Where do downloads go?

Downloading a file from the internet is easy - typically just a click or two. But knowing and controlling where downloads go takes a little more effort.

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When I download files like ebooks off the internet, I can never find them. Where do they go on my computer?

It depends on how you download. Typically they go into your “Downloads” or  “My Documents” folder, so we’ll look at how best to check that.

But it’s also possible that they went into the same folder as the last download. We’ll look at why, and how to fix it as well.

There’s another place that downloads often end up that’s kind of dangerous, as it gets “cleaned up” every so often – meaning you could eventually lose your download. We’ll learn how to avoid that.

And we’ll look at how to find your file, regardless of where it landed.

An example file to download

First, here’s an example file for you to download.

This is a link to the PDF sample I make available for The Ask Leo! Guide to Routine Maintenance. It contains roughly the first 10% of that book, including its table of contents:

https://med.askleomedia.com/ebooks/routinemaintenance_toc.pdf

This example link shows the entire URL, but you’ll also see download links that look more readable:

Click here to download

Either will get you the same download.

Plain old click

When you click on a link, your browser may do several different things, depending on what the link points to.  If it’s another web page, of course your browser will display it. If it’s something other than a web page (like a document or software, for instance) then the browser will, in all likelihood, offer to download it for you.

PDF files are kind of special. They’re not really web pages, but in most cases, web browsers display them as if they are. As a result, if you simply click on that link to the example PDF above, Internet Explorer may1 download the file, open it, and display it:

PDF Displayed In Browser

OK, so it downloaded to your computer … but where do these downloads go?

Well, like any page you download from the internet, your web browser downloads it to its cache. Yes, you can find it – I just searched for the filename on my hard disk and found it here:

C:\Users\LeoN\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows\INetCache\Low\IE\SSTJM638\routinemaintenance_toc.pdf

Not only is that not obvious and not friendly, it’s also not something you or I are ever expected to actually use. The thinking is that if you just click the link, all you want to do is read the contents without saving it. Eventually it’ll be removed from the browser cache, and if you want it again you’ll need to download it again.

Saving a PDF you view

Many PDF viewers embedded in browsers have an interesting feature: they allow you to save a copy without re-downloading.

For example, using Internet Explorer 11 with Adobe Reader 11 installed, if you move the mouse over the lower portion of the displayed document, a floating toolbar will appear:

PDF Floating Toolbar

There are several icons relating to PDF viewing, but the one I want to draw your attention to is at the far left: the disk icon. Click on that and you’ll get a “Save As…” dialog:

PDF Save-as Dialog

This will let you save a copy of the downloaded file to a location you specify.

The default location in this instance? Your Documents folder (or more correctly, your Documents Library), which is where we find the copy after clicking Save:

PDF Saved to the Documents Folder

Now you have the PDF file where you can do what you will with it. Keep it there, and you won’t have to download it again.

Saving a file directly

Naturally, not all downloads are PDFs, so the option to save a copy while viewing it won’t always make sense.

Fortunately, there’s a way to avoid all that: just save the file directly from the start. The added benefit is that you control where the download goes from the start.

Right click on the link:

Right clicking on a linkThe pop-up menu will include an item “Save target as…”. In other browsers the exact words may differ; you may see “Save link as…” or “Download linked file as…” but the effect is the same: rather than simply trying to view whatever the link points to in the browser, you’re asking for it to be downloaded to your computer.

And here’s where things get weird.

The default save location

If you’ve never downloaded anything, or never downloaded anything since installing or perhaps even upgrading your browser, the location that resulting “Save As…” dialog box defaults to will probably make sense. In most cases, it’ll be the same “Documents” folder that we saw above.

However:

  • If you’ve downloaded something before…
  • and you selected a different download folder, directing the download to be placed in a specific folder of your own choosing…
  • then the next time you download a file, the browser will probably default to that most recent location.

That’s why, when preparing this example, my default download location was something else entirely:

Non-standard Download Location

The solution is simple: select the folder you want before clicking on Save. But you do have to be watching and paying attention to the download location to know whether or not you need to do that.

Or you can simply do it every time. For example, clicking on the Documents library in the left hand pane of the Save As… dialog will set the download location in one click.

Set your own standard

Sometimes your browser, or your operating system, will actually have a “Downloads” folder that it uses for just this purpose. As long as you haven’t downloaded elsewhere, then your downloads will always go to this appropriately-named location.

Even if your system doesn’t do that, you can do it yourself. I find it a great way to organize my files.

The Downloads Folder

You can use the system-provided Downloads folder, if it exists, or you can use Windows Explorer (File Explorer in Windows 8 and beyond) to create a “Downloads” folder anywhere on your hard drive that you like, and then use that.

Once you download to that location, your browser will typically remember it for you next time.

The browser’s own download folder

Some web browsers either default to the system downloads folder more consistently, or they have their own. Fortunately, most have a quick way to open that default folder.

In Internet Explorer, that’s CTRL+J:

View Downloads Option

That will open a list of the files you’ve recently downloaded, and show you where they were placed:

View Downloads Dialog

When all else fails?

What if you still can’t find or figure out where your PDF ended up?

It’s time to search.

In Windows 8 at the tiled start screen … just start typing and the search interface will pop up:

Searching in Windows 8The download I’m looking for is “routinemaintenance_toc.pdf.”  If I can’t recall the exact file name, I might start by typing “main” or “maint” – parts of the file name that I do remember. Windows will show me everything that matches.

The first thing to do is to narrow it down to files only. Click the little down arrow next to the word “Everywhere” and you’ll be given a menu of search options.

Search Options

Click on Files to restrict the search to only files, and the results list will become a little more manageable. Keep typing letters of the filename until what you’re looking for shows up.

Search Results

Once you see the file you’re looking for in the list, you can either click on it to open it directly, or right click on it and select Open file location to open the folder containing the file in File Explorer.

This is a major update to an article originally posted : August 31, 2006
Play
Footnotes and references

1: I have to use the word “may” because naturally there are settings and defaults that can change this type of behaviour. It even depends on whether or not you have a PDF reader installed, and which one.

Comments

  1. Ken

    Note that you don’t have to pull down the dropdown list for the directory tree to find the full path. Simply hover the mouse over the arrow, and a tooltip will pop up showing the full path. (This is quicker than opening the dropdown on systems with numerous network connections.)

  2. chasingclouds

    Safer still if you have more than one partition create a ‘Download’ on a partition as far away from C: as possible. That way if you need to reinstall on C: sometime you still have the downloads intact, useful if you haven’t backed up your downloads…. Haven’t tried downloading to a cd/dv/rw but is another option perhaps?

  3. David Heym

    Interesting article. Thanks for the info. Question: The right half of your explorer window is divided into these different categories–Files, Drives, Devices, etc. How did you get this kind of a display? The right half of my Explorer window just shows the folders within the folder highlighted on the left. I searched through your previous Explorer questions/answers and couldn’t find an explanation for this.

  4. Cliff Lapp

    Hi!
    Typically, I specify the specific folder for ALL my downloads.
    Occasionally, I am not allowed to make any choices, and it downloads automatically to a “temp” folder.
    I recently was given 20 free downloadable music tracks by a magazine I subscribe to. When I looked for the files, they are NOT in the Temp Internet Folder, and I can’t find them in any other folder.
    I can play these tracks only out of the “recent” tracks in my media player.
    Then, I disconnected from the Internet, and they wouldn’t play. So, I suspect that even though I was told the were “downloading” onto my hard drive, I think they were not, and they are ONLY contained on a server.
    Did I download them, or was I mislead into thinking that they would download?
    Thanx!
    cliff
    YIP

  5. Ben Martinka

    I’m already familiar with all the techniques in this article. But I have a related question. I frequently download many files from the web in a session and save them to specific local or network folders from Internet Explorer (or from Microsoft Word or Acrobat, etc. if I open them first). How can I get either application to remember the last folder used in the Save As dialog? It defaults to My Documents every time and I have to relocate the folder over and over.

  6. Karma Autumn

    I’ve read the article and tried to print it out to no avail. I am just starting to understand my computer and your print outs are invaluable. Please, how can I download a file from My Documents to C Drive?

  7. Terry Hollett

    Ever since I can remember, I have created a folder called Downloads (c:downloads) and thats where everything goes from downloads, to pictures, to saved emails, and so on.

    You might want to point out where other browsers download by default – Firefox uses the Desktop. I use the Opera browser and been using it so long I forget where they set up the default download folder. My is set for c:downloads…of course.

    Everything stays there until I get a chance to save it to my CD-RWs.

    http://hitanykey.webs.com/

  8. Joe

    A great way to find files you have downloaded is to use the “Everything” utility. It will start with a list of all files, then you type in whatever characters you are seeking, and the list will shrink to show only file names containing those characters.

  9. bonnie

    i recently had ..clean my mac’ clean my mini mac
    i don’t see any downloads / documents when i finally figured out where to go??
    did i erase them ??huumm

  10. Lise Lafontaine

    Good tip for downloading pdf. Still have to search for files too often. Worse cases are “zip” files. Can you give me a method to open them? Keep up the good and much-needed advice; should be more advertised as first time I landed on your site simply because I didn’t know…Thanks, Lise

    Windows includes support built in for zip files. Simply double click on the file in Windows Explorer.

    Leo
    06-Mar-2012
  11. jeff gonzales

    I have a detailed technical question…

    The article addresses where downloaded files end up, however they apparently are downloaded to a temporary place before being moved to the location mentioned in the article or specified by the user.

    One can observe this when downloading a large file, say greater than 30 MB. First you get the usual dialog box asking where you wish to save the file to. Then the file downloads. Then a box pops up saying that the file is being copied to the destination that you selected.

    If the downloaded file is small, this box doesn’t appear, or appears and disappears so quickly that you can’t see it. As I mentioned, if the downloaded file is large, then this coping takes a while (a few seconds) and you notice this copy occuring by the pop-up box.

    Saving this first to a hidden location [it is in the temporary internet files\content.ie5 or so] makes sense in the case that the download is interrupted and the partial file which would appear to be downloaded is actually truncated, and corrupt. Thus, it makes sense that IE waits to copy the entire successfully downloaded file to the location that you specified originally.

    However, suppose that you have 200 MB of free space on your disk, and you want to download a 150 MB file. This should work, but does not. The file may download successfully, leaving you with 50 MB free disk space. Then when IE tries to copy the 150 MB file that is already on your hard drive to the download location that you specified originally, it FAILS since there is no space left!

    IE obviously should MOVE the file to your destination rather than copy, it which leaves 2 copies on the disk.

    If you run into this situation, you can attempt to look through the CONTENT.IE5 areas to locate the file that was downloaded but not copied over to your desired destination. You can then work with the file, or MOVE (not copy if running out of disk space) it to a useful location. Note that the file name of this temporay file may be cryptic.

    If you can’t find it, then you just wasted your 150 MB download bandwidth, as you’ll have to free up some space, and download the same thing again.

    Note that for the power users, you can use something like wget to fetch a file outside of IE and avoid this problem if you have a URL. wget does not make a secondary copy.

    OK, long winded background.

    What I want to know is if there is some way to set IE to download DIRECTLY to my desired location without doing the temporary file save and buring twice the disk space as necessary ????

    Thanks !!

    Not that I’m aware of. You might try a different browser, since not all act the same way. Some do download into the destination to a temporary name and rename on completion.

    Leo
    03-May-2012
  12. Justin Goldberg

    I used the everything utility to find that on Windows XP, IE8 saves the “temporary downloads” to a folder called “C:Documents and SettingsUsernameLocal SettingsTemporary Internet FilesContent.IE5CVLARQOKfilename.ext” with it’s real filename. Also the folder was _not_ the last modified folder in “C:Documents and SettingsUsernameLocal SettingsTemporary Internet FilesContent.IE5”.

    My suggestion is use everything search (from voidtools) to find the file or search under the Content.IE5 folder.

  13. Bill Koenig

    IE and Firefox have an internet option to tell all downloads where to go. Personally, all my downloads go to desktop. Easy to find, and then after the download is processed I delete or save to the appropriate place.

  14. Allan Poe

    Remember Leo, Most of the world still uses Windows 7.
    When all else fails?
    What if you still can’t find or figure out where your PDF ended up?
    It’s time to search.
    In Windows 8 at the tiled start screen … just start typing and the search interface will pop up:

  15. John N.

    In terms of saving PDF files, the disk icon Leo mentions is sometimes greyed out and can’t be used to save the PDF. In that case, press and hold CTRL-SHIFT-S on your keyboard. You will then have the same “save” options that you get when the disk icon is functional.

  16. Mike W

    Just like Bill Koenig I have set Firefox to download all files to my Desktop. I never use the IE browser. So there is no guesswork as where files have been downloaded. However before files are downloaded I have installed a Firefox addon “VTzilla” version 1.5 which scans all downloads using VirusTotal before they are download to your PC. If VirusTotal finds something nefarious you have the option to cancel the download. I even go two steps further. After the file is downloaded I scan it with both Avast Free and Malwarebytes Free. After all three scans I can then either install the program or move it to a folder of my choosing.

  17. Charles R

    I’ve never understood why people have this problem. I use the setting in my browser (Firefox) to always ask me where to download a file to. When I set up a new computer I make my own top-level directory, and then make my own sub-directories under it as I go for whatever data category I need, Financial, Computer Notes, Media Files, Photos, etc., etc., and direct any download to the correct existing sub-directory or create a new one if needed. I never need to search on my computer for a download because I know it’s where I told it to put it. And as a side benefit, I can back up all my data by simply copying my top-level directory.

  18. charles FitzGerald

    Leo I nearly consigned yuou and all yer works..to the forever dump. This article saved you. and a comment reminding ye that Windows 7 is still the most used. ( yes I hve 8 on netybook, tablet but not in my laptop here). The downloads article i found useful and (apart from the diversion in to w8 at which point it became incomprehensible UNTIL read that enlightening comment…but interim, I spen t bha;lfan hours trying to find your examples, to no avail. I am perhaps a somewhat better user than most oldies ( I am 78 and mostly self taught, and tolerably literate. But of late, your articles are more and more geeky and seem aimed at professional users who do lots and lots and lots of stuff tyhat I and many other leisure and home users wouldn’t dream of doing. Or need to do at all. FReally, what WE want from you is advice /direction about the simplest way to do things, using the set-ups of our computers, preferably doing it by using windows/manufacturer’ inbuilt facilities such as usinf f8 or whatever to clean tidy repair whatever. Your other articles in this issue, such as all those ramifications re backup , maybe ok for pros but my needs are simple so I backup by doing what HP * or whoever) says-ie put in a disc or a stick and take it from there . Your directions are at best far too omplicated and where would i lor millions like me, hver have or need all that pro stuff…my main use i to surf, find and process information and use the facilities for entertainment/social . Have you forgotten newbies and the University of Leo undergraduates are/ were your main source of new followers?

    • Mark Jacobs

      I imagine Leo will pipe in on this one, but the vast majority articles on Ask Leo! are answers to questions for non-geeky people. Unfortunately, the solution to many of these questions is a geeky fix. :(

    • It’s interesting. I get comments all the time like this, and they fall squarely into two camps:

      1) Your explanations are too geeky.
      2) Your explanations are too simplistic.

      So … I do the best I can.

  19. EJ Petranek

    Non Geek Speaking-Using W-7 on desktop & W-8 on laptop. Is there a way to tell if a DOWNLOAD is no longer needed and can be removed from the drive? Thanks in advance. EJP

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