Solving File Extension Problems

What to do when your files just won't open
July 2010
by Robin Wark

Ever double-click on a file and have nothing happen? Or maybe the wrong program tries to boot up? Perhaps you have been in a situation where someone has sent you a file and you don't know how to open it.

All of these troubles can be defined as file extension problems. File extensions are often overlooked, but they play an important role in the use of your computer.

What are file extensions?
File extensions are the short suffixes that appear after file names. For example, in Orange.pdf, Orange is the file name and .pdf is the file extension. The extension informs your PC of the file format it can expect the document to be in (Portable Document Format in this example). The extension also triggers the computer to use a certain program to open the file when you double-click on it.

This linking of software with specific file types is called file association. For example, a file extension .docx document would most likely be opened by Microsoft Office Word 2007 or another word processing program.

It used to be that file extensions were very generic. For example, .txt was a text file. Now, as shown in the .docx example, they are often linked to specific software or at least a kind of program - word processor, spreadsheet, etc.

How to open unknown extensions
Files come to you from all over these days: email, flash drives, the Web ... and everyone uses different programs to create, edit and view them. So, how do you figure out what to do to open them?

The first step is to look at the extension. For example, if it is a .jpg file, it likely can be viewed using a variety of image software, such as Adobe Photoshop, Windows Picture and Fax Viewer or even Internet Explorer. However, sometimes the extension does not seem to be there: some PCs are set to automatically hide the extension. You can make it reappear by following these steps:

  1. Open a folder on your hard drive, such as "My Computer" or "My Documents"
  2. Go under the "Tools" menu and select "Folder Options"
  3. Go to the "View" tab and, under the Advanced Settings, find "Hide extensions for known file types."
  4. Ensure that the box is empty/unchecked and click on "OK."

For Windows 7, the steps are quite similar:

  1. Open a folder on your hard drive, such as "Computer" or "Documents Library"
  2. Click "Organize" then select "Folder and Search Options"
  3. Go to the "View" tab and, under the Advanced Settings, find "Hide extensions for known file types."
  4. Ensure that the box is empty/unchecked and click "OK."

However, there are so many file extensions that even when you see it, you might not recognize what it is. You can contact the person that sent you the file and ask what they use to open it. Or you could make some guesses at what it might be and experiment with various programs.

There is also innovative software available that will analyze the file, let you know what the format is and even suggest programs to open it. The best of these will even link you to where you can download or acquire the necessary software if you don't have it. One such program is FileCure, which is available in free scan format below.

Perform a free scan of your PC for file extension errors with FileCure: Scan Now.

Dealing with associations
One of the tricky parts of file associations is making sure the correct software is associated with certain file extensions. You can set which programs you want associated with certain file types by assigning them. You can do this via the Windows Control Panel, which is accessed via the Start menu. Some software make it easy for you to switch association via a file extension manage feature. This takes the frustration out of clicking through Windows menus.

Once you set your file associations, that doesn't mean it won't change. Sometimes new software takes control of a bunch of file extensions. That might not be what you want. Also, if you share a computer, some users might prefer Windows Media Player for certain music files, while you like to rock out to your tunes using VLC player.

To make things easier, look into special programs that monitor your computer for any file association changes. If any do occur, the program notifies you. This saves you the frustration of double-clicking on a file at a later date and the wrong program booting up.

Make sure the registry is right
Another aspect to file associations and file extensions is the Windows registry. This complex, hierarchical database keeps track of all kinds of settings, preferences and relationships on your PC. If the registry becomes too large and unstable, corrupted (such as by a virus or spyware infection) or confused by the uninstallation of software, it can wreak havoc with the opening of files and your PC's performance in general.

Registry cleaners are sophisticated software that repair errors in this database. They get rid of unwanted entries and correct other ones, to restore stability, speed and performance.

Don't let file extension problems frustrate you
File extensions don't need to be a computer nightmare. Using the knowledge above will help you better understand what they do and what steps to take.

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