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Organizing Files and Information : Managing File Properties and Metadata

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3/20/2011 9:06:16 AM
Every file you view in Windows Explorer has a handful of properties that describe the file itself: the file name and file name extension (which in turn defines the file type), the file's size, the date and time it was created and last modified, and any file system attributes. These properties are stored in the file system itself and are used for basic browsing and searching.

In addition to these basic file properties, many data file formats can store custom metadata. These additional properties can be added by a device, by software, or directly by the user. When you take a digital picture, your camera might add the camera make and model, exposure time, ISO speed, and other details to the file when it's saved. When you rip a CD using Windows Media Player, it retrieves details about the artist and album from the Windows Metadata Internet Service and adds them to the MP3 or WMA files. Microsoft Office Word 2007 automatically adds your name to the Author field in a document you create; you can fill in additional properties such as keywords and comments and save them with the file.

Inside Out: Rate your favorite digital media files

For digital photos, music, and other media files, you'll notice that the Rating field is available in the details pane. Instead of providing a box to enter free-form text or a number, this field shows five stars, all of which are shown in gray initially. You can rate any file on a scale of 1 to 5 stars by clicking the appropriate star in the details pane or in a program that also supports ratings, such as Windows Media Player or Windows Live Photo Gallery. Adding ratings is a great way to filter large media collections so that they show only the entries you've previously rated highly. Ratings are also useful in playlists and screen savers and in the Favorites features in Windows Media Center.

The details pane, which runs along the bottom of Windows Explorer by default, displays a thumbnail of the selected file (if a thumbnail is available), plus a few properties. The number of properties shown depends on the height and width of the details pane. In the following illustration from a subfolder in the Pictures library, we see only three properties—the file name, the type, and the date the photo was taken.

You can make more properties appear by enlarging the details pane. Widening the Windows Explorer window and dragging the details pane divider upward, for example, changes the property display dramatically. It also increases the thumbnail size, as shown here:

Even when enlarged to its maximum size, the details pane doesn't necessarily show all properties for a given file. For that, you need to right-click the file, click Properties, and then click the Details tab of the file's properties dialog box. Figure 1 shows the dialog box for the digital photo in the preceding example, with the first portion of the list of properties visible.

Figure 1. This dialog box shows the full set of properties for a file, organized by category.

Some properties of a file, such as its file size, are calculated by the file system or are otherwise fixed and cannot be directly modified. But you can enter or edit custom metadata if the format of the underlying file allows you to do so. Metadata is saved within the file itself, using industry-standard data storage formats. Software developers who need to create a custom file format can make its metadata available to Windows using an add-in called a property handler, which opens the file format to read and write its properties. Because metadata is saved within the file itself, the properties you edit in Windows Explorer or a Windows program are fully portable. This means

  • You can move files to other computers, even those running other operating systems, without losing their tags and other metadata.

  • You can edit a file in an application other than the one in which it was created without losing any of the file's properties (assuming the other application properly adheres to the file format's standard for reading and writing metadata).

  • A file's properties are visible to anyone who has read access to the file.


You cannot save metadata for some file types

You can edit custom properties (including tags) only in files saved using a format that accommodates embedded metadata. For digital image files, Windows supports the JPEG, GIF, and TIFF formats, but you cannot save metadata in bitmap images and graphics files saved in PNG format because none of these formats were dveloped with metadata in mind. Among music file formats, MP3 and WMA fully support a wide range of properties designed to make it easy to manage a music collection; files saved in the uncompressed Wave Sound (.wav) format do not support any custom tags. Plain text and Rich Text Format (.rtf) files do not support custom metadata; files saved in Word formats expose a rich set of additional properties, as do all other native file formats from Microsoft Office programs.

In some cases, you'll find that you're unable to view or edit metadata in a file even though the underlying format supports metadata. In that case, the culprit is a missing property handler. In some cases, you can lose data in this situation if you're not careful. This might happen, for example, if you create a file using WordPad and save it in the Office Open XML Document format. If you then open that file using Word, you can add properties, such as author name, title, and comments. When you save the file, the file name extension (.docx) remains unchanged. However, if you reopen the document in WordPad you'll see an information bar at the top of the document warning you that the program does not support all the features of the file format:

If you make some changes and attempt to save the document under the same name or a different name, you'll see the following stern warning:

Believe that warning. If you choose the Save option, any custom properties you saved in an earlier version of the file will be stripped out permanently.

You can use the details pane to edit metadata as well. In the Music library, for example, you can fix errors or omissions in an individual track by selecting the track and then clicking an individual property in the details pane. Windows Explorer provides clues to help you spot properties that are currently blank but can be edited. In Figure 2, for example, the Album Artist field showed the text "Specify an album artist" until we clicked that text to reveal the editing box. The Save and Cancel buttons are visible only after you've clicked to begin editing.

To enter or change a property in the details pane, simply click and type. If you add two or more words or phrases to a field that accepts multiple entries (such as Tags or Authors), use semicolons to separate them. Click Save or just press Enter to add the new or changed properties to the file.

Figure 2. Click in any field in the details pane to make its contents visible. Click Save to write the edited properties to the file or files.

To edit properties that are not visible in the details pane, you need to right-click the file and choose Properties, and then select and edit values on the Details tab.

You can edit properties for multiple files at one time. This is especially useful when you're correcting an error in an album or artist name; just select all the songs in the album's folder. When more than one file is selected, you'll note that some properties in the details pane (such as track numbers and song titles) change to indicate that the specified field contains multiple values. Any change you make to any field will be written to all of the files in your selection.

Inside Out Remove personal metadata for privacy's sake

Metadata within a file can tell a lot about you. Cameras record data about when a picture was taken and what camera was used. Microsoft Office automatically adds author and company information to documents and spreadsheets. With user-created tags, you can add personal and business details that might be useful on a local copy but are unwise to disclose to the wider world.

To scrub a file of unwanted metadata in Windows 7, select one or more files in Windows Explorer, right-click, and then click Properties. On the Details tab, click Remove Properties And Personal Information. This opens the Remove Properties dialog box, an example of which is shown here:

At this point, you have two choices. The default option creates a copy of your file (using the original file name with the word Copy appended to it) and removes all properties it can change, based on the file type. The second option, Remove The Following Properties From This File, allows you to select the check boxes next to individual properties and permanently remove those properties from the file when you click OK. (If no check box is visible, that property is not editable.)

Of course, common sense should prevail when it comes to issues of privacy. This option zeroes out metadata, but it does nothing with the contents of the file itself. You'll need to be vigilant to ensure that a digital photo doesn't contain potentially revealing information in the image itself or that sensitive personal or business details aren't saved within a document's contents.

Other -----------------
- Organizing Files and Information : Arranging Data in Windows Explorer
- Organizing Files and Information : Using Compressed (Zipped) Folders
- Organizing Files and Information : Working with Libraries
- Mastering Windows Explorer (part 2) - What's What and Where in a User Profile
- Mastering Windows Explorer (part 1) - Navigating in Windows Explorer
- Windows 7 : Advanced Search Tools and Techniques (part 3)
- Windows 7 : Advanced Search Tools and Techniques (part 2)
- Windows 7 : Advanced Search Tools and Techniques (part 1) - Searching by Item Type or Kind & Changing the Scope of a Search
- Configuring Search and Indexing Options (part 4) - Refining a Search in Windows Explorer
- Configuring Search and Indexing Options (part 3) - Basic Search Techniques & Searching from the Start Menu
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