What Is a Mapped Drive?

Definition of a Mapped Drive

Illustration of a man and woman each using a computer device and accessing information in the cloud
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A mapped drive is just a shortcut to a drive that's physically located on a different computer.

The shortcut on your computer looks just like one for a local hard drive (like the C drive) with its own letter assigned to it, and opens as if it were, but all the files in the mapped drive are actually physically stored on another computer.

A mapped drive is similar to a shortcut you may have on your desktop, like one used to open a picture file in your Pictures folder, but is instead used to access something from a different computer.

Mapped drives can be used to reach resources on a different computer on your local network, as well as files on a website or FTP server.

Local Drives vs Mapped Drives

A file stored locally on your computer may look something like C:\Project_Files\template.doc, where a DOC file is stored inside a folder on your C drive.

To give other people on your network access to this file, you would share it, making it accessible through a path like this: \\FileServer\Shared\Project_Files\template.doc (where "FileServer" is the name of your computer).

To make it even easier to access the shared resource, you could have others create a mapped drive to your computer using the above path, like P:\Project_Files, making it look identical to a local hard drive or USB device when on that other computer.

In this example, the user on the other computer could simply open P:\Project_Files to have access to all the files in that folder instead of having to browse through a large collection of shared folders to find the files they want.

Advantages of Using Mapped Drives

Because mapped drives provide the illusion of data being stored locally on your computer, it's perfect for storing large files, or large collections of files, somewhere else that has more hard drive space.

For example, if you have a small tablet computer that you use a lot, but have a desktop computer on your home network with a much bigger hard drive, storing files in a shared folder on the desktop PC, and mapping that shared location to a drive letter on your tablet, gives you access to far more space than you would otherwise have access to.

Some online backup services support backing up files from mapped drives, which means you can back up data not only from your local computer but also any file you're accessing through a mapped drive.

Similarly, some local backup programs let you use a mapped drive as if it were an external HDD or some other physically attached drive. What this does is lets you back up files over the network to a different computer's storage device.

Another benefit to mapped drives is that multiple people can share access to the same files. This means files can be shared among co-workers or family members without the need to send emails back and forth when they're updated or changed.

Limitations of Mapped Drives

Mapped drives depend entirely on a working network. If the network is down, or your connection to the computer that's serving the shared files isn't working properly, you won't have access to whatever is being stored via the mapped drive.

Using Mapped Drives in Windows

On Windows computers, you can see currently mapped drives, as well as create and remove mapped drives, through File Explorer/Windows Explorer. This is most easily opened with the Windows Key + E shortcut.

For example, with This PC opened in Windows 10 and Windows 8, you can open and delete mapped drives, and the Map network drive button is how you connect to a new remote resource on the network.

Steps for older versions of Windows are a bit different.

An advanced way to work with mapped drives in Windows is with the net use command. Follow that link to learn more about how to manipulate mapped drives through the Windows Command Prompt, something that can even be carried over into scripts so that you can create and delete mapped drives with a BAT file.

Map vs Mount

Although they might seem similar, mapping and mounting files are not the same. While mapping files lets you open remote files as if they were stored locally, mounting a file lets you open a file as if it were a folder. It's common to mount image file formats like ISO or file backup archives.

For example, if you downloaded Microsoft Office in the ISO format, you can't just open the ISO file and intend for your computer to understand how to install the program. Instead, you could mount the ISO file to trick your computer into thinking it's a disc you've inserted into the disc drive.

Then, you could open the mounted ISO file like you would any disc, and browse, copy, or install its files since the mounting process opened and displayed the archive like a folder.

You can read more about mounting ISO files in our What Is an ISO File? piece.

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