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Issue #225: November 13, 2011

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Q: I read your column every week and have learned lots of valuable stuff. I bought this laptop new about a year ago. Trying to open an attachment to an email, it asked me which program I wanted to use to view it. I mistakenly selected ‘Word’. Now whenever I try to open an attachment such as the one included in this message, all I get is a few lines of nonsense symbols. If I forward the email to another email account on another computer, it still won’t let me open the files. Can you please tell me how to fix this?

– Glen J.
Crestview, Florida

A: I’ve addressed similar issues in this column before, Glen, but it seems the old File Associations concept is still baffling some people. I don’t mind going over it again; it gives me something to write about.

Filenames typically consist of two parts, the actual name of the file, and a file extension. Once upon a time, filenames were required to be no larger than 8 characters, with a 3 character extension, and you weren’t allowed to have punctuation, spaces, or any other special characters in the name. By convention, the two parts of the filename were separated by a dot, so a typical filename might be myfile.dat. A couple versions of Windows ago, Microsoft changed up the rules of naming files to allow file names and extensions to exceed the original “8 character dot 3 character” rule, and also to allow additional characters in a name, including space and dot. Since that time, the extension is the part of the name that appears after the last dot in the filename. The file you attached to your e-mail to me uses these new rules, as it was named 65916-Philosophy For Old Age.pps. The extension is very important, because it tells Windows what program it is supposed to use to open that kind of file. In your case, the extension PPS tells Windows (and me) that it requires either Microsoft PowerPoint, or the PowerPoint Viewer to open.

Windows uses entries in the system registry to keep track of what program is associated with a given file extension (hence the name “File Association”. When things get mixed up, Windows opens the wrong program when a file is activated. While annoying, it’s not too hard to fix. All you have to do is right-click on a file that has the extension you want to work with (if it’s in an e-mail, save it first). If you’re running Win XP, choose “Open With…” and if you’re running Vista or Win7, point to “Open With” and slide off the menu to the right, and select “Choose Default Program…” In the box that comes up select the program you want associated with this type of file. Make sure the check box that says “Always use the selected program to open this kind of file” is checked, and click OK. Your problem should be solved, with one possible exception. There is a known issue with some versions of Outlook and opening attached PPS files. If this applies to you, shoot me another e-mail, and I’ll send you a fix.

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