by Tony Gamble
Have you ever double-clicked a file and had it open up in a completely different program than what you expected? It always used to open by default in Whizbang Media Player, but lately it’s been opening up in Great-New-Video-App that you don’t even remember installing? You’re not alone. The majority of my clients, friends and family come to me with this problem on a regular basis. Very often, the culprit is a legitimate software installation that attaches itself to a file type as part of the install process. And with so many different file types available in this digital media world, default behaviours can change at the drop of a hat.
Say, for example, that you’ve been sent a certain type of video file that simply won’t open in your default player, such as Windows Media Player. The sender informs you that he uses Such-&-Such App to play it back (although if you remember, I strongly recommend VLC in these cases), which you happily install on his recommendation. As part of the install program, one of the screens shows you a long list of file types that this app can open, and most often these are already checked. Of course, you didn’t take the time to read through it but instead followed the time honoured tradition of clicking Next -> Next -> Next. Now, not only does this app play your new video file, but it also plays every other video file you double-click on your computer! How can we fix this?
The current versions of Windows provide a utility to through which you can declare your default programs. On Windows XP (which just over 12% of you are still using), you could only target a category of file types, such as “default instant messaging program” or “default Web browser”. Since Windows 7, though, the ability to target individual file types has been added. On Windows 7, you can find this utility under the Start Menu as “Default Programs”, or in the Control Panel under the Programs category. Famously devoid of a traditional Start Menu, Windows 8’s utility can be found in the same place under its Control Panel, accessed from the slide-out right sidebar by clicking Settings. Look for the link that says “Make a file type always open in a specific program”. This will give you a long list of file types and their extensions that you can customize to your heart’s content. It can be a painfully long list to sort through, though, so let’s take a shortcut.
Right-click on that file your friend sent you and select “Open with”. Windows will slide out a list of potential candidates, all seemingly compatible with your filetype. Move down and select “Choose default program”. The next window will present a list of recommended programs, of which your new program might be one. If it’s not, click the Browse button in the lower right on Windows 7, or the “More options” link and then “Look for another app on this PC” on Windows 8. When you’ve selected your new default, make sure the box is checked for “Always use the selected program…” (or “Use this app for all .xyz files” on Windows 8) and voilà! Now, every time you double-click that type of file, it will open in the app you’ve chosen. Until another installer changes it, of course. See? It’s helpful to read all those installer screens before clicking Next.
The Mac handles files a little differently. In fact, it’s not at all unusual to see a file on your Mac’s hard drive that doesn’t even have the typical extension you’re used to seeing on Windows, such as .avi or .doc. This is because OS X inserts a “creator code” in the file that tells the operating system which application saved the file. Because of this, we can be even more selective in setting our default app. You can tell OS X to open mycrazyvideo.avi in Whizbang Media Player while leaving all other AVI files untouched and still set to the default SpeedyTime app, a feature which I’ve found very handy. To change the default handler for a single file or indeed for all files of a type in Mac OS X, simply right-click on the file in question and select “Get info”. In the resulting pop-up window, look for the section labeled “Open with: “ where you will find a handy drop-down list of available applications as well as a link to the Mac App Store. Select your default app, and if you want all documents of that file type to open with it as well, click the Change All button.
If your computer is perplexing you with a seemingly trivial but irritating behaviour, feel free to drop me a line. I’ve found that many people simply suffer through such quirks because they don’t want to hear, “Duh! That’s so simple!” from their tech guy. You can find me on Twitter @trinzitter or leave a message in the Livefyre comments below.
Remember: your PC shouldn’t get in the way of building great content.