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Find Elusive Files on Your Mac

written by: Joli Ballew•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 5/23/2011

It doesn’t matter how “clean" you think your hard drive is, there are likely still files on your hard drive that you don’t need, stored in nooks and crannies. Once you find these files you can either move them to their proper folders or delete them.

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    Locate Stray Files with Spotlight

    Spotlight is an extremely convenient tool for locating lost or stray files because you can access the Spotlight Search window from any folder on your Mac. To search, simply type all or part of the file or folder name if you know it, or, type the kind of files you're looking for, such as PDF or JPEG. Because you are likely tracking down elusive files and have already gotten rid of the easy-to-find ones, you'll likely use the latter here. Searching with file types is a great way to locate files you've stored outside of the default folders like Documents, Desktop, or Movies.

    To get started, open the Finder, tap Macintosh HD in the left pane, and in the Spotlight Search window, type PDF. The results will appear. Once you've found a file you no longer need, simply drag it to the Trash can. If you want to keep the file, move it to the proper folder, or create a new folder in a default folder to hold it.It's easy to continue along this path, searching for image files, Photoshop files, Garage Band files, and more.

    Tip: Use Spotlight Search when you know the name of a file or part of its name or when you need to locate a file you’ve misplaced and know it is on the hard disk.

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    Spotlight Search

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    Using the Find Program to Locate Stray Files

    The Find program is a much more powerful tool for locating stray or unnecessary files because it allows you to search for files by specific criteria, including by name, by size, by creation date, by suffix, or even by a phrase inside the document. You can also define where it searches just as you can with the Search bar. The Find program offers a good way to locate lost JPG files, MP3s, Photoshop files, Garage Band files, and more.

    To access the Find program, select Finder, and from the File menu, choose Find. Configure the Search window to define where to perform the search, and in the Search For Items Whose area, configure other search criteria.

    To simply locate stray files you don’t want or need, search by their extension. Remember to delete only what you created and don’t need. Don’t delete any files of unclear origin. You don’t want to delete anything important. Some extensions you might want to search for and delete are listed next. These files extensions represent only a few of the file types you’ll find on a Mac and do not represent all available file types.

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    The Find Option

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    Configure Spotlight Settings

    You can tell your Mac what you want Spotlight to search through. By default, it searches everywhere and in every folder. If you want to speed up the process and you know you don't have unwanted files in say, the Applications folder, you can tell your Mac not to search there.

    To tell your Mac where Spotlight should search:

    1. Open System Preferences.
    2. Click Spotlight.
    3. Under Search Preferences, deselect the desired Search areas. You might deselect Applications, Fonts, PDF Documents, and others.
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    What to Look For

    File types you can search for and delete:

    · .ai - Adobe Illustrator file

    · .doc - Microsoft Word document

    · .dot - Microsoft Word template

    · .eps - Encapsulated Postscript file

    · .gif - Graphics Interchange Format. Image format generally used on the Web

    · .htm, .html - Hypertext Markup Language

    · .jpg, .jpeg - Joint Photographic Experts Group. Image format generally used with digital camera files

    · .pdf - Adobe Acrobat file

    · .pict, .png - Common image file format. Pictis the native image file format for Macintosh; PNG, Portable Network Graphics, is intended to be the patent-free replacement for GIF.

    · .txt - Text file

    You can also look for .ppt (PowerPoint), .pst (Microsoft Outlook), .xls (Excel),sit, .tar, .mp3, .aiff .gz, .gzip, .au, .wav, .avi, .mov, .mpg, .qt, and others. Not all file types are listed here!

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    References Section

    Author's Own Experience: It's best to keep files off of your Mac that you don't want or need. I search for and delete files I don't need once a month, and my Mac never gets unorganized, difficult to use, or bogged down with unwanted files.