Windows 11 was the biggest design overhaul to Windows in years, and one seemingly minor change remains divisive: the new context menu in File Explorer. Here’s why it’s actually a good change.
When you right-click a file in Windows File Explorer, you get a menu with actions for that file, like copying it to the clipboard or creating a shortcut. That’s an established UI element that dates back several decades, but it’s gotten harder to manage over the years, which is why it was one of many elements of Windows that Microsoft decided to redesign for the modern age.
A menu disaster
The context menu, also called context menu, has been available when selecting files and folders in Windows for decades. Starting with Windows 2000 and Windows, Microsoft introduced IContextMenu, which allowed applications to add their own items to the context menu. For example, if you installed 7-Zip, you might be able to select multiple files and then compress them into a ZIP file directly from the context menu.
The ability to complete actions with files directly from the context menu, sometimes without opening anything else, is a fantastic feature. However, it has the same problem as many other Windows features: lack of organization and simple controls. As you install more apps, the menu gets longer and longer with items and actions you might not even use. Many of the menu items don’t even have icons, which means more reading time to find the item you want.
Microsoft described further issues in a 2021 blog post, namely that “commands that need to be grouped together, like Open and Open With, are sometimes far apart” and that the menu “has grown up in an unregulated environment for 20 years.” , since Windows XP.” It also doesn’t make sense that Copy, Cut, Delete, Rename, and Properties are at the bottom of the menu and require the most mouse movement, since they are the most frequently used actions. There are also inconsistent action groupings and names, even in the default menu with no third-party apps polluting the layout.
Finally, the old menu could cause performance issues with File Explorer, especially if one of the third-party menu actions had faulty code. Microsoft explained in the same blog post that “many commands run in-process in Explorer, which can cause performance and reliability issues.” It’s not hard to find examples of this behavior, and we have a guide to fix it in Windows 10 and earlier.
In a way, the context menu became a symbol of the overall Windows experience: virtually unchanged for 20 years, confusing to new Windows users, and easily corrupted by installing more software. The hotfix we finally got in Windows 11 was long overdue.
in a new beginning
Microsoft overhauled the File Explorer context menu in the initial release of Windows 11. It now has the same frosted glass background and rounded corners as other modern Windows elements, with larger text and icons for each menu entry. Custom menu options for installed apps are now grouped at the bottom.
Windows 11 also moved the most common actions—Cut, Copy, Rename, Share, and Delete—to a single row at the top. This removes dedicated rows for each item, leaving more room for actions provided by cloud services or third-party apps, and reducing mouse movement for the most popular actions. The days of scrolling to the bottom of a long menu just to copy a file are over.
However, the new menu was not popular with everyone when Windows 11 arrived, mainly because it did not display custom menus built for the old menu. You need to click “Show more options”, which then opens the original context menu with all the old integrations. Microsoft allows apps to add entries to the new menu, and we’ve seen some apps update to the new behavior: Notepad++ added support for the new menu in March 2023, and PowerToys add some options as well.
However, there’s still a problem with the new menu: there’s no easy way to customize which apps appear in the menu. Ideally, there should be a panel in the Settings app to hide the entries for a given app; Just because you install an app doesn’t mean you should see it every time you copy or rename a file. Hopefully Microsoft will add that in future Windows 11 updates.
If you immediately returned to the previous context menu after upgrading to Windows 11, I recommend trying again. Like the rest of Windows 11, it’s still not perfectbut it is a step forward.