Blog Post

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.

34 Responses to “The Smart Mac: Smart Folders in OS X”

  1. Richard Elmes

    I am new to Smart Folders and cannot see how to change the device/volumes searched from the menu. All of my data, images, movies and documents are off my main Mac hard drive whose name is shown in the main menu after “Search this Mac” and are located on 2 external drives called WDEARS and FreeAgent. Can anyone explain how to set up a smart folder to search those – all 3 if possible at the same time for 500MB files?

    Many thanks

  2. I want to find all pdf files in a folder that contains many subfolders, some of which are only alias folders. Unfortunately, it seems that the Find command (or equally a Smart Folder) does not search the alias subfolders, and the resulting list does not contain the pdfs located in the alias subfolders.
    Does anyone know a workaround?

  3. Nicolas

    I find the Finder Smart Folder setup to be clumsy. For instance, I want all files and folders with “tax” in their name. Great, but some are MP3 files, and I don’t want them. It is not a simple matter, so far as I can see, to select “Not MP3.” I prefer the setup method for Smart Folders in Mail.

  4. Is there a way to make “and-statements” in smart folders. Like “show me all my devonthink-databases” AND “all my filemaker-databases”. I cannot figure it out, to set this up. Any hints?

    • Brett


      Do this.

      1. Click the ‘+’ sign to start a new smart folder
      2. You’ll see a new criteria added … ignore it
      3. Now, hold down the alt/option key, the ‘+’ next to the new criteria will change to a ‘…’
      4. Click the ‘…’ to add a new criteria. This one will say ‘Any of the following are true’. Change ‘Any’ to ‘All’.
      5. Delete the original (first) criteria, you don’t need it
      6. Now add your two criteria below the ‘All’ clause.


  5. How can I do logical “OR” criteria instead of the default “AND” behaviour?

    I want the files containing .prj, .shp, .xml and .dbf to show in my smart folder, but I only seem to be able to do one file type at a time?

    • @Saffy – Hold the option key when clicking the plus button that adds another criteria, this will create an indented ‘Match any of the following’ option. Any criteria you add under this indented section is an OR criteria. Anything not indented is AND.

      That’s not a particularly clear explanation, but play around with it and you’ll see what I mean.

  6. This is a good start for the explanation of smart folders, and people can do so much more, like archiving their old folders, keeping tracks of the most recent files and create categories (music, work…)
    But what I like most is using smart folders with great apps like Hazel which allows you to automatically move folders, apply labels or delete them!
    You can also combine smart folders with automator in order to find your files faster!


  7. My concern is what happens if I want to delete a Smart Folder? Will all the items that it virtually links to delete also? I could see lots of uses for smart folders in many areas of life, but you would need to be able to delete no longer useful ones, without affecting the original files. Of course, I guess you could use it to locate and delete items from your computer. Can someone clarify this and the safe way to use it?

    • Smart Folders are saved in your “Saved Searches” folder (look in your home directory, in the Library folder) as a “saved search”… if you drag one of those to the trash, only the “saved search” goes, not its contents.

      This is another instance where it doesn’t work like a real folder (and that’s good this time!).

      – chrish

  8. MacStarter

    @chrish – Here’s a cool tip…. go to any folder anywhere on your computer and press cmd + F (to initiate a Find or Search). A window similar to a Smart Folder will open up, where you can put in all your search criteria. The difference? Near the top of this search window you will see the word “Search”. The first place will be ‘This Mac’, but after it, will be the name of the folder you initiated the cmd + F from! So if you go to your Documents Folder and initiate it, it will let you choose “Documents” as a place to run the search. When you’ve entered all your criteria, press the Save button near the top right. You can also add this search to your Finder Side Bar for easy reference. (

  9. Smart folders are great in Mail as I have multiple accounts in one inbox and I like to sort emails from family, friends and my freelance clients. So each client gets a folder as well as family members.

    They are also great in iTunes, better then regular playlists as they are live updating. Just put your cursor over the “+” and hold option and you will get a Smart icon instead.

    • Chris Ryan

      haha Thanks, Richard for those ideas. We’ve got two more articles in the pipe coming in the next week or so. One will address Mail & Address Book and then another for iPhoto, iTunes & Aperture. I’d love to hear your feedback on those too!

  10. Since I have a billion desktop wallpapers scattered throughout a directory hierarchy (that is, they’re not all dropped into one folder, they’re organized), I thought I’d make a nice Smart Folder of my 1440×900 images and use that as desktop backgrounds.

    Except the Desktop & Screen Saver prefs can’t use a Smart Folder as a source of images. They’re not really folders, they’re something “special” that can’t be used anywhere, which is annoying.

    Feature request filed ages ago, and I keep trying it out every OS release. :-

    – chrish

    • And to be (partly) fair, the “Libraries” in Windows 7 are much, much stupider with strange and arbitrary limitations (you can build a Library out of various folders… but only about 20… wtf).

    • Is there a way to copy references of the outcome from the smart folder to an actual folder that Desktop & Screen Saver prefs CAN read (can Desktop & Screen Saver use references?). Just a question, not sure and too lazy to try it out -_^

    • Not that I’m aware of; I wrote a shell script to fill a directory with symlinks to the images based on a Spotlight query like this:

      mdfind -s “1440×900 Images”

      *That* uses my 1440×900 Images Smart Folder.


      – chrish

    • Chris Ryan

      You might be able to use Folder Actions to have it copy automatically to a “real” folder, but then on the flip side, it wouldn’t know to delete them. Not sure if you could setup another folder action to do that though.

      However, I totally hear you with how the system isn’t able to manage them well in other applications. Some think there’s no way to handle that (like the syncing issue with, since it’s all dynamic based on content stored elsewhere), but maybe Apple will eventually find a solution. They do seem to be suggesting the idea with the integration in Leopard though.

    • Use smart folders to generate the list, then drop them in an iPhoto event.

      It’s not dynamic, but it uses “off the shelf” tools at least, and is pretty easy to repeat.

  11. I think I might try this feature. I was aware of the Smart Folders, but I had never used them. Actually there are really many creative uses for them, limited by the user’s imagination. I might use a Smart Folder for organizing my .dmg’s, or probably only ones from the last week. Thanks for the article!