Beginners start here: Finder windows

Sean McNamara
27 February, 2008
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The first thing a Mac user is presented with each time they start up their Mac is the Finder, Apple’s venerable file browser and application launcher which has seen several revamps since its early days — dating right back to 1984.

We’re going to have a look at some features of Finder windows which can make them more productive, and one or two which make them more fun.

A Finder window basically shows you the files and folders within — for example, folders, disks, search results, servers, or anything else which can contain files and folders.

Each item in the window has an icon to represent the type of item and a filename (to distinguish each item from other items).

The Finder has many preferences and settings which allow you to change the way items are displayed so that you can have them look just the way you want.

First, you get the choice of whether to view the contents as a List, as Icons, as a series of lists in Column view, or (in Leopard) in Cover Flow mode — these options are available from the View menu in the Finder. It’s well worth trying each one, but in Leopard, there’s a new twist to what the options do once selected. Previously, the setting would only affect the current window — in Leopard, every window opened subsequently has the same view setting applied to it.

Windows can have the Toolbar visible or hidden. The Toolbar, which contains buttons across the top of the window as well as the Sidebar, allows you to perform quick actions with a click of your mouse — for example, navigation to pre-set locations, or changing the "View as" setting. It’s also possible to change the Toolbar and Sidebar contents — choose "Customize Toolbar" from the View menu in the Finder, or choose "Preferences" in the Finder menu (next to the Apple menu), then click on the Sidebar tab to edit the presets.

If you need quick access to files or folders not part of Apple’s presets, you can put your own items on there — for the Toolbar, hold down the Option key while dragging the item to the Toolbar area of the window, for the Sidebar, just drag the item to the Sidebar, making sure you don’t highlight one of the existing items during the drag (otherwise the item you’re dragging will be placed inside the highlighted item). When the outline highlight changes to a blue line, you know you are adding the item — you can also click on the item and choose Add to Sidebar from the File menu (which has the keyboard shortcut of Command-T).

To remove items from the Toolbar, you need to hold down the Command key while dragging the item off the Toolbar — for the Sidebar, a drag without holding down any keys will suffice. In both cases the link to the item (not the original item) will disappear in a puff of smoke.

To further customise your Finder windows, you can paste custom icons onto items so that they more accurately reflect the item’s contents — this is especially useful for folders, which all pretty well look the same (whereas files tend to have more individual icons, especially with live preview icons in Leopard, which is the default for displaying file icons). If you have a picture with something you’d like to use as an icon, open the picure in Preview (or any other image editing application), select the area you’d like to use, Copy (from the Edit menu, or Command-C), then click on the item you’d like to put the new icon onto. Choose "Get Info" from the File menu (or hit Command-I), then click on the existing icon at the top left of the Get Info window so it gets a faint blue haze, then Paste (Comamnd-V). The item’s icon will change to the clipboard’s contents.

Another fun customisation for Finder windows is to assign a picture background for a folder — you must be viewing the folder as Icons for the background to display. Just prepare the picture to the size you’d like, then choose "Show View Options" from the View menu (Command-J) — click Picture in the Background section at the bottom of that window, then hit the "Select…" button and navigate to your picture, then press Select. Your window will suddenly be much more personalised.

Learning how to get the most out of each "View as" option, as well as how to personalise Finder windows, can help you to get a whole lot more out of your file browsing experiences — I hope the above tips are just the beginning of your exploration of the Finder and its windows.

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