Making Windows 11 Stop Automatically Grouping Your Downloads Folder By Date Modified

Microsoft has, with every version of Windows, made a few changes that have been enforced with a “my way or the highway” attitude. Usually, this is related to activation or other security concerns, though in more modern versions they’ve disabled certain user preferences from being changed unless you’re willing to learn Windows’ deep magicks. Every once in a while, they’ll even prevent the deep magicks from changing things properly, though they usually save this for the most extreme of cases (like the common myth among non-technically-competent people that “updates” and “viruses” are the same thing).

Usually, it doesn’t bother me; it’s not a setting I care strongly about, or it’s something that can be changed in another, more sysadmin oriented area (usually Group Policy), or in the rare case that neither of those does the trick, someone who speaks fluent Win32 API has already made a program for it.

Today’s article is about none of those things. Today’s article is about sorting a folder in your home directory, because Microsoft apparently doesn’t think users can even get that right anymore. I’m not sure when exactly Microsoft became this anti power user crusader that it’s been, but it’s really getting on my nerves.

What’s the Problem? (And Why Am I Mad About It?)

The problem is, out of the box, Windows will explicitly force your default Downloads directory to be sorted and grouped by the last date of modification (hereafter “mtime”, as Linux environments refer to it), each time you open that folder in Windows Explorer. Not just the first time you open it, not after you haven’t opened it in several months, each and every single time. If you try to change the sorting and grouping within Windows Explorer, it will work that one time, and then the very next time you open your Downloads folder again, it will be reset to sorting and grouping by mtime.

Now, maybe this works for unpowered users, who don’t download anything more complex than a JPEG image to repost onto their Facebooks (and maybe Edge is enforcing a whitelist for file downloads these days too, I don’t know, I use Firefox). But I’m not the lowest common denominator. I’m the same woman that doesn’t accept a human-incomprehensible sequence of characters for a system username. I’m the same woman that insists on disconnecting all drives except C:\ when I have to reinstall Windows, because I don’t trust Windows not to put its boot data and EFI partition on a USB flash drive I left connected, or something stupid.

And the reason sorting by mtime doesn’t work in my case is because often, I extract archives into the same folder I downloaded them into (because why would I bother making a separate directory), and the mtime on files inside the archive don’t match the mtime of the archive itself. Okay, maybe this is a 7z specific problem and the standard Windows ZIP extractor actually updates the mtimes so this doesn’t happen. I haven’t checked, because most of my archives aren’t ZIP. That’s what I get for interacting archive formats other than classic ZIP, I guess.

How Do You Fix It?

How do you fix your downloads folder always being sorted in a way you don’t want it sorted? There’s gotta be some setting squirreled away in the Settings app or something, right? Right?

Wrong. You have to edit the registry. And the registry path you have to edit has a GUID in it, for some incomprehensible reason, so it’s a small miracle I was even able to find this on Google after searching through pages of “just View > Group By > None, 5head”.

Pictured: Google’s apparent opinion of me.

To make matters worse, and you’re not gonna believe this… the particular key in question is owned by TrustedInstaller. If you’ve never had to deal with it before, TrustedInstaller is a special user within Windows that cannot be logged into, or made to run any sort of functions except for a specific set of actions baked into Windows. TrustedInstaller is also a specially privileged user, that outranks even the built in Administrator account that otherwise dominates the top of the Windows security food chain.

Ordinarily, TrustedInstaller owns system files and directories. C:\Windows and the like. Ordinarily, TrustedInstaller being given ownership of a certain file or registry key is done to prevent anybody but Windows itself from making modifications to important system files.

Today, TrustedInstaller has inexplicable ownership of the default Downloads folder settings. This will not last.

Stop Rambling, How Do You Actually FIX It, Nicole?

Open the registry editor (regedit.exe) with your favorite method of launching arbitrary system programs. Navigate to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Explorer\FolderTypes\{885a186e-a440-4ada-812b-db871b942259} (psst, modern regedit has an address bar at the top, just copy and paste). Now, go to the tree view panel on the far left side, and right click that {885a... folder key, and select “Permissions”.

You’ll get a window that kinda looks like the “Security” tab in file properties windows. Ignore all that. Click “Advanced”. At the top of the window, there should be an “Owner:” field, probably set to TrustedInstaller, and a little hyperlink that says “Change”. Change it to a principal that makes sense for your system (most people would probably want the default “Administrators” group).

After that change, go ahead and give “Administrators” full control over the key, and then tick the box that says “Replace all child object permission entries …”.

The window should look like this, right before you click OK.

Click OK, then click OK again. Now within this key, there should be a subkey TopViews, and within that should be a key with the GUID {00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000}. Why? Hell if I know. Microsoft logic. But that zero-GUID key is where you need to go next. There are three values in here you need to change:

  • Set GroupBy to System.Null
  • Set SortByList to prop:System.ItemNameDisplay
  • Set PrimaryProperty to System.ItemNameDisplay

Now, restart your computer. Yes. This is a system restart inducing registry change, involving removing TrustedInstaller’s ownership of those keys…to change the sort settings on your Downloads folder. Because Microsoft thinks if they just let you set it to sort by name or whatever by default, you’ll break your downloading, or something.

So yeah, that’s the long winded article on how to fix what should be a simple user preference in Windows. I should not have had to write a blog post so long my girlfriend thinks I’m writing a manifesto, but here we are. Are you sick of Windows assuming it’s smarter than you, and want to take back control over your computer? I highly recommend throwing Windows in the garbage and switching to some flavor of Linux, like Fedora.

  • June 1, 2023