computer file

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computer file

This article is provided by FOLDOC - Free Online Dictionary of Computing (


A collection of bytes stored as an individual entity on the computer's hard drive or SSD. A file is the common denominator of storage. All data and programs, no matter which kind, are stored as files with an assigned file name that must be unique within the storage folder (directory) it resides in. Files with the same name can reside in separate folders. See folder.

Computers Know Nothing About Data Files
To the computer, a data file is nothing more than a string of bytes that is identified by name and location in storage. Once read into the computer's RAM, the structure of a file is known to the software that manipulates it. For example, database files are made up of a series of records such as one per customer, vendor or transaction. Word processing files contain a continuous flow of text interspersed with format codes (tags).

Except for ASCII text files, which contain only raw text, all other data files have proprietary structures. Formatting and descriptive information are contained in headers at the beginning of the file and/or in tags interspersed throughout the file. XML is an example of a very popular tagged text file. See metadata and XML.

Computers Are Savvy About Program Files
In contrast to data files, the computer itself is inherently aware of the content of an executable program file, which contains machine instructions. When given the starting point of an instruction in RAM, the computer expects to find the bytes in a format it recognizes and can execute, one instruction after the other (see machine language).

Everything Stored Is a File
The common unit of storage no matter what the application is the file.

File Contents
Following are the major file types and the data structures they contain. See file association, ASCII file, file system and files vs. folders.

DataFile Type       Contents

 data file       text & binary
  (table)         (rows/records)

 document        text & format codes

 spreadsheet     rows/columns of cells

 image           rows/columns of pixels

 drawing         list of vectors

 CD audio        digitized sound waves

  audio (MP3,    compressed digitized
  AAC, etc.)     sound waves

 MIDI            MIDI instructions

 video           digital video frames

 Web page        text, HTML tags &
  (HTML file)     JavaScript

 XML file        text

 batch file      text

 text file       text

 SoftwareFile Type       Contents

 source code     text

  language       binary (bytecode)

 executable      binary
  program         (machine language)
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