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Chapter 3. Viewing and Navigating Mac OS... > Working with Finder Windows

Working with Finder Windows

When it comes to viewing Mac OS X Finder windows, there is definitely good news and bad news—assuming that you have used a previous version of the Mac OS, of course (if you haven't, there is only good news). The good news is that Mac OS X windows offer the same functionality that windows in previous Mac OSes did plus many improvements. The bad news is that under Mac OS X, windows look quite a bit different and you might have to adjust some of your normal working habits a bit (see Figure 3.1).

Figure 3.1. Under Mac OS X version 10.3, Finder windows offer more tools and more customization options than ever before.

The fundamental purpose of Finder windows is the same as it has always been—Finder windows enable you to view and manipulate the contents of disks, CD-ROMs, DVDs, folders, and so on.

Opening Finder Windows

You can open Finder windows in several ways. If you click the Finder icon on the Dock (which is the Mac OS icon), one of two things can happen. If no Finder windows are currently open, a new Finder window appears showing the contents of the default location you selected (initially, this is your Home folder, but you can select any folder you'd like). If at least one Finder window is already open, you will move to the Finder window in which you most recently worked.


If you hold down the Control key while you click the Finder icon, click it and linger a moment, or right-click the icon on the Dock, a menu showing all open Finder windows appears. Select a window to jump into it.

You can also open a new Finder window by selecting File, New Finder Window (-N). When you open a new Finder window, the result is always the same—the contents of your default location are displayed (this is initially set to be your Home folder, but you can change it to be any location you prefer).

The Mac OS X Finder uses a Web-like model in that each new Finder window you open starts a “chain” of windows (thus, the Back and Forward buttons in the Finder window toolbar). The first window in every new chain you start is always the directory you define as the default. You can have many window chains open at the same time, again being similar to Web windows. (You can quickly jump into specific directories using the toolbar, the Places sidebar, the Go menu, and keyboard shortcuts.)

→ To learn how to navigate Finder windows, seeNavigating Finder Windows,” p. 61.

By default, when you open an item (such as a folder), its contents replace the contents of the previous item that were shown in the Finder window. You can change this behavior globally with a preference setting. You can also override this behavior so the new Finder window is separate from the first one by holding down the key while you double-click an icon.


This default behavior assumes that the toolbar and Places sidebar are shown in a Finder window. If not, opening a folder always opens a new, separate Finder window.

After you have one Finder window open, other Finder windows open in the same way that they did under previous versions of the OS. To open a window, double-click the icon for the item you want to open. Or select an item and select File, Open. The Open keyboard shortcut works, too—just select an item and press -O to open it. You can also open an item's contextual menu and select Open. If you select an item while a Finder window is in the Columns view, its contents are displayed in a new column. If those aren't enough options for you, here is one more; select an item and choose Open on the Action menu.

When you open a new Finder window, it always assumes the view you selected the last time you viewed that item in a Finder window. You'll learn more about Mac OS X Finder window views later in this chapter.


To reiterate this sometimes confusing behavior of Mac OS X windows, the view in which a new window opens is determined by the view you used for that window the last time you viewed it. In other words, windows retain their view settings, even if the window from which you opened a separate Finder window is different. For example, if you viewed the Applications directory in List view, it appears in List view whenever you open it in a new Finder window until you change the view in which it appears.

Mac OS X version 10.3 adds a new and very useful feature to Finder windows, which is the Places sidebar. This area is located along the left side of Finder windows (when the toolbar is displayed) and consists of two panes. In the upper pane are all the volumes mounted on your Mac, including hard disk volumes, disk image volumes, your iDisk, CDs, DVDs, and so on. In the lower pane are some of the folders in your Home folder and the Applications folder. You can add any folders, applications, documents, or other files to or remove them from this area as you'd like so that you can customize it. The purpose of the Places sidebar is to enable you to quickly get to any item shown in it.

When you select a volume or folder in the Places sidebar, its contents are shown in the Finder window. The currently selected item is highlighted so you can easily tell what is selected. (The name of the currently selected item appears at the top of the window as well.) If you select a document or application, that item opens just like when you double-click it.


If you hold down the key while you click an item in the Places sidebar, that item opens in a new Finder window. If you hold down the Option key when you click an item in the Places sidebar, that item opens in a new Finder window and the previous window closes.

Configuring How New Finder Windows Open

You can also set two other Finder window preferences related to how new windows open.

To configure how Finder windows open, perform the following steps:

Select Finder, Preferences or press -+; then click the General tab if it isn't selected already. You will see the Finder Preferences dialog box (see Figure 3.2).

Figure 3.2. Use the General pane of the Finder Preferences dialog box to configure how new Finder windows open.

On the “New Finder windows open” pop-up menu, select the location you want to view each time you open a new Finder window.

You can use that pop-up menu to select a folder you want to view in new Finder windows by default. On the pop-up menu, you will also see each volume mounted on your Mac. Select a volume to see its contents in new Finder windows by default. If you choose Other, you can select any folder on your Mac.


One of the nice features of Mac OS X is that most preference changes are made in real-time—you don't have to close the Preferences window to see the results of your changes. For example, when you make the change in the previous steps, the window-opening behavior becomes active as soon as you change the check box. A good habit is to leave preference windows open as you make changes and close the windows only when you are happy with all the changes you have made.

If you prefer that when you move to a new folder, the folder's contents appear in a new Finder window, check the “Always open folders in a new window” check box. Because this option can lead to a proliferation of Finder windows, I recommend that you leave this option off. You can always open a new Finder window by holding down the key when you double-click an item. A better way to view content is to use the Columns view, which enables you to quickly move to any location.

If you want all new windows to open in the Columns view, check “Open new windows in column view.” I recommend that you select this option because the Columns view is the most efficient for moving among the items on your Mac.

Close the Finder Preferences window.

→ To learn more about Mac OS X directories, seeUnderstanding Mac OS X Directories,” p. 101.


As you can see, you can choose a number of options for working with new Finder windows. Because my preferences are to have my Home folder open, open new items in the current Finder window, and always have new windows open in the Columns view, that is what this chapter assumes. I point out differences along the way when you choose other preferences.

Working with Spring-Loaded Folders

Mac OS X Finder windows can be spring-loaded (this feature is turned on by default), meaning that they pop open when you drag an item onto a closed folder. This enables you to quickly place an item within nested folders without having to open each folder individually. Simply drag an item onto a closed folder so the folder is highlighted. After the delay time has passed, the highlighted folder opens in a separate Finder window (unless you are viewing the window in Columns view, in which case a new column appears for the item onto which you are dragging the item). You can then drag the item onto the next folder and continue the process until you have placed it in its final destination. When you release the mouse button, all the folders that have “sprung” open are closed again.


You can cause a folder to spring open immediately by pressing the spacebar when you drag an item onto a closed folder.

You can configure this behavior by using the following steps:

Click the General tab in the Finder Preferences dialog box.

Check the “Spring-loaded folders and windows” check box to turn this feature back on if you have turned it off (it is on by default).

Use the Delay slider to set the amount of delay time (the time between when you drag an item onto a folder and when that folder springs open).

Experiment to see whether the delay time is set correctly for you; if not, change it.

Close the Finder Preferences window when you have set the delay time.

Scrolling Finder Windows

You scroll Mac OS X windows in basically the same way you always have. By default, the scrollbars are Mac OS X blue; you can change this to graphite with the Appearance pane of the System Preferences utility. As with previous versions of the OS, you can set the scroll arrows to both be located in the lower-right corner of windows or have an arrow located at each end of the scrollbar.

Mac OS X scrolling controls work as you expect them to. You have the following options:

  • Drag the scrollbars.


    As with previous versions of the OS, the length of the scrollbar is proportional to the amount of the window you can see in the view.

  • Click above or below or to the left or right of the bar to scroll one screen's worth at a time.

  • Click the scroll arrows.

  • Press the Page Up and Page Down keys to scroll vertically.

  • Press the Home key to jump to the top of the window or the End key to jump to the bottom.

  • Use the arrow keys or Tab (and Shift-Tab) to move among the items in the window (which also scrolls the window when you move outside the current view).

  • When using the Icon or List views, hold down the and Option keys and drag (when you can drag to scroll, the pointer changes to the gloved hand icon).

You can modify several aspects of scrolling behavior. You can change the location of the scroll arrows. And, rather than moving an entire page each time you click above, below, to the left, or to the right of a scrollbar, you can set the scrolling such that you move to the relative location you click instead. You can also turn on smooth scrolling, which smoothes out the appearance of a window when you scroll in it. Follow these steps to modify these scrolling features:

Open the System Preferences utility.

In the Personal section, click Appearance (see Figure 3.3).

Figure 3.3. The Appearance pane of the System Preferences utility enables you to modify the behavior of window scrolling.

To change the locations of the scroll arrows, click the Together radio button to have the scroll arrows in the lower-right corner of windows or the “At top and bottom” radio button to place an arrow at each end of the scrollbars.

To change how scrolling works when you click in the scrollbar, click the “Jump to the next page” radio button to scroll a screen at a time or the “Scroll to here” radio button to move to a position in the window that is relative to where you click in the scrollbar.

Check the “Use smooth scrolling” check box to turn on smooth scrolling.

Quit the System Preferences utility.


This is a good chance to practice Mac OS X preference setting techniques. Make your changes to the Appearance pane, but leave the System Preferences utility open. Click in a Finder window; your changes immediately become active. If you are satisfied, jump back to the System Preferences utility and close it. If not, jump back into the Appearance pane and continue making changes until you are.

Resizing Windows

Resizing windows also works as you might expect. To change the size of a window, drag its resizing handle until the window is the size you want it to be.

You can also use the Maximize button to make a window large enough to display all the items it contains or until it fills the screen, whichever comes first. Click the button and the window jumps to the size it needs to be to show all the items it contains. Click the button again to return it to its previous size.

You can also use this button to quickly swap between two sizes for a window. Make the window a size you like. When you click the Maximize button, it expands to its maximum size. Click the button again and it returns to the previous size. Each time you click the Maximize button, the window returns to the size it was previously (either the maximum size or the size you set).


If you are like me and have lots of Finder windows open on the Desktop, you can use this resizing behavior to make working between multiple windows more convenient. Select an open window and make it the size you want it to be so it is out of the way and you can store many windows of this size on your desktop; make it just large enough so you can see the window's title. You can click the Maximize button to open the window to work in it. Then, click the Maximize button again to return the window to its small size. Use the button to toggle between the two sizes. When you need to work in the window, make it large by clicking the Maximize button. When you are done, click the button again to make it small. You might find this even more convenient than minimizing windows.

Resizing the Panes of Finder Windows

As you learned earlier, Finder windows have two panes. The left pane is the Places sidebar, whereas the right pane is the Contents pane that displays the contents of the item selected on the Places sidebar. You can change the relative size of the Places sidebar by dragging the resize handle that is located in the center of the border between the two panes (the handle is the familiar “dot”). Drag this to the left and the Places sidebar takes up less room in the window. Drag it to the right and the Places sidebar takes up more window space.

When you resize the Places sidebar, the text and icons within the sidebar become smaller so you can still see as much of them as possible within the allocated space. When the pane becomes too narrow to display all of an item's name, the first part of the name is shown followed by an ellipsis.

You can collapse the sidebar so that just the icons show. You can also collapse it all the way so that it doesn't show at all. To reveal it again, drag the resize handle to the right.

You can also collapse or expand it by double-clicking its resize handle.

Closing, Minimizing, and Maximizing Finder Windows

Among the most distinctive features of Mac OS X are the three stoplight-type controls located in the upper-left corner of windows (refer to Figure 3.1). The red button (on the far left) closes the window. The gold button (in the middle) minimizes the window, which shrinks it and moves it to the right side of the Dock. The green button maximizes the window, which makes it as large as it needs to be to display all the items in the window until that window fills the screen (and returns it to the previous size, as you learned in the previous section).

→ To learn how to use the Dock, see Chapter 5, “Using and Customizing the Dock,” p. 127.

By default, you can also minimize a window (thus moving it onto the Dock) by double-clicking its title bar.


If you don't want to be able to minimize a window by double-clicking in its title bar, open the Appearance pane of the System Preferences application and uncheck the “Minimize when double clicking a window title bar” check box.

The Close, Minimize, and Maximize buttons work even if the window on which they appear is not active. For example, you can close a window that is in the background by clicking its Close button without making the window active first. (When you point to a button on an inactive window, the button becomes colored so that you know it is active, even though the window is not.)


As under previous versions of the Mac OS, you can close all open Finder windows by holding down the Option key while you click the Close button in one of the windows.

Moving Finder Windows

You can move a Finder window around the desktop by dragging its title bar, borders, or anywhere else the metallic look is.


If you used previous versions of Mac OS X, you'll notice that moving windows around is considerably faster under version 10.3, as are other window tasks such as changing size.

Using the Icon, List, or Columns Views for a Finder Window

You can view Finder windows in three different views: Icon, List, and Columns.

Viewing a Finder Window in Icon View

You can easily argue that icons made the Mac. Using friendly pictures to represent files and folders made the computer much friendlier and more approachable than any command line could ever hope to be. Mac OS X continues the use of icons to represent objects, and with their improved appearance under OS X, icons have never looked so good.

You can view Finder windows in the Icon view by opening a window and then selecting View, As Icons; by pressing -1; or by clicking the Icon view button in the toolbar (see Figure 3.4). The objects in the window become icons, and if you have never seen OS X icons before, prepare to be impressed.

Figure 3.4. The familiar Icon view of the Mac OS is now even more visually appealing. Other operating systems might have copied the Mac's icons, but none can compare to this snazzy look.

→ You can customize the Icon view for Finder windows. SeeCustomizing Finder Windows,” p. 68.

If you find that a window in the Icon view is messy, you can use the Clean Up command (View, Clean Up) to straighten up the window for you. This command neatly arranges icons so they line up in an orderly fashion.

To arrange icons by a specific criterion, select View, Arrange, and then select the criterion by which you want the window's icons ordered. Your options are the following: by Name, by Date Modified, by Date Created, by Size, by Kind, or by Label.

Although the Icon view is clearly the most pleasing view to look at, it is one of the least useful in terms of the information you see.

Viewing a Finder Window in List View

The List view presents more information than does the Icon view (see Figure 3.5). To switch to the List view, click the List view button; select View, As List; or press -2.

Figure 3.5. At the top of the window are the same controls that are visible in the Icon view. However, the lower part of the window contains more information than is available in the Icon view.

The information in the List view is organized into columns, with a header at the top of the column indicating the information in it. The information in the List view is always sorted—you can select the column that is used to sort the contents of the window. You can also determine the order in which the columns appear, change the width of columns, and expand or collapse the contents of folders. The information for each item you see in the default List view is the following:

  • Name— This is the filename for files, the folder name for folders, the volume name for volumes, and so on.

  • Date Modified— The most recent date on which the object was changed. If the date is the current date, the time at which the object was changed is shown.

  • Size— The size of the item, in kilobytes (KB), megabytes (MB), or gigabytes (GB).

  • Kind— The type of object it is, such as folder, document, application, volume, and so on.

→ You can customize the List view for a single window or for all windows. SeeCustomizing Finder Windows,” p. 68.

The column by which the window is sorted is highlighted with the highlight color (blue or graphite). To change the sort column, click the Column heading of the column by which you want the list to be sorted. That heading is highlighted and the list is re-sorted by that criterion. At the right edge of the column heading for the column by which the window is sorted, you see the Sort order indicator. This shows you in which direction the list is sorted. For example, if the list is sorted by the Name column, an up arrow indicates that the list is sorted alphabetically and a down arrow indicates that the list is sorted in reverse alphabetical order. To change the direction of the sort, click the Column heading—the list is sorted in the opposite order (from ascending to descending or from descending to ascending).

You can resize a column by moving the pointer to the right edge of the column heading. When you do, the cursor changes from the pointer to a vertical line with outward-facing arrows on each side of it. When you see this cursor, drag the column border to resize the column.

You can change the order in which columns appear by dragging the column heading of the column you want to move and dropping it in the new location. The columns reshuffle and then appear in the order you have indicated.


You can't change the location of the Name column; it is always the first column in a window in List view.

One of the other benefits of the List view is that you can expand the contents of a folder so you can view them without having to open the folder's window first. To do this, click the right-facing Expansion triangle next to the folder's name. The folder expands, and its contents are listed in the window. Click the triangle again to collapse the folder down to its icon.


When you Option-click the Expansion triangle for a collapsed folder, the folder and all the folders it contains are expanded. When you Option-click the Expansion triangle for an expanded folder, the folder and all its contents are collapsed again.

Viewing a Finder Window in Columns View

The Columns view was introduced for Mac OS X, and its benefit is that you can use it to quickly see and navigate levels of the hierarchy (see Figure 3.6). To switch to the Columns view, click the Columns view button on the toolbar; press -2; or select View, as Columns.

Figure 3.6. The Columns view is a great way to see the hierarchical organization of directories and folders.


One reason the Columns view is so important is that you use this view to navigate within Open, Save, and other dialog boxes. When you are using the Columns view in dialog boxes, it works just as it does in Finder windows.

As you might suspect, in the Columns view, the window is organized into columns, with each column representing a level of the file organization hierarchy. The leftmost column shows the highest level you can see, each column to its right shows the next level down the structure, and the column on the far right shows the lowest level you can see. When you select a file, the rightmost column shows a preview of the selected file. The “path” at which you are looking is indicated by the highlighted items in each column.

Folder icons have a right-facing arrow at the right edge of the column to indicate that when you select them, their contents appear in the column to the immediate right.

For example, put a Finder window in the Columns view and click your Home folder on the Places sidebar to see its contents. The Home folder's contents are shown in the first column in the window. If you click one of the folders, it becomes highlighted and its contents appear in one of the middle columns. As you select folders within folders, their contents appear in the column to their right. This continues all the way down into a folder until it contains no more folders.

You can move down into the hierarchy by clicking the item about which you want more detail. The column to the right of the item on which you click shows the contents of what you click. If you click something in the right column and the window is not large enough to display the contents of all the columns, the view shifts and the columns appear to move to the left. You can use this approach to quickly see the contents of any folder on your Mac, no matter how far down in the hierarchy it is stored.


One of the best reasons to use the Columns view is that you can move inside a window with the arrow keys on the keyboard. This is the fastest way to move among the folders and files on your Mac.

When there are more columns than can be displayed in the window, you can use the scrollbars to view all the columns. Scrolling to the left moves up the hierarchy, whereas scrolling to the right moves down the hierarchy. You can also make the window larger to view more columns at the same time.

You can resize the width of the columns in a window by dragging the resize handle located in the lower-right corner of each column. Unlike in previous versions of Mac OS X, each column in a window can have a different width.

When you click a file to select it, the far-right column shows a large icon or a preview of the file and information about that file is displayed (refer to Figure 3.6).

If you click document files for which Mac OS X can create a preview, you see the preview in the column. If the file you select has dynamic content, you can play that content in the preview that you see in the Columns view. For example, if you select a QuickTime movie, you can use the QuickTime Player controls to watch the movie without opening the file. Certain types of text files are also displayed so you can read them (scrollbars appear in the column to enable you to read the entire document). You can also see large thumbnail views of graphics stored in certain formats. For those items that Mac OS X cannot create previews of (an application is one example), you see a large icon instead of a preview.


If you switch from the Columns view to one of the other views, the contents of the folder you most recently selected are shown in the window.

If you prefer not to see the preview, there are two ways to hide it. You can hide it in individual windows or you can hide it by using the View Options.

To hide the preview in specific windows, click the Expansion triangle next to the word Preview that appears just above the preview of a selected file in the Preview pane. This hides all previews for the current window.

You will learn about the View Options later in this chapter.

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