File system

File managers

Or: navigating the file system with a graphical user interface (GUI).

You need to learn to navigate the file system on the command line because the current directory is critical for many operations. But it is also possible to interact with the file system using a GUI. All computer operating systems with a GUI have a mechanism for this, and although each looks different, their fundamental behaviour is the same. They have different names too:

  • Linux: File Manager
  • Windows: File Explorer
  • MacOS: Finder

If you’re unfamiliar with directory structures, using these applications can help you learn your way around.

Basic features

Every file manager is different, but they all have the same basic capabilities. This is a general example:

example file manager

Notice the following details:

  • what you see in the main panel is affected by settings in the View menu:

    • how the files are displayed (as icons, or a list)
    • which files are shown (for example, hidden files)
    • whether or not file extensions are displayed (it’s confusing if they are not)
  • the sidebar displays the file system’s structure as a tree:

    • it only shows directories (and shared and networked volumes too if any are available)
    • click on the little triangles to expand or collapse directories
    • if there’s no triangle, there are no subdirectories to go into
    • click on a directory to go into it (the main panel will change to show its contents)
  • the main panel shows the files (and subdirectories) within it:

    • the current directory is highlighted in the tree: if you change your position in the tree, the files displayed in the main panel will change too
  • the absolute path of the current directory is often shown — this may be useful for cutting-and-pasting (and the little icon might be useful for drag-and-dropping)

  • clicking on an icon selects it, but double-clicking tells the file manager to attempt to open it — using whatever application it thinks is best:

    • you may be able to right-click (or Ctl-click) to get more options
    • the File menu will probably have more options too when an item is selected

Look in the File, Edit and View menus to see what is possible.


There are usually buttons available on the file manager too:

  • forward and back
    These navigate through you history (so clicking back means going back to the directory you were looking at before this one).

  • up
    This goes up into the parent directory — every directory has one unless it is the root of the file system.

  • home
    If there is a home button, it will jump you straight to your user account’s home directory (in Unix this is ~).

Learn the keyboard shortcuts to navigate (for example, in Unix File Managers Alt-↑ may take you to the parent directory).

How to launch a file manager

Each operating system has different ways of launching the file manager, but in general either:

  • double-click on a directory icon
  • double-click the icon to launch the app
    • on Unix and Windows, it usually looks like a tiny filing cabinet
    • on Macs, the Finder icon is a blue square with a smiley face

Pay attention to which directory you’ve opened.

MacOS Finder tip

If you drag-and-drop a directory icon from the Finder window into terminal, it will drop the path of that directory onto the command line for you. In fact this works with any of the tiny file icons from the title bars of application windows, as well as icons from the Finder.