How to arrange and sort files in Lion Finder

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Like its predecessors, Lion's Finder gives you four ways to view your files: icon view, list view, column view and Cover Flow view. But it also gives you some new ways to arrange files within those views: In addition to Arrange By, Lion adds Sort By and Clean Up By. Unfortunately, those arrangements aren't so straightforward.

The three sorting tools do have three distinct functions: Arrange By lets you organize files into groups. The new Sort By option does much of what Arrange By did in the past. And Clean Up By is a kind of impermanent Sort By. But the three options aren’t always available in all Finder views. Sometimes you can combine them; sometimes you can’t. There are multiple ways of invoking them. In other words, they aren’t Apple’s smoothest bit of interface design. But here’s a rough guide to the way they work.

Icon View

These new organizing tools are easiest to explain and demonstrate in icon view; many of the things that work in icon view also work in the other three. Even if you never use that view, switch over to it in Finder for a minute so you can follow along.

Start by Control-clicking (or right-clicking) in an open space in the Finder window. In the resulting context menu, you’ll see three options: Clean Up, Clean Up By, and Arrange By. Let’s start with the last one.

From the Arrange By submenu, you can opt to arrange files and folders by Name, Kind, Application, Date Last Opened, Date Added, Date Modified, Date Created, Size, Label, or None. Arranging by name simply sorts the files and folders in alphabetical order by name. None does just what it says. But if you select one of the other options, the Finder breaks its window into sections and organizes the files and folders into those sections. If you select Kind, for example, you get groups for different kinds of files: Folders, Images, Spreadsheets, Documents, and so on. Select Size, and your icons will divide into sections for size ranges—100MB to 10GB, 1MB to 100MB, and more. If you don’t have any files or folders that would fit into a given group, that section won’t appear at all. Within each group, files are displayed in a single horizontal row; if you have too many items in a group, you scroll horizontally and more will appear.

Arrange By menu
The Arrange By menu

Once you’ve organized files into groups with Arrange By, hold down the Option key and Control-click in the Finder window again. The Arrange By option in the contextual menu changes to Sort By. That lets you sort files within groups. So, for example, if you’ve arranged files by Kind, you can use Sort By to array them within each group by name. The Sort By menu doesn’t offer all of the same options as Arrange By; you can’t sort by Application. If you arrange by None, you can still use Sort By to arrange the window as a whole.

When you start combining Arrange By and Sort By, things can get a little confusing: Let’s say you arrange by Kind, then open the Sort By menu: You can sort your files within their groups by Name, Label, or other criteria. But if you Arrange By any of Date or by Size, all of the Sort By options will be grayed out. If you arrange by Name, you can’t sort them, because Name doesn’t move files into groups; it just sorts them by name. Point being, you can’t always combine Arrange By and Sort By.

The contextual menu isn’t the only way to invoke Arrange By and Sort By. You can also: select View -> Arrange By; click on the Arrange By button in the Finder toolbar (if it’s there); select Arrange By from the Action menu in that toolbar (again, if that button is there); or open the View Options palette (which itself can be done in several ways). In many of those cases, the Option-key trick still works, changing Arrange By to Sort By.

Some folders have special Arrange By and Sort By criteria. For example, in the Applications folder you can arrange apps by Application Category (Productivity, Games, Social Networking, etc.). These categories are inherited from the Mac App Store; if you have apps from some other source, they’ll all be lumped in Other.

Arrange By plus Sort By
Arranged by Kind, sorted by Date Added

If you arrange icons by Name or None, you also get a Clean Up By option in the context menu (and elsewhere). This sorts your icons by whatever criteria you wish (Name, Kind, Date Modified, Date Created, Size, or Label), but you can then move the icons around within the view; when you Arrange By, you can't move the icons. Clean Up By is also a one-time action; if you add new files to that folder, their icons won't follow your Clean Up By arrangement. If you choose Arrange By, new files you add to that folder will be automatically placed into the appropriate group. The simple Clean Up option just moves file icons into a grid, with no organization.

List, Column, and Cover Flow

As in icon view, in list and column views you can use Arrange By to sort files and folders into groups. But those groups are more compact and easier to use than they are in icon view, especially when you’re viewing a lot of files; files appear in vertical columns, not horizontal rows, so there’s no side-scrolling required. However, if a list or column extends below the bottom of the window, you can’t use the contextual menu to access Arrange By or Sort By (because there's no empty screen space); you’ll have to use one of the (many) other options.

View options
The View Options palette

Arrange By Kind can be especially useful in list and column views, because it displays folders at the top, making for easy navigation up and down a directory tree. As in icon view, you can combine Arrange By and Sort By—at least some of the time. Again, if you arrange by date or size, you can’t sort within those groups.

In either of these views, you can Control-click on the column headers: That lets you choose which headers will display. By default, you get Name, Date Modified, Size and Kind, but you can add others, or remove all but Name. Because items in these views are presented in perfectly vertical lists, there is no Clean Up By option in either of them.

Cover Flow view is a hybrid: at the top of a window you see files and their contents, and below is a list view. The options for this view are similar to those in list view: you can use Arrange By or Sort By the same ways.

Putting it all together

When you’ve organized files just the way you want them in a window in, say, icon view, you can tell OS X to always use those options any other time you use that view: After your options are set, open the View Options palette and click on Use as Defaults at the bottom. (You can’t do this in column view.) The settings in your current window should then be applied in all windows opened in icon view. (You can undo this by pressing the Option key in View Options: that changes Use as Defaults to Restore to Defaults.) However, in my testing, such defaults weren't always applied; I know others have had the same experience.

You can also choose a specific view for certain folders. To do this, open a folder, choose the view you want, then, in the View Options palette, check Always Open in ____ View. Again, this works most of the time, but not always. And the settings you apply to one folder don't carry over to others.

As you can see, organizing files and folders in Lion can be confusing. In fact, in Apple’s own Help system suggests a trial-and-error approach to configuring your various options. ("Choose View > Show View Options, and then try selecting the checkboxes and radio buttons and choosing from the menus. The changes take effect immediately, so you can see the results of your choices.") It doesn't try to explain the differences between Arrange By, Sort By, and Clean Up By or their myriad permutations.

The best advice is to find a look you like and stick with it as much as possible; the more you try to customize each and every view, the more likely your changes will go awry. But if you do take the time to experiment, you may find these new organizing tools make finding and managing files easier than ever.

Senior contributor Kirk McElhearn writes about more than just Macs on his blog Kirkville. He is the author of Take Control of Scrivener 2 (Take Control Books, 2011).

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At a Glance
  • At $30 for all of your Macs, the only reason not to upgrade to Lion is because you rely on old PowerPC-based apps that won’t run on it. Otherwise, it’s a great price for a major upgrade.

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