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How to arrange and sort files in OS X El Capitan’s Finder

Kirk McElhearn | March 14, 2016
Learn about the different ways the Finder arranges files and when you can access these options.

The Finder in OS X El Capitan has four ways to view your files: icon view, list view, column view, and Cover Flow view. But it also gives you many ways to arrange files within those views. There are options such as Arrange By, Sort By, and Clean Up By in the Finder’s various menus. Unfortunately, it’s not obvious what each of these options means.

The three sorting tools do have three distinct functions: Arrange By lets you organize files into groups. The Sort By option lets you choose how your files are sorted (by name, date, etc.). And Clean Up By lets you tidy up messy windows or your Desktop. But the three options aren’t always available in all Finder views. Sometimes you can combine them; sometimes you can’t. There are multiple ways of invoking them. In other words, they aren’t Apple’s smoothest bit of interface design. But here’s a rough guide to the way they work.

Icon View

These organizing features are easiest to explain and demonstrate in Icon view; many of the features that work in Icon view also work in the other three. Even if you never use that view, switch over to it in Finder for a minute so you can follow along. To switch a Finder window to Icon view, choose View > as Icons, or press Command-1.

Start by Control-clicking (or right-clicking) in an open space in the Finder window. In the resulting contextual menu, you’ll see three options: Clean Up, Clean Up By, and Arrange By. (You’ll only see all these options if you haven’t set a Sort By option in the View Options palette; I’ll get to that later.) Let’s start with Arrange By.

From the Arrange By submenu, you can opt to arrange files and folders by Name, Kind, Application, Date Last Opened, Date Added, Date Modified, Date Created, Size, Tags, or None. Arranging by name simply sorts the files and folders in alphabetical order by name. None does just what it says. But if you select one of the other options, the Finder breaks its window into sections and organizes the files and folders into those sections.

The Arrange By menu.

If you select Kind, for example, you get groups for different kinds of files: Folders, Images, Spreadsheets, Documents, and so on. Select Size, and your icons will divide into sections for size ranges—100MB to 10GB, 1MB to 100MB, and more. If you don’t have any files or folders that would fit into a given group, that section won’t appear at all. Within each group, files are displayed in a single horizontal row; if you have too many items in a group, you scroll horizontally and more will appear.


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