Mastering the Mac Finder

As the Finder underpins everything you do in macOS, it pays to familiarise yourself with its features and functions. Here we show you how to use a Finder window, including a guide to its navigation controls, viewing options and also how to customise the window and get to grips with its advanced features.

Components of the Finder

The Finder is an important part of your Mac’s Catalina operating system, so the lessons learned in this guide will  serve you well whatever you’re doing on your Mac.


1 Window Control Options – Use the gumdrops to close or minimise the window or open it in full-screen mode.

2 Navigation Controls – The chevron buttons found under the gumdrops in the top left corner of the window take you forwards or back through your navigation history.

3 View Options – These four buttons let you set-up how you view the files and folders in Finder; whether as icons, a list, in columns or as a cover flow which gives you a much larger visual preview.

4 Item Arrangement List – Click on the button marked ‘Arrange’ to order the contents of the window; according to date, alphabetically and more.

5 Share Button – The Share button is found in many places throughout macOS. Here you can highlight a file or folder and click the button to send it by email, AirDrop etc.

6 Tags Button – You can tag a file or folder to make it easier to spot, group it with other documents and folders and more. An item can have more than one tag.

7 Search – If you’re looking for a specific item, type its name or contents into the Search field and press Enter. You can then revise your search if it’s still not found.

8 Sidebar – There are various options on the Finder window’s sidebar. You can open specific folders like Documents or Downloads, access external drives and more.

9 File/Folder View – This shows the files and folders contained in the currently open folder. They’re shown in the format chosen in the View Options (see 3).

10 Preview – This is a preview of the currently selected file in the main window. It shows the title, file size and various details about it. There are options at the foot of the sidebar.

Displaying a Finder Window

There are several ways of opening a new Finder window on your Mac’s desktop. Let’s take a look at each in turn.

Using Menus – Click a clear space on the desktop once, open the File menu, and select New Finder Window. A window then appears.

Shortcut Keys – Click a clear space on the desktop once to make sure you’re in Finder, then press the CMD and N together. A new Finder window appears.

Using the Dock – If it isn’t already displayed, move your mouse cursor to the bottom of the screen to open the Dock. Click the Finder Window to create a new window.

How to Relaunch Finder

If the Finder crashes you can relaunch it like you would a crashed app. The easiest way to do this is to click on the desktop to make sure you’re in Finder, hold down the Shift key and click on the Apple menu. The Force Quit option has become Force Quit Finder. Incidentally you can use this method to quit any running app. Just click on one of its windows to bring it to the fore, hold Shift and click on the Apple menu.

Finder View Options

View as Icons – To display your files and folders as a collection of icons, first open a Finder window then click the first button on the toolbar, showing a group of six squares.

View as Lists – With an open Finder window, click the second button on the toolbar to use a simple but effective list display.

View as Columns – Click the third button on the toolbar to view your files as a series of columns. It’s great for quick navigation and easy visual identification using a handy image preview column.

View as Gallery – View The Gallery View gives a large preview of the file or folder that’s currently selected and a scrollable strip of everything else. Click on one of the files in the strip to see a larger version of its thumbnail.

Change the Way Items are Arranged

As well as changing the way the items are visually displayed, you can also change the way they are arranged within the file and folder view area. Name: Alphabetical. Displays numbers first, then A-Z. Kind: This groups each type of item together.

  • Application – Groups together items according to the application in which they were created or are opened.
  • Date Last Opened – Groups according to time and date they were opened.
  • Date Added – Displays items in order of when they were added to the folder.
  • Date Modified – Displays items in the order they were last modified or edited.
  • Date Created – Displays the items according to when they were created.
  • Size – Arrange the files according to their size.
  • Tags – Files are arranged according to tags you’ve added

Perform Tasks Within the Finder

Click on the cog-shaped icon for a drop-down menu. Here you can do a range of operations, from opening a file in a specific application to checking the file size via the Get Info option.

You can also clean up the entire Finder Window, automatically tidying up and or reorganising the order of the files according to various criteria such as their name (alphabetical), date, size and more.

The Finder’s Preview Panel

Finder windows have a right-hand sidebar that shows a preview of the currently selected file from the window. You can turn this sidebar on and off by going to the View menu and selecting the Hide/Show Preview option.

At the foot of the preview sidebar are new options. These vary according to the type of file you’re highlighting in the main window. For example, an image can be rotated, annotated or turned into a PDF.

Finder in Full-screen Mode

You can view a Finder window, and indeed, an application window, in full-screen mode. Click on the green Enlarge button in the upper left corner of the window and it will expand to fill the entire screen. Alternatively, use the View pull-down menu or press CTRL-CMD-F.

In full-screen mode, the menus usually found at the top of the Mac desktop are still there, but they’re hidden away until you need them. To see them, move the mouse cursor to the top of the screen and the menu bar slides into view.

To exit from full-screen mode back to the usual window view, bring up the Menu bar and then simply click on the green button again. The window shrinks to its previous size and no longer takes up the entire desktop.

You can also take a window out of full screen mode using the View pull-down menu at the top of the screen or by pressing CTRL-CMD-F. You can still close a full-screen window with the red button (top left).

Hide Menu Bar

You can hide the menu bar at the top of the screen. Go to System Preferences > General and check ‘Automatically show and hide the menu bar’. It’s now hidden, but appears when you drag the pointer to the top of the screen.

Finder Customisations

Something else you can do in System Preferences > General is to customise Finder windows. You can change the accent colour, the highlight colour and the sidebar icon size. Try each in turn and see how you like it.

Changing the Finder Window’s Background Colour or Image

When you’re using the Finder’s Icon View, you can replace the white background with a black one or even a picture. To begin, with the Finder window in question open, select Show View Options from the View menu or press CMD-J.

The window’s Info window opens. Towards the bottom, you can see options listed under the header ‘Background’.

Select ‘Colour’ and click on the white square. You can now use the various options to change the background colour.

Select ‘Picture’ and then drag an image into the box to the right of the background options to get a pictorial background. Alternatively, click on the box and then navigate to the picture you want to use through the Finder.

Tabs and Tags

With a Finder window open, press CMD-T, or select New Tab in the File menu to open another tab. Click on tabs to switch between them, and click the ‘x’ in the left-hand side of a tab to close it. You can drag files and folders between tabs.

You can open tabs this way in many applications. So, for example, if you need two Maps windows open at once, you can open them in tabs instead of separate windows. To gather separate windows into one, in the Windows menu, select Merge All.

You can label files and folders with tags; highlight them in Finder and use the Tags icon in the window’s toolbar, as shown. A file can have more than one tag. You can then click a coloured tag in the sidebar and see all files labelled with that tag in the window.

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Ian Osborne

Ian has worked on computer and video games magazines since the legendary Crash and Zzap! 64 in the early Nineties, so he’s seen many changes over the years (including an expanding waistline and receding hairline). A lifelong Mac user, he bought his first Mac in the year 2000. It’s a testament to the resilience of the Mac that his mother is still using that computer to this very day.

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