Take Control of Customizing Tiger

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Do Finder Searches

The Spotlight menu and the Spotlight window are both system-level ways of accessing Spotlight: you can reach them no matter what application is frontmost. But the Finder also provides a mode of Spotlight access through a search field in the toolbar of a Finder window.

A Finder Spotlight search is more restricted than a global Spotlight search: in the Finder, the only things you can search for are files and folders. That’s not much of a restriction, since files and folders are the most common things to search for; but it’s a restriction nonetheless. (For example, in a system-wide Spotlight search, you can find e-mail messages, thanks to metadata from Mail, and calendar events, thanks to metadata from iCal; you can’t do that in a Finder search.)

On the other hand, the Finder’s interface to Spotlight is better, in certain ways, than either the Spotlight menu or the Spotlight window. Plus, a Spotlight search in the Finder can be saved as a Smart Folder, a cool new feature of Tiger that I recommend you start using.

Let’s look at how the Finder’s Spotlight interface works. To see it, switch to the Finder and press Command-F to switch the focus to the search field, so you can type a search term. Alternatively, just click in the search field of a Finder window and start typing. Either way, the search begins immediately (there is no need to press Return), and you are now looking at a Finder search window. (Exactly what you see depends on whether you were already in a Finder window and whether the toolbar is displayed, but the window will probably look roughly like the screenshot below.)

Spotlight Finder Interface

The Finder search window can’t be as fully navigated with the keyboard as the Spotlight window, and, oddly, it ignores your category settings from the Spotlight preference pane. However, it does offer some nice advantages:

  • You can limit the search to specific folder(s): If the desired folder doesn’t appear in the bar immediately below the search field, click Others.

  • You can use multiple criteria: Criteria that you add by clicking the plus-button, at the right end of a row, will filter the search you initiated in the search field. (If you want only your added criteria to be operative, leave the search field blank.)

  • You can change your view: Use the tripartite widget in the toolbar, or choose from the View menu. You can customize the settings for these views, much as for a normal Finder window, by choosing View: Show View Options (Command-J).

  • You can work with the path: As you select a result, its path—the hierarchy of files containing it—is displayed at the bottom of the window. You can open any folder in the path by double-clicking it. (If the path is long, the names of the containing folders will be curtailed, but each folder reveals its full name as you pass the mouse over it.)

  • You can do normal Finder operations: You can perform certain ordinary Finder operations on a found file—rename it, reveal it, show its Get Info window, label it, trash it, or open it. (Control-click a file to quickly access these functions.)
  • Tip; In a criterion filter, choose Other from the first pop-up menu to see a dialog listing all the kinds of Spotlight metadata for all the file types on your computer.

    Make Smart Folders

    A Smart Folder is a saved Finder search. You can also think of it as a saved Finder search window , because it retains all its settings (the view, the column widths if you’re in list view, and so forth), and displays the search results. These results are always current (because Spotlight searches are live). Thus, a Smart Folder always effectively “contains” the files that match the folder’s search criteria at any given moment . Not everyone needs Smart Folders, but if you do, then once you’ve made a few, you’ll wonder how you lived without them.

    To make a Smart Folder, press the Save button that appears at the upper right of a Finder search window. (In the screenshot higher up on this page, the Save button is visible in the top row, after the list of locations to search.) You’re offered a chance to save to the Saved Searches folder (it’s in your Library), to the Desktop, or to your Home folder. These, oddly, are the only choices; however, you can move the Smart Folder anywhere you like after saving it.

    A saved Smart Folder is indicated by a special icon, a folder with a gear on it. When you open that folder, the up-to-date search results appear. The Save button is now an Edit button; press it to display and to change the search criteria. To save the altered Smart Folder under a new name, hold the Option key; the Save button changes to Save As.

    For example, sometimes I get bored with my Desktop background, and I like to change it. I have a big monitor, so I like to use only high-quality images—meaning big images, those whose pixel dimensions are large. What are the largest JPEGs on my computer? To find out, I can do a Finder search. Having performed the search, I then click the Save button to make Smart Folder.

    Now I have a Smart Folder that permanently presents me with all my highest-quality images, no matter where on my hard disk they may be located. In the blink of an eye, I’ve sliced through the folder hierarchy to create a collection of files based not on their location but on their characteristics.

    [ Matt Neuburg is a TidBits contributing editor and the author of a variety of books about Mac software; his latest is Take Control of Customizing Tiger ( TidBits Electronic Publishing, 2005). ]

    EDITOR’S NOTE: This excerpt was updated on May 20 to remove an example about using a Spotlight search to collect cache files since that example does not work in the currently shipping version of OS X 10.4. This change will be reflected in a future edition of Take Control of Customizing Tiger , which will be a free update to anyone who bought the ebook.

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