How to use Smart Folders on your Mac

SmartFolderIconXIf you haven’t yet used Smart Folders in OS X, then you may be missing out on a critical time-saving feature of the OS X Finder. Smart Folders are essentially canned searches, where you can save custom search queries and quickly restore them. They are relatively simple concept, so the real question of how to use smart folders really boils down to: How do you search your Mac?

To start, lets look at Spotlight, as this is the go-to option for starting a search. While a solid option, Spotlight does not tap into the full power of your Mac’s search capabilities. Nevertheless, its easy to access from any application, by pressing command-space to bring up spotlight, and then typing a few key words to generate a query.

When you do this, you may see a number of results show, most of which are not close to what you are looking for. Granted you can try using the Spotlight system preferences to organizing the results for relevance, but often you may already have an idea of the files you are looking for, such as their type (text, music, Word documents, etc.), their size, when they were created, and more. Spotlight can show some of these details, but if you have these details in mind, then your best bet at this point is to jump over to the Finder to perform your search. This can be done by choosing the “Show All In Finder” option in Spotlight (usually toward the bottom).

Spotlight show all in Finder

Choose this option to view the search in the Finder, where you can modify it with additional filters and then save it as a Smart Folder. You can also do this through a Finder search by pressing Command-F, or by choosing New Smart Folder from the File menu.

Once in the Finder, you can apply filters to your search, which can help you greatly narrow down your results, and this is where the power of searching lies in OS X. By default, each Finder search will have one main filter, the search scope, which is either the current folder, “This Mac,” or “Shared.” If you know the files you want are nested in the current folder, then select it, or otherwise change the scope to “This Mac.” If you want to limit the scope to another folder, then you will have to open that folder and similarly start a search (instead of invoking Spotlight, you can use the Finder search field, or press Command-F).

Now you can apply your own filters to the search to narrow it down. Click the plus button to the far right of the search scope filter, and another filter will appear that gives you the option to choose an attribute and then a value for that attribute, the default for this is the kind of file set to “Any” so all are included, but you can adjust this accordingly. The alternative options in the “Kind” menu are common queries, but there are a massive number of alternatives that you can include. To see these, select the Other option in this menu, and you can scroll through around 200 possible filters.

Smart folder logical searches

Holding the Option key when adding a new filter will have it appear as a logic operator, which can be nested among other such operators to give your search a fair bit of specificity.

Clicking the plus button will add new filters that you can configure, and by default the search logic will be inclusive, meaning the first filter and “ALL” from the second filter and “ALL” from the third filter, etc., will all need to be satisfied for your results. However, you can adjust this by holding the Option key when clicking the plus button. Doing so will add a logic node, under which will be another filter. At the node, you can specify whether you want Any, All, or None, of the files that match the filters under the node to be included in the search, and also add filters under the node. By assembling and nesting multiple nodes you can create rather complex search patterns, and isolate files you want.

Setting up this search logic clearly takes time and effort, so if you have a search pattern that you might re-visit frequently, then you can click the “Save” button in the upper-right to save the search as a “Smart Folder,” which will restore the search logic when you next open it.

Once saved, the Smart Folder will look be purple with a gear in its icon, and you can drag this to your Finder sidebar or to the Dock for quick access (though there should be an option to automatically place it in the sidebar). If you need to modify the smart folder, then when you select it, you can click it in the Finder sidebar to open it, and then right-click it to select Show Search Criteria.

Smart Folder show search criteria

Right-clicking the smart folder in the sidebar may only have the option to show search criteria if you have currently opened the smart folder, so be sure to left-click it first.

Smart folders offer a different approach to locating files on your Mac, so the power of this option may be a bit unrealized, but with some thought put into the search queries you might find them invaluable. For instance, if you work on various projects that have similarly named files of the same type and content, then standard searches may show you multiple files that all look the same. However, with a Smart Folder you can have it show you files of that type which were created in the past day or two, or specific system files, or perhaps only images in certain folders created within a date range, among an almost infinite number of other possibilities.

2 thoughts on “How to use Smart Folders on your Mac

  1. MaX

    Smart Folders may be useful, but they also corrupt sometimes. Command F should just remember the last search configuration. For instance, search by name contains instead of kind is by default.

  2. msadesign

    Very useful, T, thanks. And too bad that Smart Folders in Mail aren’t as…well, smart; option-click won’t bring up logic operators, for example.

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