Windows 7/8/10/11: Shell namespace explained – and practical system hacks

Windows 7/8/10/11: Shell namespace explained – and practical system hacks
Written by insideindyhomes

Things in Windows aren’t always what they seem. A good example of this is dummy folders, which exist for compatibility reasons. In fact, there can only be one folder in the same directory – and no second time with the same name. However, so-called junctions seem to break with this rule: They are a construct to run older programs that were intended for Windows XP under Windows Vista and higher. Windows 11 is no exception to this sort of directory naming trickery. If you want to know more about junctions, read the article “Windows: Duplicate folders – why are they there? How to see them”.
Windows users with a keen interest in the reasons for certain strange behaviors can also quench their thirst for knowledge with the help of the guide “Windows Secrets: Mysteries in the Operating System Unraveled”. Another question mark hovers over the shell namespace. It is relevant in terms of file management and a lot more. We will address this in the following lines of this article.

Windows: Shell Namespace – some Explorer basics in advance

A file system is required to store files on a mass storage device such as an SSD or hard disk drive. It allows storing and retrieving files on a medium or one of its partitions. Filesystems specify certain properties, which is moderately relevant in the context of the shell namespace (more on that in a moment). NTFS formatting is common in the Windows environment, with the New Ttechnology file Ssystem – contrary to what the name implies – is not that new. It was already available under Windows XP, since Windows Vista it has been mandatory for formatting the system partition C: and with a new OS installation you no longer have a choice as to whether you would rather use FAT32 for C: as an alternative ( with Windows 2000 and XP there was still a handle here).
Files and folders within a file system are accessed via paths. They indicate where a file is stored. These file locations make navigation easier for you and are usually easy to read. They are always “logical”, i.e. they only exist from the point of view of the operating system or at the software level. Your data carrier (hardware level) only has something to do with this to a limited extent: It breaks down new files to be saved into fragments of the same size and writes them into memory blocks. On Windows, a table called MFT (Master file Table) ensures that the operating system knows which files stored physically (not logically) on your mass storage device belong to which logical paths, i.e. paths managed internally by the software and operating system. Therefore, opening files works – or loading a large number of files that are sometimes involved when starting a program.

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Show folder path

You can determine the path of a file or folder in various ways. If there is a folder, it is a good idea to open it and click on the address bar icon in the top left of Windows Explorer. Alternatively, click on a free, white space somewhere on the right of the address bar. Windows then resolves the path: The previously simplified path specification differs from the real one. Since Windows Vista, the operating system has shown a breadcrumb view in the Explorer address bar. In contrast to the XP Explorer address bar (this does not mean Internet Explorer), it does not show the real, but a modified folder path information. Compared to XP, thanks to the breadcrumb concept, it is equipped with comfort features. It looks something like this:

This PC > Local Disk (C:) > Programs

Clicking on one of the folders separated by “>” characters takes you to exactly that folder. And click the arrow icon to the right of a breadcrumbs folder, you will see subfolders of the directory; a click on one of the entries takes you there.

Do you want to see the path of the currently open folder and possibly copy it to the clipboard? Then drop the breadcrumbs masquerade: show the real folder path (by clicking on the folder icon in the address bar or to the right of the last “>” character). You will then see the correct path – which can be copied with Ctrl-C – and you can Ctrl-V paste a different path from the clipboard if it exists. You then control it with the Enter key.

The above path after pseudo-decryption is as follows:

C:Program Files

Windows 7/8/10: Shell namespace explained - and practical system hacks Microsoft describes this screenshot as a relatively simple namespace - i.e. a namespace.

Microsoft refers to this screenshot as a relatively simple namespace – that is, a namespace.

The Windows Shell namespace

Windows represents file systems, folders, LAN devices, and other resources in a tree hierarchy that Microsoft calls “Shell Namespace.” The English term shell means translated into German mussel or bowl. That’s what the Windows shell is: an interface for human-machine interaction. There is both a graphical shell (GUI, Graphical user interface, graphical user interface) as well as a text-based one. The GUI shell mainly includes the desktop, taskbar and Windows Explorer – content that is mouse-clickable, which promotes ease of use. The text- or console-based shell has on-board tools that can be used with keyboard input, i.e. command line (aka cmd.exe), PowerShell and, in Windows 11, the Windows Terminal app. The following is about the GUI shell. The shell namespace includes file systems (contents), but puts a hierarchy level on top of it and enriches the whole thing with virtual objects.

Take a look at the left area of ​​Windows Explorer: There you will find various entries. With a click you control the associated folders in the current Explorer window. It includes virtual objects that do not have their own path in the file system – they are often extremely practical. This includes the recycle bin. You can either double-click it on the desktop or add a call entry in the left explorer tree in order to reach the collection point for deleted items there with a single click. You can do the latter by right-clicking on a free space in Windows Explorer (left section) and activating “Show all folders” with a tick.

The recycle bin collects the deleted files from all your drives. The latter each have their own internal recycle bin folder, called “$RECYCLE.BIN”. The great [virtuelle] “Collection folder” recycle bin bundles the contents of several recycle bins in a central location – the Windows libraries do it in a similar way (related to previously undeleted files).

The “This PC” Explorer view introduced with Windows 8.1 is also virtual (a renaming of “Computer”, which was called that in Windows Vista/7/8 and followed the XP “My Computer”). Here you will primarily find a list of the drives available on your PC. Furthermore, there are Windows control panel sections that do not have their own (NTFS) path.

Windows 7/8/10: Shell namespace explained - and practical system hacks Depending on how you call up certain folders, the path broken down by click is different - above you can see the factory breadcrumb view.

Depending on how you go to specific folders, the click-through path will be different – above is the factory breadcrumb view. Below that, the representation differs.

You can find out whether a folder you have called up is a real or a virtual object: Open the hodgepodge of your choice and click on the Explorer address bar to display the location information. Now either a classic path specification appears or, in the case of virtual elements, just one word – or several words, but always without a drive letter, there may be slashes between the storage location specifications to separate them.

If you access the same folder in different ways, you will notice that sometimes Windows shows a classic (“correct”) file system path and sometimes it doesn’t. Some examples:

  • Press Win-E and open your desktop folder by double-clicking something like “C > Users > Sebastian > Desktop”. A mouse click in the Explorer address bar reveals that the location is “C:UsersSebastianDesktop”.
  • On the other hand, open the “Desktop” folder by clicking on the entry of the same name in the left Explorer tree (regardless of whether by clicking on the “Desktop” entry in the quick access introduced with Windows 10 or via the “Desktop” entry below it), the explorer address bar path entry to expand is just “Desktop”.
  • Pay a visit to the Music folder: With Win-R and the Environment Variables command %userprofile% open your user folder, alternatively you can do this with Win-R and entering a period (“.”). In both cases, double-click the “My Music” (Windows 7/8) or “Music” (Windows 8.1+) folder. A click in the address bar reveals the real (i.e. not virtual) directory path: C:UsersMusic.
  • The music path is virtual again if you access the music folder in another way: you call up Windows 11 Explorer with Win-E, switch to “This PC” from “Quick access” on the left and click on “Folder” at the top. double click “music”. If you now resolve “This PC > Music” by clicking in the Explorer address bar, the pseudo-path is “Music”.

Handy Shell Registry Hacks

If you want to ban the annoying quick access from Windows 10/11 Explorer, open with Win-R and regedit the registry editor. Confirm the UAC security query with “Yes”. Generate the following key


with “Edit > New > DWORD Value (32-bit)” the DWORD entry “HubMode”. If you assign it the value 1, the “Quick access” entry no longer appears at the top of the left tree bar in the file manager.

Want to add an icon to the Quick Access Explorer alternate view “This PC” that takes you to the Control Panel? Then navigate to the following location in regedit.exe:


and create a subkey there via the menu bar (“Edit > New > Key”), which you name as follows:


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