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Smart Folders in OS X Mountain Lion

A Smart Folder in OS X Mountain Lion lets you save search criteria and have them work in the background to display the results in real time. In other words, a Smart Folder is updated continuously, so it displays all the files on your computer that match the search criteria at the moment.

So, for example, say you create a Smart Folder that contains all the Rich Text Format files on your computer that you’ve opened in the past two weeks. Or you can create a Smart Folder that displays graphics files, but only the ones bigger (or smaller) than a specified file size. Then all those files appear in one convenient Smart Folder.

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The possibilities are endless. Because Smart Folders use alias-like technology to display items, the actual files reside in only one location: the folder where you originally put them. True to their name, Smart Folders don’t gather the files themselves in a separate place; rather, they gather aliases of files, leaving the originals right where you stashed them. Neat!

Also, because Spotlight is built deep into the bowels of the OS X file system and kernel, Smart Folders are updated in real time and so are always current, even after you’ve added or deleted files on your hard drive since creating the Smart Folder.

Smart Folders are so useful that Apple provides five ways to create one. The following steps show you how:

  1. Start your Smart Folder by using any of the following methods:

    • Choose File→New Smart Folder.

    • Press Command+Option+N.

    • Choose File→Find.

    • Press Command+F.

    • Type at least one character in the Search box of a Finder window.

    If you have All My Files selected in the Sidebar, you can’t use the last method, because All My Files is a Smart Folder — one with a weird icon, but a Smart Folder nonetheless.

  2. Refine the criteria for your search by clicking the + button to add a criterion or the – button to delete one.

  3. When you’re satisfied and ready to turn your criteria into a Smart Folder, click the Save button below the Search box.

    A sheet drops down.

  4. Choose where you want to save your folder.

    While the Save sheet is displayed, you can add the Smart Folder to the Sidebar, if you like, by clicking the Add to Sidebar check box.

  5. When you’re finished editing criteria, click the Save button to save the folder with its criteria.

After you create your Smart Folder, you can save it anywhere on any hard drive and use it like any other folder. There’s also an option to display it in your Sidebar, if you want.

If you want to change the criteria for a Smart Folder you created earlier, right-click or Control-click the Smart Folder in the Sidebar and select Show Search Criteria.

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Alternatively, you can right-click or Control-click the Smart Folder (even one in the Sidebar) and choose Show Search Criteria from the contextual menu.

When you’re finished changing the criteria, click the Save button to resave your folder. Don’t worry — if you try to close a Smart Folder you’ve modified without saving your changes, OS X politely asks if you want to save this Smart Folder and warns that if you don’t save, the changes you made will be lost.

You may be asked whether you want to replace the previous Smart Folder of the same name; usually, you do.

Smart Folders (with the exception of the Sidebar’s All My Files, which has its own weird little icon) display a little gear in their center, making them easy to tell apart from regular folders.

Smart Folders can save you a lot of time and effort, so if you haven’t played with them much (or at all) yet, be sure to give ’em a try.

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