. There are new things from the past decade that would be a leap forward for these same users - and yet, we see no signs of Microsoft moving in that direction anymore. All to appease people that grew up with BAD interface models, especially people that 'like' some of the bad file managers in Linux or even OSX. TL:DR - We need to be careful with going backwards. Also - you already have Tabs for Explorer - simply turn on 'Open in a New Windows' - in Explorer and then your 'Tabs' are the flyout thumbnails on the Taskbar. Do this now if you want Tabs - this was the better model, 27 years ago and has always been there.
  • TheMartinScott -- while MDI and tabs share some attributes, they are VERY different in what they enable. The problem with MDI, which is just terrible UI in my opinion, is that it PREVENTS having separate windows by nesting everything in a single giant window that covers the screen. Part or all of a child window could be hidden needing to scroll the parent to get to it (ugh, nested scroll bars), and to make the parent larger it covered all other windows with no ability to layer (z axis). Just horrible UI, very glad those are basically extinct. Tabs, in start contrast, assuming they can be dragged outside the original window just like browser tabs (and all signs would suggest they will work like browser tabs) are a pure win with no downside to users, other than tiny amount of overhead they add (extremely tiny). Use them to organize work, or keep your total # of windows down, or don't and keep each tab in a separate window however you want. In your suggesting that no users should prefer tabs, you're not considering a lot of workflows that may differ from yours. For example, in my case, with multiple clients and multiple projects for each client often running at the same time, I use the tabbed windows to keep my related work together. There is no equivalent in the Taskbar for this. The alternative would be to document as I go and create groups of bookmarks (what I had to do before tabs), but that's more work and slower than just using tabs. On your historical points, MDI goes back mainly to Windows 3 (but was used before that even in mouse-controlled DOS apps). Tabs started with browsers just a few years ago. Totally different technologies. Tabs are not a regression. Your menu bar point is really a distinction between Apple and, well, everything other than Apple -- Apple has always had a single menu (Mac, Lisa, Apple //GS, etc.). Maybe the short-lived Commodore Amiga and Atari ST did too, I confess I don't recall, but they were never mainstream products. Solaris, Windows, OS/2, *nix have always had the menu attached to the window. In Apple's defense (admittedly a pretty weak one), this made sense when they started, because Macs had a small 9" screen and could only display one app at a time, so a single menu bar helped with consistency. I agree with you that doesn't make as much sense in today's world, but now they keep it for historic consistency.
  • The nice thing about tabs is the ability to rearrange them for organizing lots of windows. It's currently not possible to rearrange file explorer windows from the Taskbar, when it is set as group common apps together. I hope this will give me a reasonable way of organizing my explorer windows and ideally it would affect the order in which window previews appear on the task bar pop out previews. All the 3rd party apps I use for productivity already implemented tabs, but as for Microsoft apps... Maybe if they did outlook there could be multiple open emails or drafts when referencing, but it would have to be a toggle because it's also useful to have popouts in some cases. Definetly chat apps could use it like Xbox. But Xbox needs a lot of work I wouldn't throw tabs at it just yet. Control Panel?
  • Apps where having multiple views at the same time is useful are good candidates for tabs. I've seldom found tabs all that useful for file managers/explorers. Dual panes on the other hand have always been useful--with dedicated functions for moving and copying (a primary part of managing files and folders). Microsoft has a ways to go if they want to eliminate the "aftermarket" for file managers.
  • That's why I use TotalCommander
    PS
    This is why I'm still on Win10, my Laptop is compatible with Win11, but I'm not
  • Very much a matter of personal preference, and good that we have so many choices in the Windows world. For me, I don't care for dual panes (except for syncing and showing differences between directories, like in Beyond Compare). I'd rather have 2 separate windows so I can keep them sized independently where I usually want the source window for dragging to be quite a bit larger than than the destination window. I don't find multiple tabs useful for the actions in the tab, but rather for helping to keep dozens of actions organized across diverse applications, for a recent example, grouping all of the tabs related to work on taxes, kept separate from my tabs for other activities. Then, I'll often pull the tabs out into their own windows for actual work, with a quick drag and drop back into the tabbed window to pause that and work on something else. Probably not relevant to many users, but essential for me with multiple client companies with lots of active projects ongoing every day. Just giving my use cases as examples. I know they don't apply to everyone. There is no 1 right way to do things. Depending on what you do, which can change over time, your needs will differ from mine and everyone else's. The only broad solution is support for lots of different styles of work.
  • Having tabs in the Notepad would be nice
  • Totally agree. That's one of the apps that would most benefit from them for me too.
  • Personally I don’t know yet, aside from just tabs in File Explorer, I would also like to columns as well. As a MacOS user, columns view is so much easier to use for navigating, drag & drop and folder addresses than having to open a separate Windows pane, opening up another folder or checking the folder address bar to see the folder pathways. QOL wishes 1. File/folder name horizontal scrolling with option choose speed for those file names that go longer than the window/column width. 2. Column horizontal line separators to have check boxes like Windows 10 OR have adequate mouse pointer/finger touch space to bring up options I.e. cut&paste, copy, move etc.. so you don’t unintentionally select files/folders when wanting to edit.
  • If I understand what you're describing, columns on Mac are more like an alternative to the the Tree view Windows uses in Explorer, rather than having anything to do with tabs. Tabs are just a way to group multiple windows and drag them around the screen together. Tabs don't affect navigation. For scrolling long file names, do you mean if it doesn't fit, if the user hovers the mouse over it, the filename (or path+filename) will scroll like a banner within its existing allotted space on the screen so the user can see the whole name scroll by? If so, I think that's a great idea and definitely not something that Windows currently does. Note for selection problems in the current system, if you have accidentally selected other items you didn't want, just hold down Ctrl and click on any to remove them from the selection.