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Are both names synonyms or should one prefer one name over the other on different platforms?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 61 down vote accepted

As seen in this question, they are not the same.

Authoritative answer given by Raymond Chen:

Windows 95 introduced Windows Explorer and along with it the term folder. What is the relationship between folders and directories?

Some people believe that Windows 95 renamed directories to folders, but it's actually more than that.

Windows Explorer lets you view folders, which are containers in the shell namespace. Directories are one type of folder, namely, folders which correspond to file system locations. There are other types of folders, such as Control Panel or Network Neighborhood or Printers. These other types of folders represent objects in the shell namespace which do not correspond to files. In common usage, the term virtual folder has been applied to refer to folders which are not directories. In other words, we have this Euler diagram:

enter image description here (Virtual folders = Folders − Directories)

In general, code which manipulates the shell namespace should operate on folders and items, not directories and files, so as not to tie themselves to a particular storage medium. For example, code which limits itself to files won't be able to navigate into a Zip file, since the contents of a Zip file are exposed in the form of a virtual folder.

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This is the better answer. Yay for Raymond Chen. –  Kev Feb 18 '11 at 9:40
Also see: stackoverflow.com/a/1195096/412486 –  XP1 Jan 10 '12 at 17:54

As a reference to physical locations on the hard drive they are synonyms.

Windows tends to use "Folder".

*nix tends to use "Directory".

On Windows you have virtual folders (as mentioned in malfruct's answer) which are represented as directories but are actually stored as files (zip files are one example).

However, to the end user this distinction doesn't usually matter.

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For GUI platforms, "Folder" name is recommended where as for command line environment, "Directory" name is suited.

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Is recommended, by whom? –  KajMagnus Jul 21 '13 at 8:16

What humanfly said, with the additional note that some programs use "Folder" but NEVER directory, i.e. in email programs like Outlook. You never have "subdirectories" but you often have "subfolders".

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Does Outlook really work with file system directories? Or does it offer just virtual e-mail folders? –  Mike L. Jul 30 '10 at 6:58
No, it's only folders. I was making a point that the terminology is NOT always interchangeable. You didn't specify for just system tree structure in your question. –  JNK Jul 30 '10 at 10:10
The term subdirectory does exist, and means much the same as subfolder in this context. –  Phoshi Jul 31 '10 at 14:34

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