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Handling Files in Visual Basic


November 19, 2002

The majority of Windows applications handle files. From Microsoft Word to Windows Explorer to Greasy Joe's Easy Accounts package.

But how do you do this in Visual Basic? Via the Open statement.

In this article, I'll be covering everything you need to know - from start to finish. Perhaps even from open to close, if I'm feeling funny.

Don't forget that I'd love to hear what you think about this article. Whether it's likes or gripes, post it on the bulletin board.

But for now, let's get started.

Getting Started

Before we delve into writing and reading files, let's ask ourselves a question; why would I want to write to a file?

Well, programmers often want to write data to a disk or retrieve data from it. And that data can be anything - from settings to plain text to pictures. Heck, you could even create your own mini word processor!

But don't confuse this with databases. If you're interested in accessing databases using Visual Basic, you'd better head down to Karl Moore's tutorial.

Now, we access files using the Open statement.


Blow Up!

Here's an example:

Open "c:\windows\faq.txt" For Input As #1

Don't worry about the syntax for now, you'll get used to it. This example opens the file faq.txt for input (file reading). The file is referred to by the number 1.

Before we dive into the intricacies of using the Open statement, let's take a peek at three different modes available to us when accessing files:

  • Input, Output and Append
  • Random
  • Binary

We'll cover each of these separately.

First off, let's take a look at the file modes input, output and append. You use these three types to read or write plain text - such as that found in .txt, .bat and .ini files.

But when should you use each mode? Well, it depends on what you want to do. Use the following list to help you decide...

  • The Output mode creates a blank file and allows you to write information into it.
  • The Append mode is similar to the Output mode but appends (adds to) an existing file.
  • The Input mode opens a file for reading.

Top Tip: You may hear these file modes being referred to as 'sequential files'. That's 'cause once you have read or written to a line, you can't go back to it unless you close and re-open. In other words, the modes are one way sequential.

So, for example, to open a file for output, you'd use the Open statement like this:

Open "c:\windows\faq.txt" For Output As #1

That's all fine and dandy, but how do you use each mode after youve opened the file?

To write to a file we use (Output and Append only):

Print #filenumber, expression

To read from a file we use (Input only):

Input #filenumber, variablelist

This probably looks completely confusing at the moment, so let's figure out what it all means.

Let's imagine you've opened a file for output, like this...

Open "c:\groovy\myfile.txt" For Output As #1

...we now want to put information into this file using the Print statement, like this:

Print #1, "Hello World!"

This inserts the information you pass it direct to the file in #1.

If you'd opened a file for Input, like this...

Open "c:\groovy\myotherfile.txt" For Input As #1

...you can read information from the file, like this...

Input #1, MyVariableName

This reads information from the file in #1 and puts it into your variable.

Let's use an example - it's easier to explain that way!

Building a Sample

Let's build a sample to demonstrate accessing files:

Open Visual Basic and double-click on "Standard EXE"

You should be left with a blank form.

  • Throw a simple Text Box onto the form
  • Go to the Properties window and change MultiLine to True
  • Create two Command buttons, setting the caption of the first to Read and the second to Write.

So far, it should look something like this:

Now, double-click on Read and insert the following code:

Private Sub Command1_Click()    'Outline:       - Asks the user for a file.    '               - Reads all the data into Text1.        Dim FilePath As String    Dim Data As String        FilePath = InputBox("Enter the path for a text file", "The Two R's", _    "C:\WINDOWS\WINNEWS.TXT")    'Asks the user for some input via an input box.        Open FilePath For Input As #1    'Opens the file given by the user.        Do Until EOF(1)    'Does this loop until End Of File(EOF) for file number 1.        Line Input #1, Data        'Read one line and puts it into the varible Data.        Text1.Text = Text1.Text & vbCrLf & Data        'Adds the read line into Text1.        MsgBox EOF(1)    Loop        Close #1    'Closes this file.End Sub

Read the comments (anything prefixed by an apostrophe).

Next, double-click on Write and insert the following code:

Private Sub Command2_Click()    'Outline:       - Asks the user for a file.    '               - Writes it all to a the file.        Dim FilePath As String        FilePath = InputBox("Enter the path for a text file", _    "The Two R's")    'Asks the user for some input via an input box.        Open FilePath For Output As #1    'Opens the file given by the user (for Output).        Print #1, Text1.Text    'Writes the data into the file number #1        Close #1End Sub

Once again, read all the comments. Do you understand what's happening?

Hit F5 to run your program!

Congratulations! You've just created a simple text editor. The Write button performs a simple 'Save As' whilst the Read button is the equivalent of 'Open'.

Didn't I Mention Those?

You may have noticed a few things in my code that I haven't told you about. Let's take a peek at a few geeky code words...

Line Input #filenumber, MyVariableName

- This is the same as Input but it reads the whole line instead of stopping at a comma (which can be useful - sometimes)

EOF(#filenumber)

- This outputs a true or false value, depending on whether it has hit the 'end' of the file. In my code, I used it in the DoLoop for Read. When EOF=True, the loop ends.

Close #filenumber

- This closes the file. It allows other files to open this file.

And if you'll be getting real friendly with files in Visual Basic, here are a few other file writing functions you may be interested in:

Write #filenumber, outputlist

This is similar to Print but it writes "screen formatted data" instead of raw data to a file. This means that values (numbers) have hashes ("#") put around them and strings have quote marks put around them. This makes the text less human readable but easier to read for your programs.

LOC(#filenumber)

The LOC function returns the current read/write position within an open file.

LOF(#filenumber)

The LOF function gives you the length of the file open.

FreeFile

This will give you next available file number.

Example:

MyFileNumber = FreeFileOpen "c:\windows\faq.txt" For Input as #MyFileNumber
Input$(number_of_chars_to_return, #filenumber)

This is the same as Input and Line Input except it has no limits (except the ones you set in number_of_chars_to_return). By using LOF - this can be used to get the whole file. We could replace all the stuff in the DoLoop in the Read button, with:

Text1.Text = Input$(LOF(1),#1)

Why not have a play around and see what these do? Go on, have a go!

That's about it for the Input, Output and Append modes. If you're thirsty for more, check out John Percival's article on Adding Lines to Autoexec.bat.

Now, scrap all you know about writing to text files. Yep, the methods of accessing random files are wildly different.

This method of writing to files I personally find a lot more useful. Instead of storing data in lines, random mode files are stored in records, just like an Access database stores its information.

Let's look at a sample of how we can open a file for Random access:

Open "c:\myfile.ran" For Random As #1 Len=1000

Here you can see that the file myfile.ran is being opened as a random file under the number 1. However, the more observant of you will notice there is an extra bit at the end - Len= - I'll explain what that does in a short while.

Firstly, we have to get the Random file format clear in our heads. You need to think of it as being like an Excel spreadsheet with only one column (the "A" column) and expanding for an infinite number of rows down. As with Excel each of these boxes can hold its own type of data. Let's take a good ol' peek at the diagram below:

This is how random files are stored and how you, as the developer, will access data in these files.

Next, we need to actually know how to read and write to these random files. For this we used the two commands:

Get #filenumber, recnumber, varname Statement
Put #filenumber, recnumber, varname Statement

You use Get to read data from your file and Put to write data to your file. For #filenumber you use the number that you used in the Open statement (e.g. #1), for the recnumber you put the record you'd like to access and the varname is the variable that you want to read into (Get) or write into (Put).

Once again, it's probably easier to demonstrate this with another sample!

And Another Sample!

Go through the following steps in order to build a sample application using the Random mode:

Open Visual Basic and double-click on "Standard EXE"

You will be left with a blank form.

Add two Text Box controls, two Command Buttons and a Check Box onto the form

Don't worry about naming conventions for now.

<Alex grins insanely>

Next, insert the following code into the (Declarations) code section of the Form.

Option Explicit'Forces us to declare our varibles.Private tmpText1 As StringPrivate tmpText2 As StringPrivate tmpCheck1 As Boolean'Declares temp varibles.Private Sub Command1_Click()    'Outline:   Launches this program.        If MsgBox("Click OK to run  " & Text1.Text, _vbOKCancel + vbQuestion, "The Open Statement") = _        vbCancel Then        'If the user clicked on 'Cancel'        Exit Sub    Else        'If the user clicked OK        Shell Text2.Text, IIf(Check1 = True, _        vbMinimizedFocus, vbNormalFocus)    End IfEnd SubPrivate Sub Form_Load()    'Outline:   - Opens the test file    '           - Opens records 1-3 into the controls.        Open "c:\test.ran" For Random As #1        If FileLen("c:\test.ran") = 0 Then CreateBlankFile    'If this file has just been created then run ' the sub 'CreateBlankFile'        Get #1, 1, tmpText1    Get #1, 2, tmpText2    Get #1, 3, tmpCheck1    'Gets all the values and puts them into ' the temp varibles.        Text1.Text = tmpText1    Text2.Text = tmpText2    Check1 = tmpCheck1    'Sets the values in the controls to the temp values.        End SubPrivate Sub Command2_Click()    'Outline:   Saves the current values.        tmpText1 = Text1.Text    tmpText2 = Text2.Text    tmpCheck1 = Check1    'Sets the temp values to the values in the controls.        Put #1, 1, tmpText1    Put #1, 2, tmpText2    Put #1, 3, tmpCheck1End SubPrivate Sub CreateBlankFile()    'Outline:   This creates a blank file.        tmpText1 = ""    tmpText2 = ""    tmpCheck1 = False    'Clears the temp varibles.        Put #1, 1, tmpText1    Put #1, 2, tmpText2    Put #1, 3, tmpCheck1    'Writes the varibles into the fileEnd Sub

Read all the comments here. Can you figure out what's happening?

Hit F5 to run the program!

Well done - you've just created a program launcher! Try it out. Does it work?

Top Tip: If you're using Visual Basic 4 or below, it's probably time to upgrade. Oh, and you'll also have to declare any variable and constants before writing them to a file (using the Dim statement).

What's What?

Let's run over a few particulars of the code that'll be of interest. Well, maybe.

  • You may notice that I used a few temporary variables (tmpText1, tmpText2 and tmpCheck1) to store data in before I read or wrote data into the controls. This is because Get and Put are very picky about the data they read or write. Data for Get and Put must not come directly from form controls or user defined types.
FileLen(#filenumber)

FileLen outputs the file size in bytes. So, if LenFile(1) in our code equals 0 then the Open statement has just made the file. Therefore, we will need to create this file using our CreateBlankFile subroutine.

IIf(expression, truepart, falsepart)

See John Percival's IIf Tip function

But what about that 'Len=' mystery I promised to unravel for you?

Let's think about this in terms of an Excel Spreadsheet. Think of each cell having a maximum size. This maximum size is set (in bytes) in the Len= section of the Open statement (by default it's 256 bytes).

Unfortunately, as with everything else in life, size matters. So there is a drawback in setting a huge length using 'Len ='. Try out the following code:

Open "c:\test.ran" For Random As #1 Len=10240Put #1,1000,"Hello"Close #1

The results aren't pretty. You will end up with a file which is about 10MB. Why? Because you created a record at the point 1,000. Now, Visual Basic must leave space to put records before record 1,000 it will create a bundle of blank records from 1 to 999, each taking up 10,240 bytes. So, this leaves a file that is:

10,240 bytes x 1,000 records = 10,240,000 bytes

so, that's 10,240,000 / 1048576 (that's how many bytes there are in a megabyte) which equals 9.77MB

So be careful - you have been warned!

But anyway, enough calculations. Let's think about how we can take our work one step beyond.

Improved Example - I've updated the example to include support for many applications. This is more useful because it stores many applications. You can download it here.

I've made a module for use with VB that treats random mode files in sets of data. Each data set has a name. This works perfectly with the improved example mentioned above so you can spend less time coding monotonous Get and Put commands. You can download this one here.

To help you programming you can use this Excel spreadsheet (with macros) to read and output your random mode files.

So we've seen the Random file access mode in use. And it's pretty darn cool.

But what are the advantages when compared with the sequential Input/Output/Append modes?

Advantages:

  • It's easy to change the data already saved in records - you just write a Put command and it will overwrite the old data.
  • You don't need to open and close files to change how you read the files (i.e. random does both input and output).

Disadvantages:

  • If you want to do anything except simple retrieval of settings or basic data storage, you will need to do a lot of calculations which can be frustrating. Trust me.
  • You can't read the data into a text editor, though a simple record editor can be created with a moderate amount of coding

And now for something completely different; binary file mode...

The binary file mode is the closest you get to writing direct to disk in Visual Basic. It allows you to directly write to a file at a byte-by-byte level.

To be honest, this mode is pretty limited in its uses, but there are times when it could be helpful.

As with the last mode, we use the Get and Put statements to manipulate files. This time we have the syntax:

Put #filenumber, bytenumber, varname
Get #filenumber, bytenumber, varname

You will notice that the difference between using Get and Put for random files is that instead of using a recordnumber as in Random mode, it uses a bytenumber. This "byte number" is the number of bytes into the file that you want to start reading from.

Byte Number

01

02

03

04

05

06

07

08

09

10

11

String Data

H

E

L

L

O

 

W

O

R

L

D

You can see from the diagram above that every byte can be given a byte number. So, the command...

Get #1, 8, MyVar

...will place data from byte number 8 into the variable called 'MyVar'. The amount of data put into 'MyVar' depends on the defined size of the variable.

Now there are two ways you can define the length of a variable:

Dim varname as String * 50

Here, varname is the name of the variable and the number after the asterisk (*) is the length you want the string to be. However, once set, these variables have been declared (Dimmed) cannot be changed in length.

varname = String(lengthofstring, 0)

Here, varname is the name of the variable you want to set the length of, lengthofstring is the length that you want to set the string. 0 means character zero which is a "null" character.

Going back to the Get statement, using the above diagram you should be able to see that...

Get #1, 8, MyVar

... would return 'ORLD' to our 4-byte MyVar variable.

Make sense? Once again, the best way to demonstrate this is via example. So fire up Visual Basic and off we go!

Just One More Example

It's now time to check out the Binary file access mode in action!

Open Visual Basic and double-click on "Standard EXE"

You will be left with a blank form.

Now insert the following code:

Const ChunkSize = 1024'This is the amount (chunk) of data to take each ' time the file is written to.'The larger the quicker but more memory intensive.'Here I have set it to 1024 bytes which equals 1KB.Dim Data As StringPublic Sub Form_Load    Open "c:\source" For Binary As #1 'Source     Open "d:\destination" For Binary As #2 'Destination      Do Until LOF(1) = Loc(1) Or EOF(1)     'Will do this loop until the end of the source file.             Data = ""             'Resets the size of the Data string.             MsgBox LOF(1) & vbTab & Loc(1) & _            vbTab & LOF(1) - Loc(1)             If LOF(1) - Loc(1) < ChunkSize Then             'If there is not enough data left for one chunk.                 Data = String(LOF(1) - Loc(1), 0)                 'Sets the length of the string; Data.             Else             'If there is enough data left for one chunk                 Data = String(ChunkSize, 0)             End If             Get #1, , Data             Put #2, , Data         LoopEnd Sub

You won't find any strange new commands in this code, but the concepts may be a little difficult to understand at first. Just remember...

LOF(1) - Loc(1) - Remember that LOF(#filenumber) tells you the length of the file and Loc(#filenumber) is the last read byte. So, by simple maths when you take away the current location (which will be how many bytes have been read) from the length of the file, you will get how many bytes of the file is left.

Chunks - I have read data in as chunks, the size of each chunk is set in the constant ChunkSize. The reason I have taken data in as 1 kilobyte chunks is because if you try to make a variable the size of the source file you end up running out of memory.

Remember I said the uses of binary files were limited? Well, I wasn't lying. But there are times you may want to use them. Such as:

Sam Huggill's Compare the contents of two files - This tip uses the binary file mode to find if two files are the same.

Again Sam Huggill has another gem; Using the Internet Transfer Control: Part 1 - Here Sam uses the Internet Control to get data from a file and outputs it to a binary mode file.

Anyone for Scraps?

And now for all those other bits I almost forgot.

So far, we've used the Open statement like this...

Open pathname For mode As #filenumber [Len=reclength]

... however there are also a couple of other extra widgets that I've not yet mentioned. The official way of using the Open statement is like this...

Open pathname For mode [Access access] [lock] As #filenumber [Len=reclength]

In other words, you have two extra optional arguments there - Access and Lock. Let's explain those now.

[Lock] controls how other programs 'see' your file. [Lock] can be replaced with; Shared, Lock Read, Lock Write, and Lock Read Write, depending on what you want:

Lock Mode

What it Does

Shared

Allows other programs to read and write to this file.

Lock Read

Allows other programs to write and not read to this file.

Lock Write

Allows other programs to read and not write to this file.

Lock Read Write

(Default) Does not allow other programs to read or write to it.

[Access] controls if your program can write, read, or read & write to your file. [Access] can be replaced with; Read, Write, or Read Write.

Access Mode

What it Does

Read

Allows your program to read from the file

Write

Allows your program to write to the file

Read Write

(Default) Allows your program to both read and write to the file.

[Access] is useful to stop you from corrupting files that you mean to read from (i.e. typing Get instead of Put). It is a similar practice to Option Explicit which forces you to declare variables.

As an example, this statement...

Open "TESTFILE" For Binary Access Read Lock Read As #1

... opens 'TESTFILE' in Binary mode for reading; other applications cannot read the file due to our lock.

Great, huh?

In this tutorial, you've discovered how to read and write files three separate ways. Talk about value for money!

Sure, it might not seem terribly exciting, but this is a very useful skill often overlook by modern VBers.

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial. Dont forget to post your hypes and gripes in the bulletin board. You can also e-mail me personally alex@home.cam.net.uk

A complete package of all the examples included in this tutorial is available here!

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