Basic Windows Terminology

Microsoft Windows, commonly referred to as Windows, is a group of several proprietary graphical operating system families, all of which are developed and marketed by Microsoft. Each family caters to a certain sector of the computing industry

Microsoft Windows, also called Windows and Windows OS, computer operating system (OS) developed by Microsoft corporation to run personal computers (PCs). Featuring the first graphical user interface (GUI) for IBM compatible PCs, the Windows OS soon dominated the PC market. Approximately 90 percent of PCs run some version of Windows.

BRITANNICA QUIZComputers and Operating SystemsHow does the Internet move information between computers? What is the operating system made by Microsoft? Log into this quiz and test your knowledge of computers and operating systems.

The first version of Windows, released in 1985, was simply a GUI offered as an extension  of Microsoft’s existing disk operating system, orMS-DOS Based in part on licensed concepts that Apple incorporated had used for its Macintosh System Software, Windows for the first time allowed DOS users to visually navigate a virtual desktop, opening graphical “windows” displaying the contents of electronic folders and files with the click of a MOUSE button, rather than typing commands and directory paths at a text prompt.

Subsequent versions introduced greater functionality, including native Windows File Manager, Program Manager, and Print Manager programs, and a more dynamic interface. Microsoft also developed specialized Windows packages, including the networkable Windows for Workgroups and the high-powered Windows NT, aimed at businesses. The 1995 consumer release Windows 95 fully integrated  Windows and DOS and offered built-in internet  support, including the World wide web browser internet explorer


In this section, a client version of Windows is a version that end-users or OEMs can install on personal computers, including desktop computers, laptops, and workstations.

Windows versionCodenamesReleasedateRelease versionEditionsLatest buildSupport status
Windows 10Threshold, Redstone, 19H1, 19H2, 20H1, 20H2, 21H1
July 15, 2015July 29, 2015 (Availability)NT 10.0[2]Main article: Windows 10 editionsWindows 10 HomeMicrosoft Surface xWindows 10 ProWindows 10 Pro for WorkstationsWindows 10 Pro EducationWindows 10 EnterpriseWindows 10 Enterprise LTSC (formerly LTSB)Windows 10 EducationWindows 10 IoT CoreWindows 10 IoT EnterpriseWindows 10 S (now an operational mode within Enterprise and Education)[3]19042 (version 20H2)All editions except LTSB/LTSC: Major versions serviced for 18 months from release date (30 months for Enterprise customers).[4]2015 LTSB: Mainstream support until October 13, 2020; Extended support until October 14, 20252016 LTSB: Mainstream support until October 12, 2021; Extended support until October 13, 20262019 LTSC: Mainstream support until January 9, 2024; Extended support until January 9, 2029
Windows 8.1BlueAugust 27, 2013October 17, 2013 (Availability)NT 6.3Main article: Windows 8 editionsWindows 8.1Windows 8.1 ProWindows 8.1 EnterpriseWindows 8.1 OEMWindows 8.1 with Bing9600Mainstream support ended on January 9, 2018Extended support ends on January 10, 2023
Windows 8‘8’August 1, 2012October 26, 2012 (Availability)NT 6.2Main article: Windows 8 editionsWindows 8Windows 8 ProWindows 8 EnterpriseWindows 8 OEM9200Unsupported as of January 12, 2016
Windows 7Windows 7[5]July 22, 2009October 22, 2009 (Availability)NT 6.1Main article: Windows 7 editionsWindows 7 StarterWindows 7 Home BasicWindows 7 Home PremiumWindows 7 ProfessionalWindows 7 EnterpriseWindows 7 UltimateWindows Thin PC7601(Service Pack 1)Mainstream support ended on January 13, 2015Extended support ended on January 14, 2020
Windows VistaLonghornNovember 8, 2006January 30, 2007 (Availability)NT 6.0Main article: Windows Vista editionsWindows Vista StarterWindows Vista Home BasicWindows Vista Home PremiumWindows Vista BusinessWindows Vista EnterpriseWindows Vista Ultimate6002(Service Pack 2)Mainstream support ended on April 10, 2012Extended support ended on April 11, 2017
Windows XP Professional x64 EditionWhistler[citation needed]April 25, 2005NT 5.2N/A3790(Service Pack 2)Mainstream support ended on April 14, 2009Extended support ended on April 8, 2014
Windows XPWhistlerAugust 24, 2001October 25, 2001 (Availability)NT 5.1Main article: Windows XP editionsWindows XP StarterWindows XP HomeWindows XP ProfessionalWindows XP 64-bit EditionWindows XP Embedded “Codenamed Mantis”Windows Fundamentals for Legacy PCs (July 8, 2006)2600(Service Pack 3)Mainstream support ended on April 14, 2009Extended support ended on April 8, 2014
Windows MeMillenniumJune 19, 2000September 14, 2000 (Availability)4.90N/A3000Mainstream support ended on December 31, 2003Extended support ended on July 11, 2006
Windows 2000Windows NT 5.0December 15, 1999February 17, 2000 (Availability)NT 5.0Professional2195Mainstream support ended on June 30, 2005Extended support ended on July 13, 2010
Windows 98Memphis, ChiCairo[6]May 15, 1998June 25, 1998 (Availability)4.10Windows 98 Second EditionMay 5, 19992222 AMainstream support ended on June 30, 2002Extended support ended on July 11, 2006
Windows NT 4.0Shell Update Release (SUR)July 31, 1996August 24, 1996 (Availability)NT 4.0Windows NT 4.0 WorkstationWindows NT 4.0 Terminal Server “Codenamed Hydra”Windows NT 4.0 Embedded “Codenamed Impala”1381(Service Pack 6a)Mainstream support ended on June 30, 2002Extended support ended on June 30, 2004
Windows 95ChicagoAugust 15, 1995August 24, 1995 (Availability)4.00Windows 95Windows 95 SP1 (December 31, 1995)Windows 95 OSR1 (February 14, 1996)Windows 95 OSR2 “Codenamed Detroit” (August 24, 1996)Windows 95 USB Supplement to OSR2 (August 27, 1997)Windows 95 OSR2.1 (August 27, 1997)Windows 95 OSR2.5 (November 26, 1997)950Mainstream support ended on December 31, 2000Extended support ended on December 31, 2001
Windows NT 3.51N/AMay 30, 1995NT 3.51Windows NT 3.51 Workstation1057Unsupported as of December 31, 2001
Windows NT 3.5DaytonaSeptember 21, 1994NT 3.5Windows NT 3.5 Workstation807Unsupported as of December 31, 2001
Windows 3.2N/ANovember 22, 19933.2N/A153Unsupported as of December 31, 2001
Windows for Workgroups 3.11SnowballNovember 8, 19933.11N/A300Unsupported as of December 31, 2001
Windows NT 3.1Razzle[7]July 27, 1993NT 3.1Windows NT 3.1528Unsupported as of December 31, 2001
Windows 3.1N/AApril 6, 19923.10Windows 3.1Windows for Workgroups 3.1 “Codenamed Sparta (Jastro), Winball (Kato)” (October 1992)103Unsupported as of December 31, 2001
Windows 3.0N/AMay 22, 19903.00Windows 3.0aWindows 3.0 with Multimedia ExtensionsN/AUnsupported as of December 31, 2001
Windows 2.11N/AMarch 13, 19892.11Windows/286Windows/386N/AUnsupported as of December 31, 2001
Windows 2.10N/AMay 27, 19882.10Windows/286Windows/386N/AUnsupported as of December 31, 2001
Windows 2.03N/ADecember 9, 19872.03N/AN/AUnsupported as of December 31, 2001
Windows 1.04N/AApril 10, 19871.04N/AN/AUnsupported as of December 31, 2001
Windows 1.03N/AAugust 21, 19861.03N/AN/AUnsupported as of December 31, 2001
Windows 1.02N/AMay 14, 19861.02N/AN/AUnsupported as of December 31, 2001
Windows 1.0Interface ManagerNovember 20, 19851.01N/AN/AUnsupported as of December 31, 2001

Server version

Windows versionRelease dateRelease versionEditionsLatest buildSupport status
Windows Server, version 2004[8]June 26, 2020NT 10.0Windows Server Standard (Core Only)Windows Server Datacenter (Core Only)19041Mainstream support until December 14, 2021Extended support: N/A[9]
Windows Server, version 1909[9]NT 10.0Windows Server Standard (Core Only)Windows Server Datacenter (Core Only)18363Mainstream support until May 11, 2021Extended support: N/A[9]
Windows Server, version 1903[9]NT 10.0Windows Server Standard (Core Only)Windows Server Datacenter (Core Only)18362Mainstream support ended as of December 8, 2020Extended support: N/A[9]
Windows Server 2019November 13, 2018NT 10.0Windows Server 2019 EssentialsWindows Server 2019 StandardWindows Server 2019 Datacenter17763Mainstream support until January 9, 2024Extended support until January 9, 2029


Common Windows Items

The following are just some of the terms used to describe the Windows desktop you are likely to run into. Most are indicated in the diagram below the list:

  • Desktop refers to the background of your screen on which the various programs run. Think of your computer screen as your electronic desktop.
  • Icons are those small pictures on the desktop and inside folders that represent various programs, specialized folders, etc.
  • Folders are containers that can contain icons, programs, data or other folders (sub-folders). The default folder icon looks like a Manila file folder but the look varies with different Windows versions. System folders generally look like icons and any folder can be modified to change its appearance.
  • Title bar refers to the bar at the top of an open window. The folder’s title will tell you what the folder is used for. It contains the minimize, maximize and close buttons. You can use the title bar to move a window around.
  • Cursor is the graphic pointer which indicates where the mouse is and what sort of action it is performing. The cursor will change from the default arrow to various shapes according to the purpose it is serving at the time. For instance, it may form an I-beam shape when you are selecting text in a document or a double-arrow when you are resizing a window.
  • Task bar refers to the bar usually at the bottom of your Windows screen (it is movable) containing the Start Button on the left and the clock and grouped icons on the right.
  • Scroll Bar appears when there is more information in the window than can be displayed. This is usually a vertical scroll bar, but a horizontal scroll bar may appear if the width of the window is too narrow. Windows 10 often hides scroll bars until you hover over them.
  • The Address Bar tells you your location and provides the tools to navigate around your computer. These settings vary by Windows version and can be modified.

While this list is based upon Windows, other operating systems like Mac and Linuxuse a lot of the same terminology

Files & Folders

The Windows folder can be thought of in the same manner as a folder in a filing cabinet. It is designed to hold files and other folders (which are called “nested” folders).

If you remember the pre-Windows DOS environment, directories served the same purpose as folders except that they are not represented by a GUI which most modern operating systems are, including Windows.

The Window

The window (from which the term “Windows” is derived) has various elements. In Windows, the desktop and most windows are also folders.

The most common elements of a typical window are labelled in the Windows 10 diagram below which can help to communicate what you’re dealing with when speaking to another person or documenting a procedure for future reference:

Various components of a Windows 10 window labelled

This folder is one of the optional desktop folders called the User’s Files.

  • The Navigation Pane provides quick links to various folders and locations on your computer.
  • The Title Bar contains the Quick Access toolbar inherited from Office.
  • The Ribbon is another toolbar inherited from Office.
  • Documents contains most of your user documents and files (except for music, pictures and videos).
  • Some of the content are normally hidden (the lighter coloured icons such as the AppData and MicrosoftEdgeBackups folder and NTUSER.DAT file) but I’ve changed the settings to display them.
  • The Address Bar has a bread crumb menu when the folder is contained within other folders (e.g. “ > Owner > Documents > Backups”). Clicking on any of the listed items takes you to that folder. Clicking behind the address transforms it into the C:\Owner\Documents\Backups format.
    • A longer address example would be “> Owner > Pictures > Family”which would transforms into C:\Owner\Pictures\Family.
    • Clicking on Pictures would take you back to the Pictures folder.
    • Clicking on Owner would take you to the folder shown in the diagram above.

Windows 7 displays these elements somewhat differently. The most common are labelled in the diagram below:

Various components of a Windows 7 window labelled

Some of these folders are not standard in Windows 7 such as Dropbox and Screen Captures.

Windows Hidden Folders

Many of the system folders are hidden by default but can be displayed in Windows if you change the default settings.

  • Look for Folder Options in the Control Panel, click on the View tab then click the radio button on “Show hidden files, folders and drives.”
  • Once unhidden, previously hidden files and folders are displayed as slightly translucent to distinguish them from regular folders

Be careful when making changes to system files and folders — you can seriously damage your data and settings.

Application Data

Application data for many of the programs in Windows is stored in a series of hidden folders.

In Windows XP this information is stored in the “Application Data” folders; in Windows Vista and later it is stored in the “AppData” folder:

  • Windows Vista, 7, 8 and 10:
    • C:\Users\[User]\AppData.
    • There are three sub-folders under AppData: Local, LocalLow and Roaming.
  • Windows XP:
    • C:\Documents and Settings\[User]\Application Data.
    • C:\Documents and Settings\[User]\Local Settings\Application Data.

In most cases the [User] folder is named “Owner” or your name or some variation depending upon the settings chosen when Windows was installed.

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Mouse Clicks

Right or Left?

You’ll see at least two buttons on your mouse (most current mice have a middle button and may have others). The type of click means the button you push when you click. Left-handed users will have to reverse these instructions.

  • The left-click selects items and will be used most often. If no button is specified, this will be the one you use.
  • If you right-click on an item you will get a context-sensitive menu with a list of the things that you can do with the item you clicked on.

When you right-click to obtain a menu, you will select the menu with the left button (generally just referred to as selecting or clicking — the left mouse button click is assumed).

Context Sensitivity

When you right-click on various locations on the screen the results vary (known as context sensitive):

  • Right-clicking an icon on your desktop will include the option to open it.
  • Right-clicking on the background (desktop) will give you options to arrange icons or refresh the desktop.

When you right-click on various locations on the screen the resulting list of options vary (known as context sensitive).

A very useful selection is Properties option when you right-click on an object. This will give you information about the icon or object you are selecting. The menu options differ between various versions of Windows.

Useful Properties

Some of the more useful Windows options and properties available are found byright-clicking key icons on your desktop (if they don’t appear on the desktop, look under the Start button).

For Experienced Users

Some management tools accessed via these menus should only be accessed by knowledgable users. You can seriously damage your Windows installation or stop it from running altogether if you misconfigure the settings.

Unless you understand the consequences, you shouldn’t change any of the options.

  • Right-clicking the Desktop provides access to
    • Screen Resolution where you can set screen resolution and some other display preferences; and
    • Personalize where you can modify your desktop icons, background, sounds and screen saver.
  • Right-clicking Computer provides access to
    • Properties which opens System Properties (for information about your computer’s hardware including the Windows Experience Index) as well as links to the Device Manager (hardware) & Remote Settings (remote assistance connections to your computer); and
    • Manage which opens Computer Management (including Device Manager under System Tools).
  • Right-clicking the Task Bar provides access to
    • Properties which allows the management of your Taskbar and Start Menu including Aero Peek, power button default action and options for the icons and notifications that appear next to the clock; and
    • Start Task Manager includes Applications (running programs) and Processes (program components) which is particularly useful in closing programs that are not responding (hung).
  • Right-clicking Network Properties gives you your Network and Sharing Center which includes managing your Internet connection.

Windows 10

Windows 10 works somewhat differently and hides many of these options. Users can find these settings by right-clicking the Start Button:

  • Apps and Features
  • Mobility Center
  • Power Options
  • Event Viewer
  • System
  • Device Manager
  • Network Connections
  • Disk Management
  • Computer Management
  • Windows PowerShell
  • Task Manager
  • Settings
  • File Explorer
  • Search
  • Run

The items listed and their order have changed significantly since Windows 10 was first released.

The Windows Menu System

Beginning with Windows Vista there was a move away from the default inclusion of text menus because computer monitors and screens have become wider but not as tall (16:9 aspect ratio rather than 4:3). Vertical screen real estate became more valuable and the menu at the top of the screen began to be hidden or replaced.

Legacy Menus

In legacy Windows there is a consistency of the order and nature of menus across various programs. There will almost always be the File, Edit, View and Help menus in the same order although other menus specific to the program you are using may be in between some of these:

  • File: contains the filing options as you might expect such as open and close documents, but also the printer options and usually others such as page setup or import/export options.
  • Edit: contains copy and paste as well as other selection items. It sometimes contains the options for the program you are viewing.
  • View: contains options to change the items you are viewing, including toolbars options.
  • Help: contains help, but clicking on the About sub-menu will give you the program version.


You’ll often see sub-menus indicated by a small arrow (or triangle) at the end of menus with additional choices. If you hold your mouse over the menus, they will open up to display their contents or you can click on them.

Keyboard Alternatives

If you look at menus, you’ll see that some items have keyboard alternatives. For example, Ctrl+P (press and hold the Ctrl key, then press the “p” key) will print the current document and Ctrl+N will open a new window in Firefox. While most menus show a capital letter, the lower case keyboard stroke works just fine.

In legacy Windows versions, some letters are underlined. Using the Alt key in combination with the indicated letter, you can navigate the menu without a mouse, useful if your mouse is not working or if you are typing a document and don’t wish to leave the keyboard to use the mouse.

Touch Devices

With the trend towards touch screens, the physical keyboard is a dying breed (replaced with an on-screen touch-board) so these keyboard alternatives are bound to die. This is unfortunate because it is easier to hit Ctrl+I to begin italics and Ctrl+I again to end italics than to leave the keyboard to make the necessary mouse or touchscreen moves.

Hidden & Hamburger Menus

Recent versions of many programs use a “hamburger” menu (Example of a “hamburger” menu.) to indicate the presence of a hidden menu. Other programs use either a stylized vertical (⋮) or horizontal (…) ellipsis.

Text menu options may still work or are simply hidden (Firefox users can choose the Customize option then look for Show/Hide Toolbars)

Windows & File Extensions

File extensions are the part of the filename that is after the dot in Windows. For example, readme.txt has txt as its extension indicating that it is a text file.

Modern Windows More Flexible

Old DOS programs used to be limited to eight letters/numbers before the dot and three after (hence the term 8.3 was commonly used). Spaces weren’t allowed and many characters were “reserved.”

Current Windows systems allow spaces and can use up to 256 characters before the dot and at least four behind (e.g. Letter to Mary December 25, 2009.docx).

Unfortunately, using large file names can have consequences if you’re storing documents in a significant number of nested folders (e.g.C:\Documents\Clients\Miscellaneous\Invoices\2019\May\Acme\Reclassification of the brown widgets on the Douglas Street renovation project.docx). Such files may not be able to be copied or backed up into similar folder and file structures because of limitations in Windows.

Extensions Tell What Type of File

The 3 or 4 character extension (the part after the final dot) tells Windows how to deal with a certain file by identifying the type of file it is.

By associating a certain extension with a default program to deal with that sort of file, you can open the program by double-clicking on the filename. The type of file is usually indicated by its icon as well.

You can select an alternative program to open the file by right-clicking on the document icon and selecting Open with and choosing the program you want from a list.

For example, I set Irfanview as my default viewer for JPG files, but use Photoshop for most image editing. Irfanview opens the file much quicker but Photoshop is much more capable in its editing capabilities.

Common Extensions

There are hundreds of extensions, many of which are proprietary (e.g. specific to a particular program) and quite a few that are legacy (no longer in active use). Some of the more common ones are:

  • .txt text file
  • .doc Microsoft Word legacy document
  • .docx Microsoft Word open XML document (Word 2007 or later)
  • .xls Microsoft Excel legacy spreadsheet
  • .xlsx Microsoft Excel open XML spreadsheet (Excel 2007 or later)
  • .ppt Microsoft PowerPoint legacy presentation document
  • .pptx Microsoft PowerPoint open presentation document (PowerPoint 2007 or later)
  • .html Web page (Hypertext Markup Language) file
  • .mp3 audio (music) file
  • .pdf Adobe Portable Document Format file (Adobe Reader)
  • .jpg JPEG image file (usually a photo)
  • .iso Disc Image File used to create a CD or DVD

Many programs can open these extensions other than the ones indicated.LibreOffice and other suites can open and save Microsoft Office documents and PDFs can be opened with many PDF readers and most modern browsers.

Unlisted Extensions

If you wish to learn what a file is used for, you can visit’s list of common file extensions (if you don’t see the extension in the common files, click a letter at the top that the extension you’re looking for begins with).

Dangerous Extensions

There are many more of these than you are likely to see. Some Windows extensions can indicate programs that can do harm to your computer. Unless you know exactly what a file will do, it is better to ignore it than to get yourself into trouble by clicking on it.

You should always be careful with files that have the following extensions, particularly if attached to an email message, because they can be used to install malicious or unwanted programs:

  • .pif program information file
  • .exe executable (program) file
  • .bat batch file — can call other files including program or scripting files
  • .scr scripting file — sometimes mistakenly called a screen saver file

Most users should not see any of these sorts of files attached to legitimate emails. It is far more likely that it was included with the intention of infecting your computer with a virus or malware than being something you genuinely need coming from a trusted source.

Unfortunately, scripting in Microsoft Office has lead to vulnerabilities in those common files as well. Never open an unexpected document, even from a known source, without checking it for malware.

Unhide Hidden File Extensions

Windows hides “known” extensions by default. These are extensions that Windows“knows.” You may not.

Some files are risky (e.g. those that can infect your computer) and without knowing what the real extension is as well as whether it is safe or not could be dangerous.

An Example

Suppose the phonelist.txt.scr file is attached to an email.

If the file extensions are hidden (the Microsoft default), the filephonelist.txt.scr would be displayed as phonelist.txt. You may think the file is a text file and therefore safe to open. You’d be wrong (and would probably be sending your computer to the repair shop):

  • .scr indicates a scripting file, NOT a screen saver as many assume.
  • The .scr extension is seldom safe to open — especially when you are unsure of the source as is the case with an email attachment.

Even if you believe that you’ve received the message from a friend, they may have thought they were forwarding a screen saver file or it could have been attached by a virus on their computer or someone could have hacked their email address.

In any case, you need to know what the file extensions actually are on your computer and cannot trust unknown files.

How to Unhide “Known” File Extensions

You should re-enable the display of these extensions.

Search for “File Explorer Options” in Settings or look for it in the Control Panel. Click the View tab then de-select “Hide extensions for known file types.” Click OK to finish.

File Explorer Options was called Folder Options prior to Windows 10.

“Show hidden files, folders and drives” dialogue box.

Click OK to accept the changes and close the dialogue box. You should now be able to see previously-hidden known file extensions.

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