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The Finder: Working with Files and Applications

This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book


  • Using the Finder

  • Finder Status Bar

  • Finder Toolbar

  • Finder File Operations

  • Getting File Information

  • The Desktop and Finder Preferences

  • Burning CDs

  • Using the Dock

  • Customizing the Dock

  • Process Manager: Force Quitting Applications

We're now ready to take an inside look at Mac OS X and its operation. This chapter will cover the Finder and Dock, how these two features interoperate, the possible file and application operations, and how to customize the Finder's tools to suit your tastes. Although much of this chapter will cover a tool that many users are already familiar with (the Finder), I urge you to read through the text nonetheless. The Mac OS X Finder has many tricks that were not present in previous versions.

Using the Finder

The Finder is the application that Mac OS X and earlier versions of the operating system use to launch and manipulate files and applications. The Finder handles all common tasks such as creating, deleting, moving, and copying files and folders. It is, in effect, the window into the Mac OS X operating system.

Unlike other tools and utilities, the Finder is always active and is automatically launched immediately after logging in to the system. Much of the Macintosh's legendary ease of use is attributed to the Finder and its intuitive interface to the file system.

The Mac OS X Finder is completely rewritten for the new operating system. Although many users will find that it functions in mostly the same way as Mac OS 8/9, there are many new features and changes. This section will provide an in-depth look at these new capabilities and how the Finder is used to navigate through Mac OS X.

Finder Views and Navigation

The Finder offers many ways to navigate through your data using windows, menus, and the keyboard. All navigation takes place inside a Finder window. To open a new Finder window, double-click a folder or disk icon that is on your desktop. Alternatively, you can use the New Finder Window selection from the Finder's File menu (Command+N).

Icon View

The first time you log in, the Finder will be in toolbar mode (see Chapter 2, "Mac OS X Basics," for a description of the Finder's toolbar mode) and using the Icon view. If you have already been using the Finder and are no longer in Icon view, you can quickly switch to Icon view by choosing As Icons (Command+1) from the View menu, or by clicking the first icon in the View area of the toolbar. Figure 3.1 shows a Finder window in Icon view.

Figure 3.1Figure 3.1 The default view mode is the Icon view.

Within the Icon view mode, you can navigate through the folders on your drive by double-clicking them. If you prefer to use the keyboard, you can move between the icons in the frontmost Finder window by pressing the arrow keys or by typing the first few letters that start the name of the folder/file you want to select. To open a selected item, choose Open from the File menu, or press Command+O on the keyboard.

By default, if the toolbar is displayed in the window, moving from folder to folder will refresh the current window. You can switch to a multiwindow view by clicking the toolbar button in the upper-right corner of the Finder window or by using the Finder Preferences. You can disable the toolbar from the View menu by choosing Hide Toolbar, or by pressing Command+B to toggle between toolbar states.


To toggle between open Finder windows, press Command+´. Note that the Desktop itself is considered a Finder window.

Another method of navigating your drive is to Command-click the icon or text in the center of the Finder window's title bar. You will then see a pop-up menu (as shown in Figure 3.2), which displays a bottom-to-top hierarchy of the folder path required to reach the current directory. You can choose any of the folders in the list to quickly jump to that location.

Figure 3.2Figure 3.2 The pop-up folder list gives quick access to folders above the currently open directory.


The one catch to the rule of navigating the Mac OS X file system occurs when a new Finder window is created, or the Computer button is clicked within the Finder toolbar. The Finder will display Disks and Network storage icons. Although these aren't folders per se, you can still open them to get to the files and folders within.

If, instead, you'd prefer to move to your home directory when a new Finder window is created, this option is available within the Finder preferences.

Why Are All My Filenames Cut Off?

At long last, the Mac OS supports long filenames (well, 255-character names within HFS+). The Finder, however, displays only two lines of each name, abbreviating the middle with an ellipsis (...).

Thankfully, there is a way to view more of the name of the file. Select the icon and leave your mouse cursor over an abbreviated title, or hold down Option while moving your mouse over the title. Without the Option key, a tooltip with the full name of the file will be displayed under the icon in three or four seconds. If you hold down the Option key, the expanded label will be shown instantly.

Icon View Options

You can customize the Icon view by dragging the icons around to suit your tastes. This is the most basic form of customization offered. To add more dramatic effects to a window in Icon view, choose Show View Options from the View menu, or press Command+J. The View Options window for the Icon view is displayed in Figure 3.3.

Figure 3.3Figure 3.3 The Icon view options let you create a different look for the Finder window.

The first decision you must make when adjusting view options is whether or not to inherit global settings, or apply the changes to the current window. At the top of the View Options window are two choices: This Window Only and All Windows. Choosing the first setting tells Mac OS X that the changes you make to the view are specific to that window—no other windows will be changed. For example, using This Window Only, you can set your home directory and each of the directories within it to their own style independently of one another. On the other hand, picking All Windows applies a system-wide view option to the window, and indicates that any changes made to the view options will affect any other windows set to inherit the global settings. This is a great way to create a common look and feel across multiple folders without having to maintain separate settings for each.


If you are setting the attributes for multiple Finder windows, you can speed up the process by opening all of the windows to adjust and then opening the View Options window. As you click between the different Finder windows, the contents of the View Options window change to reflect the settings of the current window. There is no need to close View Options after setting up a window—just click the next Finder window to work with, adjust its settings, and so on.

A window that behaves in this manner is typically called an "Inspector" in Mac OS X because it allows you to inspect the attributes of multiple objects—in the case of the Finder, windows.

There are three primary settings for the view, the first being icon size. Mac OS X supports icon sizes from 16x16 pixels all the way up to 128x128 (the standard Mac size was previously 32x32). The large icons are very impressive and are far more detailed than any icons you've ever seen before. You can scale the icons from their smallest size to the largest size by dragging the Icon Size slider from the left to the right. Figure 3.4 shows the Applications folder of the Mac OS X drive using the largest icon size.

Figure 3.4Figure 3.4 The largest icon size allows for extremely detailed, photo-realistic icons.

Next, you can control the size of the icon label font with the Text Size pop-up menu. Apple allows a selection between 10 and 16 points, but does not provide a means of changing the label's font. The positioning of the icon's label can be changed from on the bottom to the right using the Label Position setting.


If you find the Mac OS X antialiased fonts difficult to read, use the General System Preferences panel to set the smallest font size that Mac OS X will antialias and the style of antialiasing used.

If you're still displeased with the settings, you can manually set the antialiasing threshold to anything you'd like using the Terminal application and the command:

defaults write .GlobalPreferences AppleAntiAliasingThreshold <fontsize>

Find out more about the Terminal starting in Chapter 12, "Introducing the BSD Subsystem."


The smallest icon size is extremely tiny, especially on high resolution displays, and leaving the label underneath the icon results in huge gaps between icons. To maximize your window space, position the icon's label on the right when using small icons.

The next group of settings control icon arrangement, which determines how the icons are displayed and laid out on the screen.

To keep your icons straight and neat all the time, choose Snap to Grid. Mac OS X maintains an invisible grid within Finder windows that is used to keep icons evenly aligned with one another. Unfortunately, there are no provisions for changing the spacing on the grid. As a result, Mac OS X icons that are aligned to the grid might seem more loosely spaced than you'd like.


If you take advantage of the Icon view with no preset arrangement, you might find that your icons get a bit messy after a while. To quickly align your icons to the Finder's grid, choose Clean Up from the View menu.

You can also choose to display additional information in the icon and its label. The Show Icon Preview setting will display thumbnails of recognized image formats—even PDF files! Show Item Info, on the other hand, adds a count of the number of files contained within each folder directly under each folder's icon and displays information about media files (size, duration, and so on).

A final form of icon arrangement is to keep the icons arranged by attributes of the files that they represent. Click the Keep Arranged By check box, and then choose from the list of available options:

  • Name—Sort the icons by the alphabetical order of their names.

  • Date Modified—Sort the icons by the day and time they were last modified. Newly modified files and folders appear at the bottom of the list.

  • Date Created—Sort the icons by the date and time they were created. The first time a file is saved, the created and modified times are identical.

  • Size—Sort by the size of the files or the size of the files contained within folders.

  • Kind—Sort the files by their type (that is, folders, applications, images, and so on).


To quickly arrange icons in a Finder window, use the Arrange submenu from the View menu. This allows you to arrange your icons by any of the aforementioned attributes. It's a quick way to add some order to your life without opening View Options.

Note that if you have an arrangement set for a given window, the Arrange menu will be dimmed and cannot override your View Option settings.

Finally, the Background option is a new feature of the Mac OS X Finder that offers you the capability to choose a background color or picture on a per-folder basis. This enables you to create a very visually impressive system and can also provide quick cues for your current location within the operating system.

The default folder background is None. This uses a standard white background for all windows. To choose an alternative color, just click the Color radio button. A small square will appear to the right of the button. Click this square to launch the Mac OS X Color Picker. You can learn more about the Color Picker in Chapter 2, "Mac OS X Basics." Figure 3.5 shows a Finder window with a tinted background.

Figure 3.5Figure 3.5 You can use the OS X Color Picker to choose your window background color.

An even more impressive effect is to use a background picture for the window rather than just a color. Background images can be based on any of the QuickTime-supported formats (GIF, JPEG, TIFF, and so on). Click the Picture radio button, and then click the Select button that appears. You will be prompted to open an image file from the system. Using the Open and Save dialogs is covered in Chapter 2.

After you choose a picture, a thumbnail of your choice will be shown in the small square (image well) to the left of the Select button. Your Finder window will refresh with the chosen image in the background. Figure 3.6 shows a Finder window with an image in the background.

Figure 3.6Figure 3.6 Any image can be used as a background in a Finder window.

In the current 10.2 release of Mac OS X, pictures cannot be scaled to match the size of a window. Instead, Finder background pictures are tiled, much like a repeating background on a Web page.


The Icon view is presently the only view that supports background colors or images.

List View

The next view to explore is the Finder's List view. You can switch to List view by clicking the middle icon in the Finder toolbar's View area, or, if the toolbar isn't present, by choosing As List from the Finder's View menu. Demonstrated in Figure 3.7, the List view is a straightforward means of displaying all available information about a file or folder on a multicolumn screen.

Figure 3.7Figure 3.7 List view packs a lot of information into a small amount of space.

The columns in the List view represent the attributes of each file. You can contract or expand the columns by placing the mouse cursor at the edge of the column and click-dragging to the left or right. Clicking a column highlights it and sorts the file listing based on that column's values. By default, the column values are listed in descending order. Clicking a column again will toggle the sorting order. An arrow pointing up or down at the right of each column represents the current sort order.

You can reposition the columns by clicking and dragging them into the order you'd like. However, the first column, Name, cannot be repositioned.

When a folder appears in the file listing, a small disclosure arrow precedes its name. Clicking this arrow will reveal the file hierarchy within that folder. You can drill down even further if you'd like, revealing multiple levels of files. Figure 3.8 shows three levels of files displayed simultaneously. Windows users might find a level of comfort in this view because it is similar to the Windows Explorer.

Figure 3.8Figure 3.8 The List view can show multiple levels of the file system within a single window.

As with the Icon view, double-clicking a folder anywhere within this view will either open a new window (toolbar-less mode) or refresh the contents of the existing window with the new location.

If keyboard navigation is your thing, the same rules as the Icon view apply. You can navigate up and down through the listing using the up-arrow key and down-arrow key. In addition, you can use the left-arrow key and right-arrow key to move in and out of folders in the hierarchy. Holding down Command+Option along with the right-arrow key or left-arrow key will expand or collapse all folders inside the currently selected folder. Typing the first few characters of an object's name will highlight that object in the listing. You can then use Command+O to open it.

Finally, Command-clicking on the title of the window will reveal the same pop-up list of folders as the Icon view. Choose one of the items in the list to jump to it.

List View Options

As with the Icon view, there are a number of options that you can use to customize the appearance and functionality of the List view. To alter the options for a window, make sure that it is the frontmost Finder window, and then choose Show View Options (Command+J) from the View menu. The List View Option window is shown in Figure 3.9.

Figure 3.9Figure 3.9 The list view also can be customized.

The Icon Size option offers a choice of two icon sizes: small or large. To change the size of the icon that precedes every line in the list, click the radio button below the size that you prefer. Unlike the Icon view, the list view icons cannot be scaled beyond the two presets. Text size for the list can also be chosen from 10 to 16 points.

The Show Columns option offers seven different attributes that can be displayed in each list view:

  • Date Modified—The date that a file or folder was last changed.

  • Date Created—The date that a file or folder was created.

  • Size—The size of a file on the system.

  • Kind—An abstract representation of a file (image, application, and so on).

  • Version—Displays the version of an application. Not always available in Mac OS X.

  • Comments—Shows any comments set for the file or folder. Comments are set from the Get Info (Command+I) window.

By checking or unchecking the box in front of each option, you can add or remove the corresponding column in the List view.


To determine a file's type from the command line, use file <filename>:

% file jeans1024x768.jpg

jeans1024x768.jpg: JPEG image data, JFIF standard

For more information about the command line, see Chapter 12.

There are two additional settings that affect the column display:

  • Use Relative Dates—Relative dates are a way of representing dates relative to the current day. For example, items modified during the current day are listed as Today, whereas files modified a day earlier are listed as Yesterday. Clicking the Use Relative Dates check box will display the Created and Modified columns using these conventions.

  • Calculate All Sizes—By default, folder sizes are not calculated and displayed in the file listing. Checking this box will enable folder sizes to be displayed in the file listing.


Calculating folder sizes might seem like a good idea, but it can bog down your system tremendously. If you have multiple file listing windows open, and each is calculating folder sizes, it can slow down Finder operations and application responsiveness.

A quick way to display the usage of each directory is the du command from the command line:

% du -s *
40 Addresses
0 Assistants
0 Audio
4096 Caches
0 ColorPickers
8 Documentation
16 Favorites
2520 Fire

You can learn more about the command line and its uses starting in Chapter 12.

Column View

The final type of window view is the Column view. This will be recognized by NeXT-heads as almost identical to the original File Browser used on the NeXT system. There are two primary advantages of this view: ease of navigation and file identification. You can switch to the Column view style by choosing As Columns from the View menu, or by clicking the third icon in the View area of the toolbar. Figure 3.10 shows a Finder window in Column view.

Figure 3.10Figure 3.10 The Column view uses columns.


The Column view is also used in the Open/Save dialog boxes discussed in Chapter 2. If you're already familiar with the concept, you might want to skip this section—it is largely the same.

The key feature of the Column view is its navigation. Unlike the other views, which can either overwhelm you with information or require multiple windows to move easily from point to point, the Column view is designed with one thing in mind: ease of navigation.

The concept is very simple: Click an item in the first column, and its contents will be shown in the next column. This would be less than useful if the programmers stopped at this point, so they didn't. You can continue to drill down further into the file system by choosing a folder that was within your original folder. The display will then do one of two things: If your window is open wide enough, it will display the contents of the second folder in yet another column. If no other columns are available, the columns will slide to the left, and a scroll bar will appear at the bottom of the window. Using this scroll bar, you can quickly trace the steps you've taken to reach a file. If you'd like to adjust the width of the columns, grab the handle (represented by two vertical lines) and drag it—all the columns will resize accordingly. Holding down Option while dragging the handle will resize only the columns to the left or right of the divider line. Figure 3.11 shows a multicolumn display that reaches down several levels.


If you use the horizontal scroll bar to move back along a path, the folders you've chosen will remain highlighted in the columns. You can, at any time, choose a different folder from any of the columns. This will refresh the column to the right of your choice. There is no need to start from the beginning every time you want to change your location.

Figure 3.11Figure 3.11 Using the Column view, you can easily drill down through the folders on your hard drive.

If at first glance this seems too complicated or awkward, I urge you to try it. The Column mode is a very fast and efficient means of finding what you're looking for.

Finally, Command-clicking on the title of the window will reveal the same pop-up list of folders as the Icon view. Choose one of the items in the list to jump to it.

There is one other big bonus of using the Column view: the ability to instantly see the contents of a file without opening it. You already know that as you choose folders, their contents appear in the column to the right, but what happens if you choose a file or application instead?

The answer is that a preview or description of the selected item will appear in the column to the right. For an example, take a look at Figure 3.12, where the front page of a PDF file is displayed.

Figure 3.12Figure 3.12 When a file is selected, a preview is shown in the rightmost column.

This is a convenient way of viewing pictures and other forms of supported QuickTime media. When an application or a file that cannot be previewed is chosen, information about the file will be displayed, such as the creation/modification dates, size, and version.


Do not underestimate the power of this feature. Not only can you view pictures, you can also view QuickTime movies and other media using this same technique.

In fact, if you have a large collection of MP3s (legally obtained, of course) and you're using the Column view mode, you can actually listen to your MP3s without launching an MP3 player application. Unfortunately, the MP3 does not continue to play if you switch off the selected file, but that's hardly worth mentioning considering the added functionality.

Column View Options

The column view options, shown in Figure 3.13, are quite sparse. As usual, the text size is adjustable, and you can also choose to shown the small icons in each column, and whether the far right column is used for a preview, or will just act as a file list. There are no global view options for the Column view mode.

Figure 3.13Figure 3.13 Choose whether to display icons in each column and whether a preview is displayed.

The Column view obviously has its advantages, such as file previews and an easy way to reach files deep in the file system. But it is lacking in one respect in which the other, more traditional, views excel: jumping between and viewing multiple folders simultaneously.

The Icon view, for example, appeals to Mac users who are accustomed to having many windows open simultaneously. Moving between windows has been the key to successfully operating the Mac for many years. The List view allows a single window to display the contents of multiple folders simultaneously, which also makes it a breeze to navigate.

So, why is the Column mode more difficult? Because it was designed to be used with the Mac OS X Finder's toolbar. The original NeXT version of what we call the Finder had a feature similar to the toolbar that allowed frequently used items to be stored in it. Similarly, the toolbar can be used to store common folders and applications, allowing the users of the Column view (and any other view) to move files without having to navigate up the directory path. The "Finder Toolbar" section of the chapter will examine the toolbar and its various customizations in depth.

The Go Menu

If you'd like to navigate quickly from any view, you can use the folder shortcuts contained in the Go menu. This menu is introduced in Mac OS X and enables the user to jump the Finder to one of several predefined locations, or to manually enter the name of a directory to browse:

  • Computer—Jump to the Computer level of the file hierarchy. At the Computer level, you can browse connected storage devices and network volumes (Shift+Command+C).

  • Home—Go to your home directory (Shift+Command+H).

  • iDisk—The iDisk selection is one of the more interesting options. If you have signed up for a .Mac account, choosing this option will mount your iDisk on your desktop. If this selection fails, be sure that you have entered your iDisk username and password into the Internet System Preferences panel (Shift+Command+I) and make sure you are online!

  • Applications—Jump to the System Applications folder (Shift+Command+A).

  • Favorites—Favorite folders are determined by you. First introduced in the Open/Save panels discussed in Chapter 2, Favorites let you specify the folders that you'd like to access quickly. In addition to using the Open/Save dialogs, you can also add Favorites using the Add to Favorites... option in the Finder's File menu (Command+T). Select the folder you want to be a Favorite, and then use the menu to add it. If you do not have a folder selected, the directory represented by the frontmost Finder window will be used. The Go menu's first "Favorites" option (Shift+Command+F) opens the Favorites folder.

  • Favorites—The Favorites submenu provides direct access to your Favorite locations.

  • Recent Folders—The Recent Folders submenu contains a system-maintained list of the last ten folders you visited.

The final quick-navigation option is the Go to the Folder dialog box (Shift+Command+G). For now, this is as close as we're going to come to the command line. Mac users beware and Windows/Linux users rejoice. You're about to tell the Finder where you want to be, based on a pathname you enter! Figure 3.14 shows the Go to the Folder dialog box.

Figure 3.14Figure 3.14 Go to the Folder lets you enter your destination by hand!

You can type any folder pathname into the Go to the Folder field. Folder names are separated by the / character. Think of it as being similar to a Web URL. Table 3.1 shows a few shortcuts you can use to navigate your drive.

Table 3.1 Shortcuts To Help You Navigate Your System




The root (top) level of your hard drive.


Your home directory.


Replace <username> with the name of another user to jump to that user's home directory.


Move to a directory relative to the root of the file system.


Move to a directory relative to the directory you're currently in.

As you type in your pathname, Mac OS X will watch what you're typing and attempt to autocomplete the name of the directory. Click Go or press Return when you've finished typing the directory you want to visit.


This function is provided mostly for those users who are comfortable dealing with pathnames. It can be used to jump to the hidden Unix directories on your system, such as /etc, /usr, and so on.

If you'd like to make all of the BSD subsystem viewable within the Finder, you can do so by entering the following command in a terminal window: defaults write com.apple.Finder AppleShowAllFiles YES. To turn off the feature, use the same command with NO at the end. You can learn more about the Mac OS X Defaults system in Chapter 20, "Command-Line Configuration and Administration," and more about the command line in Chapter 12.


The Mac and Unix systems make strange bedfellows. The Mac has traditionally used a colon (:) to separate folder names in a path; therefore, it didn't allow colons within filenames. Unix, on the other hand, doesn't allow / within filenames, but it does allow colons.

p>In the Mac OS X Finder, the : character still isn't allowed (it is replaced with a hyphen [-] if you try to use it in a file or directory name), but / can be used in a name. Unfortunately, the Go to the Folder dialog cannot deal with directories that include the / because it is thinking in terms of Unix directories. The moral of the story is, "Don't name your directories with a / and expect to be able to navigate to them using the Go to the Folder dialog box."

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  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020