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I can't get myself to understand what the default "Date" column in Windows 7 Explorer is. It's not the creation date really and it's not the modified date ... What is it?

Anyone knows what Microsoft had in mind with this other than trying to confuse its users? There must be some thought to it in terms of its relevance and usability.

Can anyone shed some light on this?

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The "Date" column takes the earlier of "Date created" and "Date modified", ignoring "Date accessed", unless there is a "special" date field such as an Exif-header in a JPG, which takes precedence no matter whether it is before or after other dates present... just as @Richard guessed:

screenshot visualizing the above statement

The reasoning seems to be that when you copy a file, the "Date created" of the file copy is the current date, while the "Date modified" is carried over from the original file. So in this case the "Date Modified" contains more information about when the content was created/changed, so might be more relevant to some users than the date the file was copied.

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    Date Accessed is essentially useless in Windows since Explorer (and other processes/services/programs) accesses it to do things like generating previews, reading headers, detecting modifications for backup purposes, etc., which in turn updates the field so they will always be just now. Back in DOS days, it was useful because simply generating a directory listing (eg dir) did not modify the last-accessed timestamp, so it was possible to view the last time the file really was accessed in the traditional sense of the word (modified = written, accessed = read). – Synetech Jan 28 '12 at 23:32
  • @Synetech I agree... to the point that I have set NtfsDisableLastAccessUpdate to True... – Jonas Heidelberg Jan 30 '12 at 10:11
  • @Ariane: your edit made no sense, sorry... have a look at the screenshot ;-) – Jonas Heidelberg Feb 15 '13 at 12:33
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    Also, the Date column always puts folders before files unlike the other date columns which put them before or after depending on the direction of the sort. – Synetech Mar 13 '15 at 16:21
  • It's worth noting that, even apart from e.g. Explorer's updating of icons, etc., "date accessed" in Windows doesn't necessarily mean the file contents were ever actually accessed - only that it was successfully opened. The same is true for the "file opened" event log entries. All they show is that a file was successfully opened for R or W access, not that any Rs or Ws ever happened. – Jamie Hanrahan Jul 16 '18 at 7:40
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If the file is a photo from a camera, the vague 'date' column shows the datetime on the camera as that is the time it thinks is the real 'created' date. NOT the time on the PC when it was taken.

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    Yes, this is what I address with the last two files in my screenshot... – Jonas Heidelberg Jan 30 '12 at 10:01
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The default date column here is "Modified Date" and I cannot (quickly) see anywhere it does not match that.

Noting that for newly created files the last modified date is the creation date; and files copied in can keep there modified date so have a modified date before their creation date.

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    In Windows 7 there is a choice of columns: "Date" (by default) and "Date Modified" as a choice. The default is not showing the last modified date (at least not on my system...) – Notitze Jun 1 '10 at 9:56
  • @Notitze: I wonder when I changed it? Looking in the full column list I can now see what you mean. A little checking and it appears to be the older of the modified and created dates (but media files, with more dates in their metadata, might do something more complex). – Richard Jun 2 '10 at 7:50
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The linked related question was closed as duplicate, which had a link, Description of NTFS date and time stamps for files and folders, which now 404s so I pulled the content from Internet Archive.

It provides a possible complication to, and further explanation of, the accepted answer.


Description of NTFS date and time stamps for files and folders

Summary

This article describes how file and folder date and time stamps (created or modified) are displayed based on the file system that is in use (FAT or the NTFS file system), and the partition (whether the action occurred on the same partition or across partitions).

File properties with regards to the date and time stamps

  • If you copy a file from C:\fat16 to C:\fat16\sub, it keeps the same modified date and time but it changes the created date and time to the current date and time.
  • If you move a file from C:\fat16 to C:\fat16sub, it keeps the same modified date and time and keeps the same created date and time.
  • If you copy a file from C:\fat16 to D:\NTFS, it keeps the same modified date and time but changes the created date and time to the current date and time.
  • If you move a file from C:\fat16 to D:\NTFS, it keeps the same modified date and time and keeps the same created date and time.
  • If you copy a file from D:\NTFS to D:\NTFS\SUB, it keeps the same modified date and time but changes the created date and time to the current date and time.
  • If you move a file from D:\NTFS to D:\NTFS\SUB, it keeps the same modified date and time and keeps the same created date and time.
  • In all examples, the modified date and time of a file does not change unless a property of the file has changed. The created date and time of the file changes depending on whether the file was copied or moved.

Folder properties with regards to the date and time stamps

  • If you create two new folders on an NTFS partition called D:\NTFS1 and D:\NTFS2, both the created and modified date and time are the same.

  • If you move the D:\NTFS2 folder into the D:\NTFS1 folder, creating D:\NTFS1\NTFS2, then:

    1. D:\NTFS1 - The created folder is the same and the modified stamp changes.

    2. D:\NTFS1\NTFS2 - Both the created folder changes and the modified folder stay the same.This behavior occurs because, even though you moved the folder, a new folder is seen as being created within the D:\NTFS1 folder by the Master File Table (MFT).

  • If you copy the D:\NTFS2 folder into the D:\NTFS1 folder, creating the D:\NTFS1\NTFS2 folder, and the D:\NTFS2 folder still exists (after having copied it):

    1. D:\NTFS1 - The created folder is the same and the modified folder time and date stamp changes.

    2. D:\NTFS2 - No changes occur because it is the original folder.

    3. D:\NTFS1\NTFS2 - Both the created folder and the modified folder changes to the same stamp, which is that of the time of the move.This behavior occurs because even though you copied the folder, the new folder is seen as being created by the MFT and is given a new created and modified time stamp.

Note - The design and behavior of the FAT file system is different with regards to the modified time stamp. On a FAT file system, the modified date of a folder does not change if the contents of the folder change. For example, if you have D:\FAT1 and D:\FAT2, and you copy or move D:\FAT2 into D:\FAT1, the created date and modified date of D:\FAT1 remains the same.

Article ID: 299648 - Last Review: Feb 28, 2007 - Revision: 1

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  • This is useful info generally, but doesn't really address the OP's question, which is about the dates shown in Explorer. It seems Windows 7 and later try to "intelligently" pick one of several dates for this, which need not even be one of the filesystem created/accessed/modified dates but could be extracted from the file contents. – j_random_hacker Feb 2 '19 at 17:16
  • @j_random_hacker, do you have any source (link) for that thought? The highest voted answer (superuser.com/a/335901/279136) and the comments on it provide the best explanation. My answer expands on that one by just giving some more examples of how the date changes which originated the Microsoft link. – TT-- Mar 26 '19 at 13:54
  • I don't need a source to appreciate that your answer (which I nevertheless upvoted, BTW), is confusing. The question is about Explorer, and as I said in my comment (and as the top-voted answer mentions, and as you can confirm yourself with an experiment), the date that is displayed in Explorer can come from, e.g. EXIF fields inside the file, so "This article describes how file and folder date and time stamps (created or modified) are displayed based on the file system that is in use" is misleading. – j_random_hacker Mar 26 '19 at 14:29
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The default behavior of File Explorer in Windows 7 (other vers?) depends on what KIND of folder is containing the files. This is auto-detected by Windows depending on the type of files that are inside. For instance, if there are a lot of pictures, Windows tends to automatically optimize the folder's appearance for photos, such as a column for "Tags", and the Date column goes by date CREATED in case you crop or adjust the photo and still want to sort by the date you took it (not when you modified it).

To see what type of folder has been assigned by Windows, go up a level and right-click on the folder. Choose Properties and click the Customize tab. At the top, it has a drop-down list under "What kind of folder do you want", then it shows you how the folder is currently optimized. Options include General items, Documents, Pictures, Music and Videos. You can override the current selection manually to whichever you want.

You can easily modify some aspects of the default behavior for the current folder type. Pick the columns you want add or delete, arrange their order and set the column widths. When you're happy, you set this as the default by clicking on Tools (top of File Explorer window), then "Folder options...", then the View tab. Click on "Apply to Folders" to apply these settings to all other folders of this same type. This will alter all existing folders and be the default for new folders of this type. You can then tweak the appearance of individual folders later. "Reset" will restore the settings for that folder type back to Windows defaults.

More on this topic can be found here: https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/kb/310297

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