Promising Prospect: TorchFS

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At a Glance
  • Tim Scheffler TorchFS 0.2

Spotlight is one of Mac OS X’s best—and worst—features. When it works, it’s an amazing tool for finding exactly the bit of data you’re looking for. But many people have complaints about its limitations.

One of those limitations is Spotlight’s search-results window, which doesn’t make it easy to, for example, add additional columns to view more information about found files. But one of my biggest complaints about the results window is its lack of context. Rather than dump all my files into my Documents folder, I keep those files fairly organized, with a clear system of hierarchical folders and subfolders. Yet when I perform a Spotlight search, I see a huge list of files…as if I had simply dumped everything into one big folder. (If you want to know where a particular file is located, you must select it and then look at the path displayed at the bottom of the window. And you must do this separately for each file.)

TorchFS is a program that displays Spotlight search results using your folder structure. Or, to look at it another way, it filters your existing files and folders, displaying only those containing results of a Spotlight search.

(TorchFS requires MacFUSE, a system add-on that, in the developer’s terms, “makes it possible to implement a fully functional file system in a user-space program on Mac OS X.” In plain english, this means that once you’ve installed MacFUSE, you can add system-level support for new filesystems within your user account by simply running an application. In TorchFS’s case, that filesystem is based on SpotlightFS, a virtual filesystem for Spotlight search results. You’ll need to download and install MacFUSE before using TorchFS. MacFUSE is also used by ExpanDrive, a previous Mac Gem.)

When would TorchFS be useful? Consider a search I recently performed. I was looking for a few Macworld-related documents I created in August of 2009. When I performed a standard Spotlight search, I ended up with a results window containing a continuous list of 1,714 item, including photos, application-support files, and lots of other cruft that had nothing to do with my Macworld writing. Even when I sorted the list by type, it was a hassle to find the particular files I was searching for.

Using TorchFS, the results of that same search were presented as a Finder window open to my Home folder, but displaying only those folders that included search results. I was able to navigate directly to the Macworld folder inside my Documents folder and see only those folders containing documents created in August 2009. (One limitation of TorchFS is that the current version searches only your Home folder—you can’t force it to search your entire hard drive, additional drives, or network drives.)

Also unlike Spotlight's default results window, you can change the Finder-window view of the TorchFS results window, so you can browse those results using icons, a list, columns, or Cover Flow.

TorchFS's Spotlight-results window for a search for PDF documents

I find TorchFS’s approach to be much more intuitive than scanning a huge list of results. By organizing Spotlight-search results using my folder-organization scheme, I’m able to find what I'm looking for much more quickly.

Unfortunately, TorchFS, currently at beta version 0.2, isn’t without a few hassles of its own. One is that because TorchFS uses a virtual filesystem, it requires you to save your Spotlight search as a smart folder and then access that smart folder through a virtual TorchFS “drive” that appears, depending on your Finder settings, on the Desktop, in Finder-window sidebars, and in the Finder’s Computer view. (Any smart folders you’ve created appear here. TorchFS automatically creates a few smart folders for finding, for example, all documents or all images.) This makes Torch FS most useful for searches you perform repeatedly, or for the occasional search with an especially messy results list.

Another minor issue is that because of the way the underlying MacFUSE software works, you’ll occasionally see a file named “Please wait!” inside a folder when browsing search results. That file is eventually replaced by the folder’s actual “contents.”

Finally, while TorchFS worked great on a 2009 MacBook and a 2010 Mac mini in my testing, I couldn’t get the underlying MacFUSE software to work properly on my 2010 iMac—which meant that TorchFS wouldn't work, either. (All three computers were running the latest version of Snow Leopard.) I’m looking forward to future updates to TorchFS, as I’m hooked on its approach to presenting Spotlight search results.

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At a Glance
  • Tim Scheffler TorchFS 0.2

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