Searching in Windows Vista, Part 3

Using Advanced Search for those hard-to-find files

By Dave Johnson

When I started using Windows Vista, I was thrilled with the fast and responsive Search box at the top of every folder. To find an article I wrote 10 years ago for an outdoors magazine, for example, I only needed to type the word “kayak” in the Search box to quickly see a short list of files that I created with the word “kayak” in them. No longer did I need to know what subfolder in which to peek, or recall the file name of the document.

Picture of a folder with search results
The instant you type in the Search box, Save Search, Search Tools, and Advanced Search appear to assist you

But all was not blue skies and puppy dogs in the Johnson household. Search was fast and easy for ordinary documents, but sometimes I needed to find an unusual file that was located in a Windows system folder. The ubiquitous Search box isn’t really designed for a search like that. Another problem: Sometimes I need to find all of the files related to a particular project. I might have Microsoft Office Word files, e–mail messages, and even videos that all pertain to “mom’s birthday.”

The Search box can’t find all of these files at the same time because it only searches the folder that you’re in. For example, the illustration above shows all of the search results for “kayak” after searching only the Documents folder—not the Pictures, Music, and Video folders. Is there, you might wonder, some clever way to find very different files in different folders all at once, instead of in separate searches?

Let’s be honest: This would be a terrible article if the answer was no. So in this last column of my search series, I’ll show you some effective and advanced techniques for locating hard-to-find files.

Search anywhere with Advanced Search

Imagine that you’re looking for a file, and so you type a word or phrase in the Search box of the Documents folder. But you don’t find what you’re looking for. Try giving Advanced Search a chance. Click it. Now, you’ll see a slew of additional options for your search.

Picture of a folder with Advanced Search open
Advanced Search provides additional options for you to customize your search

By default, the Search box only searches the folder you’re currently in (and its subfolders), which is annoying if you want to search multiple locations at once. That’s where location comes in. Using this menu, you can search any folder or drive. Want to search your entire hard drive for a stubbornly misplaced file? Change the location to Local Hard Drives (C:).

Here’s an even better approach: Windows constantly keeps track of all of your most common files and stores information about them in something called the index. So, if you search Indexed Locations, you’re probably going to find what you’re looking for, unless you want to find an unusual file or a system file. For more information about the index, see Improve Windows searches using the index: frequently asked questions.

So, suppose you’re looking for all of the “mom’s birthday” files I mentioned earlier. Piece of cake—just select Indexed Locations, and then type “mom’s birthday” in the Name field. When you search, you’ll get all of the files that have your search information in common, no matter which personal folder or e-mail inbox they’re currently located in.

With Advanced Search, you can also fine-tune a search to avoid receiving search results you don't want. Do you only want to see files that you created before Arbor Day 1997? Then, using the three date menus, set the date to Date Created is before April 25, 1997.

Picture of the location, date, and size options in Advanced Search
You can look for files by criteria such as date or size using Advanced Search

You can also combine any of the search criteria. Looking for music files that are more than 10 MB? Type "*.MP3 OR *.WMA" in the Name field. (If you want to know how to use Boolean filters such as AND, OR, and NOT, see Part 1 of this series.) From the Size menu, select is greater than, and then type "10000" in the Size box (because 10,000 KB is the same as 10 MB).

Picture of Advanced Search with size and name options selected
You can combine any search criteria such as size and file name to conduct very targeted searches

Just remember that when you’re ready to start the search with Advanced Search, click the Search button.

Save your search for another day

If you regularly look for a certain group of files and end up performing the same search over and over again to find them, consider saving your search for future use. To do this, click Save Search, and give your search a name.

When you want to run the search again later, click Searches in the Navigation pane of any folder, and you will find your search waiting for you. The saved search will find files that match the original criteria, including files that you added to your computer after you saved the search.

Also, consider adding tags to your files when you first create and save them. Adding tags to files in anticipation of having to search for these files later will help to reduce your time spent searching.

Picture of the Navigation pane showing the Searches link
Your saved searches are available in the Navigation pane of any folder

Finding files that don’t want to be found

Remember that you can search every nook and cranny of every hard drive on your computer by setting the location to Everywhere. But even when Windows is looking everywhere for files, some types (such as system files and hidden files) are automatically filtered out of the search. It’s as if these files are simply invisible, so Windows can’t see them even when it’s looking right at them. You need a way to make search find them.

Here’s how: Select the Include non-indexed, hidden, and system files (might be slow) check box. Now, Windows will scour your hard drive and reveal files that are ordinarily kept out of search results. These include files you’ve intentionally hidden or special Windows system files that are usually hidden because fiddling with them can damage your computer.

Picture of the location and hidden files options selected in Advanced Search
Setting the location to "Everywhere" and including non-indexed, hidden, and system files provides the most comprehensive search results

What to do when searching is slow

If you routinely need to find files that are in a drive or folder location that is not indexed by Windows, or if you often need to find files that have a file extension that is not indexed, searching can be slow. The solution is to add the location or the file extension to the index.

For example, suppose that you like to keep documents on an external hard drive. The index doesn’t track files at this external location, and so it has no information on the files located there. For this reason, whenever you search a folder on the external hard drive, it’s slow. To speed up your search, add this folder to the index. On the Search Tools menu, click Modify Index Locations, and then click Modify. Click Show all locations, and then select the check boxes for any folders and drives that you want to add to the index.

You might want to add a few folders that you search all the time, but resist the temptation to add the entire external hard drive to the index. This can affect your computer’s performance because the index has to track a potentially huge number of files.

Picture of the Indexed Locations dialog box
If a drive or folder location is not tracked by the index, you can add it to the index for faster searches

Now, suppose that you have installed a new program. And it creates files with a file extension that doesn’t automatically get indexed by Windows. Go back to the Search Tools menu, click Modify Index Locations, and then click Advanced. On the File Types tab, select the check boxes of any file types that you want to index. Remember that for a file to get indexed, its file type must be selected in the Extension list, and the location in which you store the file must be included in the location selected.

Picture of the Advanced Options dialog box
If a file type is not tracked by the index, you can add it to the index to find files of that type faster

Finding all of the common files that I use every day is so easy in Windows Vista that I’ve stopped making lots and lots of subfolders to categorize my stuff. I just drop all of my documents in the Documents folder, all of my photos in the Pictures folder, and so on. Using Advanced Search, I can quickly find all of the unusual, tricky, and stubborn files as well. Maybe it is puppy dogs and blue skies after all.

About the author

Picture of columnist Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson is a writer on the Windows team at Microsoft. In addition to writing about Windows, he's a scuba instructor, a drummer, an award-winning photographer, and the author of over three dozen books.

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