Powerful Finder Features You May Not Be Using

- 2005.08.03

The Finder is probably the most vital - yet the most underused - part of every Mac on the planet. It does more than just providing a graphical user interface to your computer. When you use all its features, you can harness amazing power to your advantage and save a lot of time.

There shouldn't be anything revolutionary to learn here, because these features are available all the time, but we'll show you how to get the most out of features overlooked by most people.

Smart Folders

The key to saving time and being efficient with your Mac, which is very important when you use it for work, is organization. My favorite Finder features are special folders. With these you can regroup different types of files and folders scattered all around your disk and access them all easily. (Folder actions have been left out of this tutorial on purpose - we are focusing on the basics, and folder actions require AppleScript knowledge, which is for more advanced users.)

Smart Folders, introduced with Tiger (Mac OS X 10.4), are pretty amazing. They allow you to regroup all kinds of files and folders in a folder no matter where you actually store them. All they have to do is share some attributes, such as creation date or file type or any imaginable attribute.

To create a smart folder, pull down the File menu and select New Smart Folder. Click on the Computer button to make sure that you look for files everywhere on the computer, and then tailor the options to your liking. Don't hesitate to use the plus and minus signs to add and remove attributes.

Extra tip: you may want to use Spotlight Comments (when using the Get Info dialog box) to add comments to files. When you use Spotlight Comments as attributes to filter files in smart folders, you can easily view files together that otherwise have nothing to do with each other.

New Smart Folder
Smart Folder - click image for full-sized view

In my example (see screen shot), I used the most simple attribute of them all: color labels. When you control-click a file or folder, you can give it a color label and later use these labels to create smart folders.

Just take a good look at it - the feature is much more powerful than Spotlight, which Apple used as an easy marketing strategy for Tiger.

Burnable Folders

Apple finally got the point: Burning CDs and DVDs with the Disk Image application was a both. It forced you to create disk images that replicated your files before allowing you to burn a disc. With Tiger, the burnable folders feature lets you create folders especially made to burn data without any need to first create a disk image on your hard drive.

Burnable Folder
Burnable Folder - click image for full-sized view

After pulling down the File menu in the Finder, select New Burnable Folder. You will notice some changes in the folder's window elements, the burn buttonpartly because it comes with a Burn button. All you have to do to burn a disc is dragging files to the folder. The burnable folder will remember where the files are and read them from their original location (even on separate hard drives and other media) when you burn a CD or DVD. When you are ready to burn the disc, just click on the Burn button.

I find this feature handy for files that I want to put on CD or DVD on a regular basis - or simply to use one folder that serves as a bridge between my hard drive and my disc burner.

the sidebarSidebar

Are you familiar with the sidebar? In Mac OS X 10.0 to 10.2, there were some unfriendly Favorites, which were replaced by the superior sidebar in Panther. This neat feature is present in every Finder window, and you should use it to your advantage, because it provides quick access to your favorite folders.

To put a folder in the sidebar, just drag it to the second part of the left column of any Finder window (below the grey line). You can reorder (and eliminate) sidebar folders as you wish by dragging them around. As a bonus, all sidebar folders are available in the Save As... dialog of any application that fully supports Panther and Tiger.

To add and remove types of media (such as hard drives and CDs/DVDs) from the sidebar, pull down the Finder menu and select Preferences. Click on Sidebar and check or uncheck the boxes.


Automator, introduced with Tiger, has great potential. It is barely used right now because Apple hasn't had time to fully exploit it - and third-party developers still have to add support for it - but once it is really unleashed, it could allow great automation for the masses.

Basically, Automator allows users to put together all kinds of actions from different applications in a single sequence. It works better than AppleScript.

For example, a workflow can start from file handling in the Finder to manipulations in a photo editor and PDF conversion in the Finder. The possibilities will be limitless one day, but very few applications support Automator at the moment.

To create a sequence, launch the Automator application and select Create Workflow under the File menu. Click on the application that should execute a command and drag the action you want to use to the right column. Add all the actions you want (you can reorder them). After that, all you need to do is to pull down the File menu again, choose Save As..., and save the workflow as an application anywhere you want. Whenever you want to use it, double-click it.

Automator - click image for full-sized view

In my example (see above screen shot), I put together a simple workflow for the Finder to launch a few favorite applications together. It just saves time....

Open With

Open withAs far as clean organization is concerned, there are other things you can do from the Finder.

You can make sure you associate files with the right application at all times - and change the settings whenever you want to. You will find this especially useful if, for example, you want to open TIFF files with Photoshop and JPEGs with Preview, or if you switch applications to handle certain types of files. With a few mouse clicks, you can associate thousands of files with one application.

Just take one of those files and control-click on it. Select Get Info and open the Open With: item. Pull down the small popup menu and choose the application that should handle the file type. Then, click on Change All. You are done.

Last but not least, presentation options can be great to keep your folders uncluttered. Once a folder is opened (this applies to the Desktop) pull down the View menu in the Finder, and you can change the icon size, font size, and alignment attributes.


There are two ways to do things in life: the simple way and the complicated way. Here are ways to avoid accessing things from the Finder using the complicated way.

switching usersSwitching Users

When there are several users on the same computer, logging is and logging out can be tedious. Why don't you activate the fast user switching?

In the System Preferences (available in the Apple menu), click on the Accounts button, and then click on Login Options. You may have to enter an administrative password at this point.

After that, make sure that Enable Fast User Switching is checked. From now on, a list of users will be available in the right part of the Finder's menu bar. Switching users will no longer require a logout, just a simple password. (See Creating a New User to Solve Display Problems as an example of how you might take advantage of Fast User Switching.)


Do you want to compress files without launching an application such as StuffIt Deluxe? Just select your file or folder and control-click on it (or right-click if you use a multibutton mouse). Choose Create Archive Of (insert file name here) and your file will automatically be compressed in zip format and saved in the same location as the original.

Desktop Picture

No need to reach for the System Preferences panel in the Apple menu to change your desktop background - just control-click on any empty space in the Finder and choose Change Desktop Background. It takes less time...


Get rid of the annoying confirmation when you delete files from the Trash by pulling down the Finder menu and selecting Preferences. Click on Advanced and uncheck the second box.

Menu Bar Items

Menu Bar ItemsYou can easily change options for Classic, Date and Time, and your keyboard definition without opening the System Preferences panel by making them available in the menu bar. In the System Preferences, click on Classic and make sure that "Show Classic Status in menu bar" is checked. In the International options, do the same for "Show Input Menu in Menu bar", and in the Date and Time pane, select a similar option under Clock.

Special Characters

Do you use Special Characters in the Finder? To access them easily, go to the Edit menu and select Special Characters. Voilà!

Keyboard Shortcuts

Here is a bonus to finish the column: Look at the Apple key on your keyboard. You see the little Command sign on it?

Now look at the Finder's menus . . . you will find it along with letters and numbers. When you combine the Apple/cmd key with the letters and numbers found besides the menu items, it allows you to execute the actions without using the mouse. For example, cmd-S allows you to save files, and most software supports it. Learn to use such shortcuts to save time and strain on your wrists. LEM

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Michel Munger is a journalist who lives in Montréal. He discovered the Mac in 1994, and his work on a PC reminds him every day why he embraced Apple's platform. Munger has also authored some MacDaniel columns.

You can learn more about him on his personal website.

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