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Power Fundamentals Part 2: Tips for using Finder

Simon Barnett follows up on his Fresh Mac series with more power tips on using Finder to help you navigate files and apps like a pro.

Level: Beginner / Switcher

The Scenario

Two weeks down the line, and your Mac isn't looking as fresh as it did when you bought it. What better way to introduce the Finder than looking at a quick way to clean up those files?

You may or may not have read the first installment of the Power Fundamental series. Although recommended reading, this post does not require any of the modifications mentioned in Part 1.

Home Base - The Finder

Microsoft calls it "File Explorer" (formerly "Windows Explorer"). Linux calls it a "desktop".

On the Mac it's the "Finder", and like its Windows counterpart, the core function hasn't changed since its introduction with the Apple Lisa in 1983, followed closely by the Mac in 1984: it's a place to manage your files.

To learn all about the Finder, the desktop or anything else about MacOS in detail, visit Apple's online manual or while in the Finder use the help system using the keyword "finder".

Of course the term "file management" may be expanded to include viewing files, changing their attributes and content, working with items other than documents which are not commonly referred to as "files", such as applications (apps, programs) and folders (directories), and performing functions which really stretch the definition of file management, such as networking. With this expanded scope, the Finder is really a visual "shell" for many of the computer's main internal systems.

Other aspects of the Finder, such as the dock and menu-bar are actually sub-processes, independently running alongside the desktop and its windows, folders and icons - all parts of the Finder.

Home Base's base - The desktop

The original purpose of the computer desktop was, as its name suggests, to mimic a real-life desk top: a workbench for your work-of-the-day. It logically follows that seeing as you would store all your tools away from your work-surface  -- leaving it clear and ready for another day's work -- the virtual version should be the same.

Whether you generate hundreds of files a day, or you just want to manage your few files in an efficient way, read on. The following tip(s) will set the stage for reducing desktop-dependence or even abandoning the visual use of the desktop altogether, keeping it on only as a "today's work" folder, should you wish to take it to that extreme.


All the functions of the desktop can be carried out in a Finder window. Actually the desktop is just a folder of items just like any other.

Power Tip #1 - Quick desktop cleanup

All of the following instructions assume you are "in the Finder". You'll know you're in the Finder (or any other app) by looking at the bold word nearest to the Apple Menu.

1. Switch to the Finder by clicking its icon in the Dock or tabbing to it. Clicking the Finder's dock icon will open a new window for you, or if you're already in the Finder, open a new Finder window by holding down the command key (⌘) and typing n, henceforth abbreviated in the format: ⌘n

As of MacOS X 10.7 Lion, a new Finder window by default opens "All My Files" - an overview of...  yes, you guessed it.

All My Files is a simple, gesture-friendly way to quickly access recent files. Users of a traditional 2-button mouse with scroll-wheel won't realise its full usefulness - it's best experienced on a multi-touch device such as a MacBook track pad or Magic Mouse - a highly recommended item for desktop use.

We will look at customising this initial window view and other folder views for greater efficiency later in the series.

It's worth noting for beginners that Desktop, Documents, Downloads, Movies, Music and Pictures all behave in the same way with regards to filing - the Mac sees no distinction between them, i.e., you could, in theory, keep your movies in Music, or your documents in Movies, not that it's recommended from a logical point of view.

2. View the desktop's contents by clicking "Desktop" in the sidebar.

... and make sure you are in "list view" by clicking the icon in the window toolbar, though this will probably be the default view.

3. Since Lion, you can resize the window from any side of its frame. Earlier MacOS X users do that using the grip in the bottom right corner. Stretch the window until you can see the "Kind" column as you can see in the screenshot above (Click to make it larger). 4. Click on the column's header (the word "Kind") to sort the files by their type. You can also widen the column here by click-dragging the right-divider line.

Your cursor should change to a left-right arrow:

As suggested earlier, the Desktop folder displays the items on your Mac desktop, and as such, adding or removing items from this folder will add or remove items from the desktop itself.

5. As in MS Windows, select a group of documents by selecting the first one and then click the last one within a particular type (e.g. all jpegs) while holding down the shift ⇧ key. Be more selective by holding ⌘ instead of ⇧ - it "toggles" the selection on or off, just as the ctrl does in Windows.
6. Release ⇧ or ⌘. Click on your selection of files and drag them into their appropriate folders.

You can create your own folder categories for items that you want to organize. Create a new folder, naming it whatever you like, by typing ⌘⇧n.

Drag this folder into the sidebar underneath its containing folder, in this example, Desktop. Make sure you don't drop it into another folder - a folder should not become outlined, instead a line should appear between the two folders.

To remove items from the sidebar, hold ⌘ and drag them away until the cursor changes to a "puff", then release.

Power Tip #2 - Drag-drop utility belt

Use the window Toolbar to launch utility apps.

Both the sidebar and the grey bar at the top of the window, the toolbar, have a similar behaviour: they can hold documents, folders, and applications.

The sidebar requires holding the ⌘ key to allow it to hold docs and apps, possibly to discourage you, but mainly to emphasize its function as a filing system.

When the toolbar is customized in this way it behaves more like a launcher.

Because of its constant proximity to your documents it lends itself favourably to those apps with a drag-and drop type of functionality, and to those often needed to open documents other than the one normally associated with the document.

  1. Open a new Finder window and click on Applications in the Sidebar.
  2. Drag an app to the toolbar. It can be removed by holding ⌘ and dragging it away.

Some examples:

  • A picture that you'd rather open in Preview instead of Photoshop (or vice versa). Drag (or Photoshop) to the toolbar.
  • A text or html document that you'd rather open in BBEdit instead of Text Edit, Word or Safari - drag to the toolbar.
  • Create a sealed disk image from a folder by dragging it onto a Disk Utility toolbar icon. Disk Utility is in /Applications/Utilities along with some others.

Next installment...

Fresh Mac Part 3: More Finder tweaks


Simon Barnett is a freelance tech consultant / support specialist, creative publisher, and Mac software (registered dev programme) and web developer in Cape Town, South Africa. In addition, he has had several years experience in designing and trainin...


Thanks Simon, I didn't know you could this. I'm relatively new to OS X and I've read lots of books and magazines in an effort to learn all I can but I'm sure that I have not come across this anywhere else. I'm a work at the moment and we only use PCs so can't wait to get home to try this. John


Thanks again John, I haven't seen this usage described elsewhere either, but judging by the launch-type behaviour of the toolbar it's definitely an intended and very useful feature. - Simon Edit: I just spotted it in Apple's online manual, though the type of usage I recommend (secondary app launcher) is not mentioned. It's only briefly mentioned as a primary app launcher.