Windows Confidential: The Story of Restore

The history of the “Restore previous folder windows at logon” feature is certainly tumultuous—filled with back-and-forth decisions and user feedback.

Raymond Chen

When Microsoft introduced the new Explorer interface in Windows 95, there was a feature that saved open windows. Any Explorer windows open when you logged off were automatically reopened when you logged on again.

In Windows XP, this feature was disabled by default. You could re-enable it by checking the option to “Restore previous folder windows at logon.” Although disabled by default, this feature was carried forward to Windows Vista. Then in Windows 7, it ran into a snag due to a change in how Explorer saves window settings.

Prior to Windows 7, the size and position of an Explorer window was associated with the folder it was viewing. Your Documents folder opened at one size and position. Your Pictures folder opened at a different size and position.

This design led to a relatively common—yet troublesome—pattern. Users would open the Documents folder and resize it to their liking. They would then use that window to navigate to another folder, and then close the Explorer window. Windows would save the custom window size and position with the second folder, not with the Documents folder. When the users opened the Documents folder, it would be at the original size.

This was particularly frustrating when the original size was “wrong” in some important way. The result was complaints such as, “I don’t know why, but Explorer always opens my Documents window way too small,” and, “Every time, I resize it to something better, but the next time I open it, it’s back to its small size.” This frustration was compounded when users finally got their Documents to open at the right size, and then one day they opened the Pictures folder, navigated to Documents and then closed Explorer. Then their Documents folder looked like the Pictures folder.

One thing the Windows 7 folks tried to do was to save the folder settings when you navigated away or when you closed the window, but that just made things worse. If the user opened the Pictures folder, resized it just so, then navigated to the Documents folder and then closed the window, not only did the Pictures folder settings infect the Documents folder (as before), but both windows had the same saved size and position. If the user later opened the Documents folder and Pictures folder separately, they appeared directly on top of each other.

Compounding the problem further was that, while the size and position was stored as a folder attribute, the layout of the various frame components such as the Preview pane was a global setting. This led to conflicts where, for example, a Preview pane that was a reasonable size for one folder window was an oppressively wrong size for a smaller folder window.

Restoring Order

The solution (if that’s what you want to call it) was to make the sizing and positioning of Explorer windows a global setting, rather than a per-folder setting. Some people carefully position their folders so each one opens in a different part of the screen with a particular size. A consequence of this solution was that those people lost their careful window arrangement.

The hope was that the improved window resizing and positioning features of Windows 7 (like Aero Snap) might mitigate the need for such precise window positioning in general. The downside of this approach was that all folder windows ended up at the same size and position, which was a problem for the “Restore previous folder windows at logon” feature. All those restored windows ended up stacked on top of each other. Because that result was so horrible, and because the feature had been switched off by default for eight years anyway, Microsoft simply removed that feature during Windows 7 development.

Feedback from users was swift. So for the final release version of Windows 7, Microsoft restored the Restore feature—sort of. The global window-positioning policy remains in effect, but a special case is made for “Restore previous folder windows at logon.”

When you log off, the sizes and positions of those windows are saved in a special location. The “Restore previous folder windows at logon” feature can therefore restore them at exactly the same place they were when you logged off. That’s the reason for all the magical stored values. Open the window manually, and it will follow the global rules.

Raymond Chen

Raymond Chen's* Web site, The Old New Thing, and identically titled book (Addison-Wesley, 2007) deals with Windows history, Win32 programming and the illusory repair powers of black electrical tape.*