The Smart Mac: Smart Folders in OS X

Smart Folder icon

Mac OS X offers a computing experience that, according to many, is still unparalleled by its competitors. Built on a rock solid UNIX foundation and continually adding refinements that make interaction easier, OS X has a lot of powerful functionality that many users were unaware existed. One of these is the idea of “Smart Folders” and with a little primer, you can begin using them to make your Mac experience easier (and faster).

A Brief History

The idea of these Smart Folders are not unique to OS X. In fact, the idea started originally in the mid ‘90s with the now defunct BeOS. When Dominic Giampaolo, a software developer for Be, began working for Apple in 2002, some of the best elements of the BeOS made their way into Apple’s modern operating system. We know these features as “Smart Folders” and Spotlight, both of which launched in Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger, two years after Giampaolo began working for Apple.

A “Smart Folder” (or “Search Folder” as Windows Vista calls them when Microsoft introduced its version in 2006) is based on the idea that this folder is basically a “virtual folder” of its actual contents. This virtual folder doesn’t physically store copies of its contents inside but rather utilizes a database to store attributes about the files (defined either by the system or the user). This offers several advantages: they have a small file size, the ability for on-the-fly fine tuning of the criteria used to define the content as well as allowing the content to dynamically update as new files meet the criteria. Whoa. What does all of that mean? We’re getting there.

Leopard's Default Smart FoldersSmart Folders Save Time

In short, Smart Folders save you time. You basically give them a list of rules to follow and they automatically fill themselves with content based on the criteria you’ve defined. It’s important though, to realize that these Smart Folders do not actually represent copies of the content, but merely virtually link to them. If you delete a file out of a Smart Folder, you’ve also deleted it from its original location.

How To Make Smart Folders

Making a Smart Folder is quite easy. In fact, if you’re running Leopard or Snow Leopard, several of them have already been created. You might recognize them due to their trademark purple folder icon (also used to serve the same role in other applications, but we’ll discuss that in future articles). In the left side of a default Finder window, you’ll see an area called “Search For” with entries for “Today,” “Yesterday,” “Past Week” and some more. These are built in smart folders that automatically search your entire system for files meeting those criteria. But we can do far more powerful things with Smart Folders if we make our own.

  1. To get started, when in the Finder, go to the File menu and select “New Smart Folder.” You’ll have a Finder window that looks like a search window. (You can also start this process simply by searching from a Finder window.)
  2. Next, using the bar beneath the title bar of the window, select the location you’d like this folder to search. The default options are your Mac, your home folder and Shared (any other computers you may connected to). If you’d like it to confine the search to a specific folder, simply navigate to that folder and use the Spotlight function built into the Finder window. (Type something into the field to bring up a search; you can then delete what you typed to move to the next step).A new Smart Folder
  3. Unless you’ve specified some phrase or string in the Spotlight search region in the upper right of the window, at this point you’re not going to be seeing any search results. Let’s give it some actual criteria to search.
  4. Click the round plus (+) icon on the right side of the window to show another bar beneath the search location. Where it says “Kind” and “Any” is your first search criteria. These work in pairs. You can change “Any” to documents, images, movies or anything you want. Instantly, you’ll see your search results start to populate based on your selection. Perhaps instead of searching by kind, you want to search by name, contents or date. Clicking “Kind” will allow these changes as well as a mystical “other” option which gives you tons of options for a plethora of different uses. Since OS X is media friendly, you can also select criteria that corresponds to metadata in your media files, such as aperture value of a photo, sample rate for an audio file, video bit rate for video files and more.A Smart Folder Searching Applications
  5. You can continue to add additional criteria by clicking the plus and adding another row of criterion. Each additional criterion further fine tunes your search. For an item to appear in the results, it will need to meet every rule you have created for it.
  6. If you want to save a Smart Folder search, click the Save button in the upper right of the window. Your searches are saved in “Saved Searches” inside the Library folder of your home folder. There’s also a checkbox to automatically add your new search to your Finder sidebar.Saving Smart Folders
  7. Editing a Smart Folder is as simple as right clicking it in the sidebar and selecting “Show Search Criteria” or selecting the same option from the gears menu once you’ve double clicked a saved Smart Folder.

Again, the beauty and power of Smart Folders comes from the fact that once you’ve defined the rules, this folder will automatically continue to update as new files are created or saved that meet its criteria.

Folder Inspiration

Smart Folders sound great and once you’ve set one up, you’ll see the process is pretty simple. It’s also pretty powerful but, for inspiration, here’s a few examples of interesting and useful Smart Folders that you could create on your system.

Recent Documents: To view all your recent documents, set the kind to document and the last opened date to within the last 3 days.

Important Files: If you use Finder labels, select “Other” and choose “File label.” Then pick the file label that matches your desired results.

By Device: Have several cameras? You can use “Device make” and “Device model” to specify a particular camera (as well as any other EXIF data).

Do you use Smart Folders? Have any tips you’d like to share or comments on this post? Let me know what you think; I’d love to hear your feedback.


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