How to find a file on Windows

Even though many of our files are stored in the cloud, there are still many ones and zeros that are stored locally. But as the capacity of the drives used by our desktops and laptops has increased, finding files has become much more difficult. How many photos and videos do you have stored on your computer? How many documents and downloads?

Personally, I tend to neglect file management because there is so much storage space available. But when I do need a file, especially one I haven’t used in a while, I think of the old expression about finding a needle in a haystack. It’s even worse when I don’t remember much of what it was called.

Don’t despair. Windows has the tools you need to find what you’re looking for. And if the built-in options aren’t enough, there are also third-party programs you can turn to.

By default, Windows only indexes the files in four areas of your PC: the Documents, Pictures, Music, and Desktop folders, plus any subfolders that branch off from them. If you want other places to be searched as well, you can change this.

  • Open Institutions of the Start menuthen go to Privacy and security > Windows Search.
  • below Find my filesyou will probably notice that the Classic search type is automatically selected. If Classic is chosen, you can then click Adjust search locations > To process to add folders to the list of indexed locations by checking the appropriate boxes.
  • Alternatively you can choose Strengthens instead of Classic to involve your entire PC in searches. Microsoft says this can affect CPU usage and battery life, so you might not find it worth the trade-off.

Later in the same screen you can exclude certain folders from the search. If there are folders that you know you don’t need to search, excluding these folders can speed up the indexing and searching processes.

Once you’ve decided which folders you want Windows to index, you’re ready to actually start searching.

There’s a search box or icon on the taskbar, just to the right of the Start menu button, that you can use to start searching for files. Just type as much of the file name as you remember, and the results will appear as you type. If you prefer, you can also use the search box you get when you open the Start menu.

When you start typing, Windows will display a dialog box where you can see what you think is the best match, and then even more matches below that. Above the best match you will find a series of tabs with different categories including Documents, photosor Folders, which allows you to refine your search if you don’t find an immediate match. Depending on your keywords, Windows may prioritize results from the web and/or the Start menu before files, so you may need these additional filters.

If you just want to see a recently installed app or file, you may not need to search at all. Click on the Start menu on the taskbar and below the button Recommended Below the heading, you’ll see apps and files you’ve recently opened.

For more advanced searches, open File Explorer and use the search box in the top right corner. Here are a few tips:

  • Please note that your location in File Explorer matters: the search will be performed in the folder you are currently viewing, along with any subfolders. To search your entire PC, click first This PC in the navigation pane on the left. Type the name of the file you are looking for in the search box and click Enter. Matches are then displayed on the screen as they are found.
  • If you are unsure of the full file name, you can use an asterisk as a wildcard representing any combination of characters. So search am* may return files with the names “amstrad,” “america,” and “am8811!g.”
  • You can also use a question mark as a one-letter wildcard. Seeking am? would give you files named “amy”, “amd” and “am3”.
  • Another trick is to add the file extension, if you know it. Perform a search for *.jpgand you will get back all the JPEG files in the current folder, along with the subfolders. If necessary, you can apply the same wildcards to the extension after the period.
  • Boolean operators are also supported. For example, use “samsung or google” to get matches for both, “samsung and google” to find files that contain both words, or “samsung not google” to get files that have Samsung in the name but not Google.
  • If you want to filter your search even further, search for Search options at the top of the Explorer window. (You may have to click the three dots on the right to find it.) Click on that to get a list of different search variables you can use. For example, you can limit your search based on file size or when the file was last edited (which can be very useful if you get overwhelmed by the results). There also is a File contents option, which you can use if you want Windows to search your files for matches; it is a lot more thorough, but obviously takes more time.

There are numerous third-party tools ready to assist you with your searches. While the features they offer are quite similar to what you can find in File Explorer, they are presented in a way that you may find more intuitive.

  • Agent Ransack is a fast and sleek file finder for Windows, allowing you to search for similarities in file names and file contents at the same time. It is very easy to choose search locations, and wildcards and Boolean operators are also supported.
  • Then there is Everything, the most lightweight and simplest file search utility for Windows that I have found. (It can also run as a portable app, directly from a USB drive.) It also has its own set of advanced features, including options for matching upper and lower case letters in file names and the ability to save searches for future use .
  • FindMyFiles is another free third-party search tool worth checking out. In addition to displaying results super-fast, it offers a handy search options panel, where you can limit your file matches based on file size, file date, and file attributes (such as read-only). It even helps you detect duplicate files.
  • Finally, Power Toys Run from Microsoft can give you a search experience similar to Spotlight on macOS. Press Alt + Space to open the search box in the center of the screen, then type the name of the file you’re looking for. It’s useful to have on hand for those times when you need to get to a specific file as quickly as possible.

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