Windows copy and paste rants and raves

6 07 2009

Ever since Windows NT 4, I have had an issue with a very simple operation… copy and paste.  It may have existed prior to NT4, but that’s the OS where it started to matter to me.

It’s not something obvious like, resuming an interrupted transfer or having the progress bar be better integrated into the status of the files being copied (e.g. indicate they are in process or in queue so you don’t accidentally edit or delete them).

I can’t necessarily call this a bug, but it certainly is a pronounced behavior that exists today in Windows Vista and Windows 7.  It’s quite simple, and I’m going to talk about some of its effects. 

The steps to repeat the behavior are easy:

  • Multi-select several files (say file1.txt, file2.txt, and file3.txt)
  • Copy
  • Paste them into a new location

The files will copy in this order:

  1. file3.txt
  2. file1.txt
  3. file2.txt

Now for the ranting part…

Why this pisses me off

The implications of this tiny behavior can be profound depending on what you’re doing with these files.  For large and / or network file transfers, this can be bad in the following scenarios:

  1. You are copying time-sensitive data files into a folder for batch processing.  They are named by creation date.  When the last file goes in first, the batch processor throws the most recent data into the application and ignores all the other data.
  2. There are 5 large presentations you need from a distant shared drive.  The meeting is already starting late, and you want to start presenting with the first file in the list while the others copy.  Now you have to use shadow puppets and make small talk for an extra 5 minutes – which feels like an eternity.
  3. Your mate wants to watch the next episode of Battlestar Galactica, but to save time, you multi-select several episodes and paste them to your media PC… but the most recent episode shows up first and you have to wait twice as long to begin the first episode.
  4. You are going to batch process RAW photos and they need to stay in a particular order.  But when they arrive in the destination folder, sometimes the time stamp gets edited so now the last photo always shows up first (due to the time and date).

OK, #1 and 2 are the most serious.  However, while I’ve experienced all four of these situations, the one with the most grave implications has to be #3.

Now for a rave or two

Since I’m serving a beat-down to copy and paste, I should try to give that little operation some praise.  So, here’s an interesting feature not many people know about…

If you copy a complex list of files (lots of CTRL-Selecting) and paste them somewhere, but realize mid-operation that you need to fix something and try again, you may find this intriguing.

When you copy a file, you don’t copy the literal file as you know it.  You copy a pointer to its location.  That means, if you don’t trash the copy command you just performed (by, for instance, copying text in an application), you can actually manipulate the files involved in the copy command, close them, and paste them again without re-selecting everything.

It works like this:

  • Select all the files you need to copy
  • Copy them
  • Open one of the files, edit it (but don’t Copy anything)
  • Close the file
  • Paste to the new location

The files, with your new edits, will go over to the destination without issue.

OK, that comes up in VERY specific circumstances (for instance, if you have a file very deep in a folder structure and you don’t want to traverse the entire tree to get to it).

Another one:

CTRL-Mouse Drag is not the same as Copying something.  This is very useful in PowerPoint when you have a some text or a symbol you want to paste into several places, but need to duplicate a couple symbols as you’re traversing the slide deck. 

This is useful in PowerPoint because when you paste a symbol from one slide to another, it not only pastes the symbol, but also it’s EXACT location on the slide.  That means when you flip between slides, your drawings look the same.

You can:

  • Select the text or object you want
  • Copy
  • CTRL-Drag a shape to make a new copy
  • Edit the new copy of the shape, paste in the text or continue pasting symbols on each slide

Of course if you really want a lot of copy and paste enhancements, you can turn on the Office Clipboard which gives you a set of 24 separate copy buffers.  You can then go through and use them whenever you like during your editing session.  This can be very helpful for formatting and editing Word docs, or other documents where a simple Search and Replace won’t work well.

And finally…

I really like the new feature Vista introduced in explorer: check-boxes on files.  This takes the stress out of selecting several, non-contiguous files for copying and pasting.  You are never uncertain about the CTRL-click operation when you can select a file with a checkbox.

A gotcha: make sure you DE-select files when you’re done.  Sometimes you can click on another file’s checkbox,. press Delete, and you’ll see several more files disappear than you intended!

So, that’s a bit more detail about copy and paste than anyone needed… but, c’mon Microsoft… copy the files in the order I selected them!

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