What Is a Computer File?

MP3s and JPGs are examples of files

A file, in the computer world, is a self-contained piece of information available to the operating system and any number of individual programs.

A computer file can be thought of much like a traditional file that one would find in an office's file cabinet. Just like an office file, the information in a computer file could consist of basically anything.

Row of red work files, with one yellow one
Seb Oliver / Getty Images

More About Computer Files

Whatever program uses an individual file is responsible for understanding its contents. Similar types of files are said to be of a common "format." In most cases, the easiest way to determine a file's format is to look at the file's extension.

Each individual file in Windows (and most other operating systems) will also have a file attribute which sets a condition to the specific file. For example, you can't write new information to a file that has the read-only attribute turned on.

A filename is just the name that a user or program titles the file to help identify what it is. An image file may be named something like kids-lake-2017.jpg. The name itself doesn't affect the contents of the file, so even if a video file is named something like image.mp4, it doesn't mean it's suddenly a picture file.

Files in any operating system are stored on hard drives, optical drives, and other storage devices. The specific way a file is stored and organized is referred to as a file system, which starts with the root directory and then continues to countless subdirectories or folders.

A free data recovery tool can be used if you've deleted a file by mistake.

See our guide on how to copy a file in Windows if you need help copying a file from one place to another.

Similar to copying, when files are downloaded from the internet, they're transferred from someone else's computer, or a file server, to your computer, phone, tablet, etc. The same is true in reverse; backing up data to a cloud backup service, for example, or sending a file to someone over email, means that the data is being copied, and the duplicates are saved on a server. In these examples, the backup service holds a copy so you can get it again should you lose the original, and an email server holds a copy so the message recipient can download the file to their device.

Examples of Files

An image you copy from your camera to your computer may be in the JPG or TIF format. These are files in the same way that videos in the MP4 format, or MP3 audio files, are files. The same holds true for DOCX files used with Microsoft Word, TXT files that hold plain text information, etc.

While files are contained in folders for organization (like the photos in your Pictures folder or music files in your iTunes folder), some files are in compressed folders, but they're still considered files. For example, a ZIP file is basically a folder that holds other files and folders, but it actually acts as a single file.

Another popular file type similar to ZIP is ISO, which is a representation of a physical disc. It's just a single file, but it holds all the information you might find on a disc, like a video game or movie.

You can see even with these few examples that not all files are alike, but they all share a similar purpose of holding information together in one place.

Converting a File to a Different Format

You can convert a file in one format into a different format so that it can be used in different software or for different reasons.

For example, an MP3 audio file can be converted to M4R so that an iPhone will recognize it as a ringtone file. The same is true for a document in the DOC format that's converted to PDF so that it can be opened with a PDF reader.

These types of conversions, plus many, many others, can be accomplished with a tool from this list of Free File Converter Software and Online Services.

  • What is a file extension on a computer?

    A file extension is a collection of characters following the period in a file name. File extensions often describe the file type and indicate which programs can open a file. You can edit file extensions, but changing the suffix doesn't change the file format in any way.

  • What is a file path on a computer?

    A file path is the location of a file based on a computer's file system. Absolute file paths contain the root directory and include the volume, directory, and file name. Relative file paths list only part of the entire file path.

  • What is a PDF file on a computer?

    PDF file is an Adobe Portable Document Format file. Manuals, eBooks, and other documents come in this format, which holds images, text, and other elements. You can open, edit, and convert PDFs in Adobe Acrobat Reader and other PDF readers.

  • What is a temporary file on a computer?

    Temporary files store information for temporary use only by your OS. As a result, you don't need to save these files. To delete temporary files to save space, search for the Temp folder to remove selected files. You can also use the rd command in the Command Prompt.

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