Shell extensions are programs that extend or modify the shell of an operating system, that is, the part of the operating system that provides an interface between the system kernel and the user.
In Windows the shell is Windows Explorer. Windows shell extensions usually appear as additional items on the right-click menu, also known as “context menu” (because it provides functionality relevant to the context). But this is not necessary, since a shell extension may modify other parts of Windows Explorer, like the taskbar or the start menu, without adding items to context menus. Also, often a shell extension is part of a larger program, to provide quick access from the context menu to the program’s most common functions. An instance of this is archivers like 7-Zip and WinRAR.
What follows is a selection of 15 useful shell extensions for Windows, covering a wide range of functionality, from renaming files to resizing images to managing hard links and symbolic links. All are free to use, while some are open-source software as well!
Three preliminary notes
- Use shell extensions with moderation! A large number can slow your system down.
- Some shell extensions are redundant if you use a good alternative file manager.
- “x64” stands for “64 bit”, that is, whether the extension works with 64-bit versions of Windows. “L10n” stands for “localization”. Extensions available in at least two languages are considered localized.
Quick links to the homepages of all 15 extensions:
- Attribute Changer
- Image Resizer PowerToy for Windows XP
- Link Shell Extension
- Open Command Prompt Shell Exension
- Send To Toys
- Shell Tools
The 15 shell extensions
1. Attribute Changer
WHAT: “[C]hange all kind of file and folder attributes.”
OS: 98, Me, 2000, XP, 2003, Vista // x64: NO // L10n: YES // Ver.: 6.10a
In the words of its author:
“Attribute Changer is a power user tool to change all kind of file and folder attributes, date, time and even NTFS compression. Exif date and time information stored in digital images are easily altered with Attribute Changer.
“Basic features include changing file and folder attributes within en masse. More advanced features include relative and partial date/time stamp modifications. Realtime monitoring and reporting is also available. File and folder filters are available to include/exclude filesystem objects based on various criteria.”
WHAT: View and edit music metadata in Windows Explorer
OS: 2000, XP // x64: NO // L10n: YES // Ver.: 1.3.5
AudioShell is a shell extension for audio files. It does four things:
- Improves the infotips that appear when audio files are hovered over.
- Adds a tab to the properties of audio files, with the same improved information.
- Adds a second tab, “AudioShell Tag Editor”, to edit metadata of audio files.
- Allows to add extra columns to Windows Explorer, to display audio metadata.
AudioShell supports all common audio formats, including Musepack, Ogg Vorbis, FLAC, Monkey’s Audio, and WavPack.
WHAT: “[R]ename files and/or folders by using perl functions and regular expressions.”
OS: XP, Vista // x64: YES // L10n: NO // Ver.: 0.5.4
awxRename is a shell extension to rename files and folders, and groups of selected files and folders, directly from the context menu. It offers a few preset rename schemes, to which you can add your own. For ad-hoc replacements, you can use its Advanced Options box (see screenshot above). It also supports regular expressions. — It’s one of my favourite extensions in Windows.
WHAT: Copy names and pathnames of files and folders.
OS: 9x, NT, 2000, Me, XP, Vista // x64: YES // L10n: YES // Ver.: 1.2.7
Clipname adds a menu item with a submenu το copy file and directory names and paths in various forms. It is well made and easy to use.
The probably confusing “CRLF” means “new line”. (It stands for “Carriage Return, then Line Feed”, which is how new lines are made in Windows.)
WHAT: “FastCopy is the Fastest Copy/Delete Software on Windows.”
OS: NT, 98, Me, 2000, XP, 2003, Vista // x64: YES // L10n: YES // Ver.: 1.91 // Other: OSS (BSD)
I don’t need a dedicated copier often, since the file manager I use in Windows is good at file transfers. When I need one, my favourite is FastCopy. It is light (very light), fast (very fast), simple, straightforward, well documented and actively developed. The integration into the context menu is optional (see screenshots).
WHAT: “[A]dds a tab called File Hashes to the Windows Explorer file properties.”
OS: NT, 2000, XP, 2003, Vista, 2008 // x64: YES // L10n: YES // Ver.: 2.1.1
Hashes, or hash sums, are integers calculated from sets of data. They are used, among other things, for file identification and comparison. The concept of a “hash sum” may sound technical, but it’s really just a number produced by an algorithm, and it has very useful implementations even in everyday desktop computing.
For example, you can use hashes to verify that:
- a download is not corrupt;
- a remote file —say, in a friend’s computer— is identical with a local file;
- two identically named and sized local files are indeed the same file.
HashTab adds a convenient tab to File Properties, simplifying the use and comparison of hashes via a graphical interface.
To install HashTab, you must agree with its licence first:
7. Image Resizer PowerToy for Windows XP
WHAT: “[R]esize one or many image files with a right-click.”
OS: 2000, XP // x64: NO // L10n: NO // Ver.: 1.00.0001
Image Resizer adds an item to the context menu for quick image resizing. It is well made and easy to use, like most Miscrosft power toys, and one of the more popular Windows shell extensions in general. It is not compatible with Windows Vista. (There are a couple of alternatives for Vista, but none that I feel comfortable recommending.)
8. Link Shell Extension
WHAT: “[C]reation of Hardlinks, Junctions, Volume Mountpoints, and Vista’s Symbolic Links”.
OS: 2000, XP, 2003, Vista // x64: YES // L10n: YES // Ver.: 184.108.40.206
In Unix systems symbolic links are used extensively. The Windows NTFS file system offers similar functionality since Windows 2000 (and in Windows Vista it also supports symbolic links) but this kind of file-system links is virtually unknown to Windows users. One reason is that Microsoft does not provide friendly tools to use them, only a couple of CLI utilities.
There are several third-party GUI tools for NTFS hardlinks and junctions, among which Link Shell Extension is the most complete. Its page offers detailed instructions on usage and a good introduction to the subject.
9. Open Command Prompt Shell Extension
WHAT: “[A]dds an Open Command Prompt menu item to the context menus [to] open a command prompt in the selected directory (or directories) or in the directory you are viewing.”
OS: 2000, XP, 2003, Vista // x64: YES // L10n: YES // Ver.: 1.1.2 // Other: OSS (BSD)
Better that the Microsoft PowerToy: No need to go one directory up first — just click on an empty space! — And multilingual too!
WHAT: “[S]pecify the position and size of Windows’ Open and Save dialog boxes, and also [...] initial focus and default view.”
OS: 2000, XP // x64: NO // L10n: NO // Ver.: 1.2b // Other: OSS (GPL)
OpenWide improves Open/Save dialog boxes, one of the biggest sources of annoyances in Windows. With it you can set the size and position of Open/Save boxes, and also define initial focus and default view. Additionaly, when you drop a folder to the title bar of an Open/Save box, the view changes to that folder.
There are some programs that don’t use the “common dialogs” of Windows for their Open/Save boxes, and OpenWide cannot handle those. But it handles everything else.
WHAT: Adds extensions/items to the system menu of application windows.
OS: 9x, 2000, Me, XP, Vista // x64: NO // L10n: NO // Ver.: 1.5.1
PowerMenu adds four items to the menu that appears when the caption of a window is clicked:
- PRIORITY. Increase the priority of urgent tasks, decrease it for those that can wait.
- TRANSPARENCY. From 0% (default: perfect opacity) to 100% (invisible window).
- ALWAYS ON TOP. Make a window stay above other windows when it does not have focus.
- MINIMIZE TO TRAY. Minimize a window to the system tray, to save space on the taskbar.
The current version of PowerMenu (1.5.1) came out in 2002. Six years after, PowerMenu remains one of the most popular shell extensions.
12. Send To Toys
WHAT: “[A]n enhancement of the Send To system menu.”
OS: 2000, XP, 2003, Vista // x64: NO // L10n: YES // Ver.: 2.5
If you use the Send To menu, Send To Toys is a very good enhancement: It adds eight new items to perform all kinds of tasks, and it is very customizable. You can select just the items you want, and then customize them to suit your needs.
For a detailed review of Sent To Toys, see: Power up and manage your Windows Send To menu with Send To Toys by the How-To Geek.
13. Shell Tools
WHAT: “[C]ollection of free Windows shell extensions and utilities.”
OS: 2000, XP, Vista // x64: NO // L10n: NO // Ver.: 1.10
Shell Tools is a suite of shell extensions with two features not common in similar utilities:
- FILENOTE. This makes a TXT file with the same name as the selected file, to put notes in. If a TXT file with the same name exists, then this is opened.
- SHOW HIDDEN FILES. A menu item to quickly show and hide hidden files.
Among its other features, Shell Tools can also copy filenames and URLs to the clipboard. By default no feature is enabled. You select the ones you want. I like that!
WHAT: Manager/viewer of shell extensions
OS: 98, 2000, Me, XP, 2003, Vista // x64: YES // L10n: YES // Ver.: 1.30
ShellExView is not a shell extension, but a viewer/manager of shell extensions. It is an essential tool if you have many shell extensions and programs that use shell extensions.
It is useful even if you don’t have any third-party extensions, since it allows you to disable/enable Microsoft shell extensions too. (I use it to remove Windows Media Player from the context menu.) But be careful with Microsoft shell extensions! Some are essential system parts!
WHAT: Helps you deal with “this scandalous Windows bug”.
OS: 2000, XP, 2003, Vista // L10n: YES // Ver.: 1.8.7
The “scandalous Windows bug”:
Cannot delete [FILENAME]. Access is denied. Make sure the disk is not full or write-protected and that the file is not currently in use.
If you encounter this kind of messages often, you will find Unlocker useful. It finds the process or processes by which the file is locked, and offers an option to unlock the file in order to delete it (see screenshot above).
IMPORTANT! From the author of Unlocker:
It is recommended to unlock wisely and to close open processes locking files or folders, if any. But if only explorer.exe is the culprit, do not hesitate! :D
3 of the 15 extensions do not provide information about Vista compatibility: AudioShell, awxRename and OpenWide. AudioShell and axwRename were tried on Windows 2008 Server and seem to work. If they work in 2008 Server, they should also be fine in Vista. — If you use any of them in Vista/2008, your feedback is appreciated! — Your feedback is appreciated anyway!
Note also that AudioShell, while it may work in Vista/2008, it cannot add columns to Windows Explorer. This is a general issue with shell extensions and Windows Vista at present.
- “Some Windows Explorer extensions and some Control Panel items are not displayed on computers that are running an x64-based version of Windows”: Cause, Workaround, and Information.
FILE MANAGERS FOR WINDOWS
Much of the functionality of third-party shell extensions can also be found incorporated in good file managers for Windows. Total Commander and xplorer² Pro are two of the best:
- Total Commander: Powerful dual-pane file manager for Windows. It is the best known of its kind, and highly extensible.
- xplorer² Pro: Another powerful dual-pane file manager for Windows. It comes in 32-bit and 64-bit versions, and also in a freeware version (xplorer² Lite).