Metadata means data about data: for example, a file containing a music track might also contain metadata that says what album the track came from, who the composer was, and who the artists performing the track were. The actual encoded music is the data, but the metadata describes that data and can be used by music library applications to locate content; without this metadata it would be more difficult to find a piece of music you wanted to listen to. Another commonly encountered example might be a JPEG file containing a photograph, where the metadata could include the date and time it was taken, the make and model of the camera used to take it, and the aperture and exposure settings used, all of which are appended to the JPEG automatically by modern digital cameras using the EXIF metadata format. You might also be invited to add the place and subject yourself.
When it comes to office documents, useful metadata might include the name of the document’s author, the company and department they work in, the name of a project to which the document refers and so on. Office 2007 and Windows Vista both make it easier to add metadata to files than previous versions of Office, and also easier to call up that metadata from within the documents, or to use it when searching for content within files. In Windows Vista, file Explorer windows display a light-blue details pane at the bottom of the window that shows details about the file or files that are currently selected (you can resize this pane if you need to see more or fewer details).
If the file contains a picture, a video, audio or an Office document then you can use the Details panel to add or edit metadata about the selected files. Precisely what metadata items are available depends on the type of file, but there are some features common to all, such as Authors, Tags and Comments. Run the mouse pointer over the Details pane to see which metadata fields are editable: just click and type to change or add to the data, but remember to press Enter or click the Save button to save your changes – if you click on a different file to select it before doing this, your changes to the metadata will be thrown away. This metadata is available in other Vista applications such as Windows Photo Gallery, Windows Media Player, in Office and in the search system.
If you select Search from Vista’s Start menu, type in “landscape” and choose to show only pictures, then you’ll see the seven sample pictures, which have been tagged as “landscape”. You can tag your own photos in the same way, so you can quickly find, let’s say, all the photos showing your pet frog with one simple search. If that’s something you want to do often, you can then save the search, so you can repeat it with a couple of clicks. Use Advanced Search if you want to search just the tag metadata and ignore images that have the word “landscape” in their filename. Search results can be sorted, grouped or stacked just like ordinary folders, so you can arrange the results the way you need them.
For audio file metadata, I sometimes find it easier to work via the Details pane in Windows Explorer than to use (WMP) Windows Media Player: it’s very easy to select a whole folder full of tracks and edit the album name and album artists on all the tracks at once. Windows Vista even knows when you set the Album Artist to also set the Contributing Artists field to the same value. Having just converted about 2,000 files from iTunes M4a format to MP3 format for use with WMP, I’ve spent quite a long time getting used to these facilities for editing metadata tags: WMP11 has reasonable abilities in this respect, but it isn’t as solid as Windows Explorer. I eventually found it better to edit the metadata in Explorer and then let WMP catch up later when it monitored the relevant folders for changes.