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Searching for Files

A hard disk whose capacity is measured in gigabytes can hold tens of thousands of files in hundreds or even thousands of folders. (On my C: drive, for instance, Windows is keeping track of 26,141 files and folders, collectively occupying some 6.23GB of disk space.) It's perfectly normal to lose track of one or more of those files (or even an entire folder) occasionally. When that happens, use Windows Me's Search Assistant, a greatly improved version of the Find Files or Folders utility from Windows 95 and 98.

Using the Search Assistant, you can hunt down misplaced files, if you can remember any portion of the filename. You also can search for other details, such as the size and type of the file, the date it was created, or a fragment of text within the file.

Finding a File or Folder by Name

To begin searching for a file on a local disk or shared network drive, click the Start button and choose Find, Files or Folders. (If an Explorer window is open, click the Search button.) If you know you want to search in a specific folder or drive, right-click the folder or drive icon and choose Search from the shortcut menu. Windows displays the Search for Files and Folders Explorer Bar, as shown in Figure 3.12.

Figure 3.12 Use the Search Assistant to find a file anywhere on your computer or across a network.

The most common type of search is to look for a file when you remember all or part of the name. Here's how:

  1. Click in the Search for Files or Folders Named box and enter all or part of the filename. (The file extension is not necessary.)
  2. TIP

    DOS-style wildcards (* and ?) are not required in the Named box, but they can be extremely useful in helping you reduce the number of matches. For example, if you enter the letter b in the Search for Files or Folders Named box, Windows returns all files that include that letter anywhere in the name or extension–a huge list. On the other hand, a search for b* finds only files that begin with b, and a search for b??? returns any file whose name begins with the letter b and contains exactly four characters, with any extension.

  3. Click in the Look In box and select the drives or folders where you want to search. If you opened the Search Assistant by right-clicking a drive or folder icon, that location appears in the Look In box; if not, Windows fills in Local Hard Drives as the location, listing all local drives by letter. You can accept the default value, enter a folder name directly (C:\Windows, for example), or click the drop-down list to select any of the following locations:

    • The My Documents folder

    • The Windows desktop

    • All local hard drives

    • My Computer (searches all local hard drives as well as floppy and CD-ROM drives)

    • Any local drive, including floppy and CD-ROM/DVD drives

    • Any mapped network drive

    • Browse (opens a dialog box so you can select a specific folder)


    You can specify multiple locations in the Look In box. Enter the full path, including the drive letter or Universal Naming Convention (UNC) style server and share name, for each location. Separate the entries in this list with semicolons. For instance, you might enter C:\My Documents;D:\Dataif you store files in these two locations.

  4. By default, Windows searches in all subfolders of the location you selected. To restrict the search to only the specified folder, check the Advanced Options box, place a check- mark in the box, and clear the Search Subfolders box.

  5. Click Search Now to begin searching.

The more details you provide about a filename, the more restrictive the results. But don't provide too much information; if you do, you're likely to miss the file you're looking for, especially if the spelling of the filename is even slightly different from what you enter.

Windows compares the text you enter in the Search for Files or Folders Named box with the name of every file and folder in the specified location, returning a result if that string of characters appears anywhere in a filename. For example, if you enter log as the search parameter, Windows turns up all files that contain the words log, logo, catalog, and technology. Follow these guidelines:

  • If you enter multiple words separated by a space, the search returns all files that contain both those words in the filename, even if the name contains other words. Thus, entering annual report as the search term finds the files 2001 Annual Report and Status Report: Annual.

  • To search for files whose names contain any of the search terms you enter, separate the search terms with a semicolon. If you enter annual; report as the search term, Windows will find any files whose names contains either of those words.

The results appear in an Explorer window to the right of the Search pane. Because the results list is a standard Explorer window, you can choose any view. Switch to Details view and click the column headings to sort results by name, size, type, date last modified, or the folder in which the files are stored. Click again to sort in reverse order.


After you complete a search, Windows continues to watch your actions and will update the results list automatically if you create, rename, move, or delete files that match the specified criteria in the locations you selected.

Searching for Files That Contain Specific Text

With the help of the Search Assistant, you can also search for files that contain specific words or phrases. Obviously, it won't do you much good to search for common words such as the, but if you remember a specific phrase that appears in a lost document, you can have Windows track down all files that contain that phrase. To look for club newsletters you sent out last year, for example, type newsletter in the Containing Text box. Click the Search Now button to begin searching. Note that text searches can take a very long time, especially on large hard disks or across a network.


Combine Search Assistant settings to narrow your search for a specific file. For example, you might ask Windows to search for a Microsoft Word document that contains the word newsletter and was last modified in December 2000. With these specifics, you have a good chance of finding the file you're looking for, even if you can't remember its name.

If the search didn't find the file you were looking for, modify the criteria and click the Search Now button again. Or, to clear all criteria and start from scratch, click the New button at the top of the Search pane and start again.

Finding Files by Date, Type, or Size

The Search Assistant utility is fast and extremely effective, even when you haven't the vaguest idea what the target file is named. Use the Search Options box to find files or folders by date, type, or size.

If you have a general idea of when you created a file or when you last edited it, check the Date box and narrow the search by date (see Figure 3.13). You can search for files by the date they were first created, last modified, or last accessed. Use the top two options to choose a range of recent days or months. To find all files you've worked with since the beginning of last month, for example, check the Date box, choose Files Modified from the drop-down list, and choose the option In the Last 2 Months. You can also specify a range of dates using the Between option.

Figure 3.13 Narrow your search by entering a range of dates.

You can type dates into this dialog box directly, but using the built-in calendar controls that appear when you click drop-down arrows in date boxes is much easier (see Figure 3.14). At the top of the calendar, use the left and right arrows to move back or forward a month at a time; click the month heading to choose a specific month from a pop-up menu; click the year to reveal a spinner control that lets you quickly adjust the year.

Figure 3.14 This calendar appears automatically when you click the drop-down arrow.


Do you prefer the keyboard to the mouse? Use F3 to show or hide the Search Assistant. When entering dates in the Between box, use the left and right arrows to move between day, month, and year values. Press the plus (+) and minus (-) signs on the numeric keypad to move any of these values up or down, one month/day/year at a time.

Use the Type and Size boxes to narrow your search still further. The Type option enables you to select any registered file type. Enter size parameters in kilobytes; be sure to multiply by 1,000 when specifying file sizes measured in megabytes.


One extremely effective use of the Search Assistant is to organize and archive files. For example, you can search for all Microsoft Word files last modified more than six months ago and then copy those files to a CD-R or a Zip disk. If you leave all other boxes blank and click the Search Now button, the resulting list includes all files on your computer. Sort that list to find all files of a certain type or size range.

Managing Files from the Search Window

Because the Search Results pane is actually an Explorer window that's not tied to a specific location, you can use the results pane for virtually any file management task. Right-click any icon to display a shortcut menu that includes all the file management options you would expect. You can rename a file, move or copy files and folders, and drag items from the results pane and drop them anywhere–into another Explorer window, onto the desktop, or into an email message as an attachment, for example.

When you select a single icon from the results pane, information about the file, including a preview if available, appears in the top portion of the window (see Figure 3.15). (If you select more than one file, the display at the top of the Search Results pane shows a summary of information about all selected files.)

Figure 3.15 Click the hyperlink at the top of the window to jump to the folder that contains the selected file.

Note that the location appears as a hyperlink; click that link to replace the Search Results window with the contents of that folder.

What if you want to open a new window and retain the Search Results pane? You might be tempted to right-click the In Folder hyperlink; unfortunately, that trick doesn't work. The secret is so well hidden even many Windows experts don't know it exists. Right-click the file in the results pane and choose Open Containing Folder from the shortcut menu. This choice opens a new window displaying the full contents of the folder that contains the file you selected.

Saving and Reusing a Search

If you find yourself performing the same search regularly, save the search criteria so you can reuse it later. For instance, you might routinely look for Word documents you saved in the My Documents folder in the last month so you can back them up to a safe place. To save that search, enter the search criteria and click the Search Now button. After the search finishes, choose File, Save Search. Windows prompts you for a name and location and saves the file in the Saved Search format, using the .fnd extension.


For the sake of convenience, I normally save searches on the desktop and copy or move the icon to a more appropriate location, such as the Start menu or the Quick Launch bar.

To reuse a saved search, double-click its icon and click the Search Now button.


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