Disks, Files, and Folders

On the surface, the way OS X handles disks, files, and folders doesn’t appear to be very different than that of any other operating system. But if you’re coming from being mainly a Windows user like I did, there are a few new things to get used to. In this section, I’m going to demonstrate how I manipulate and manage disks, files, and folders in OS X. However, I’m, not going to talk about how to install and maintain disks here. That information will be found in the “Managing Your System” section. This section is simply intended to acquaint you with how to perform basic, everyday tasks like making, creating, or moving files and folders.

Let’s begin by looking at the basics behind OS X’s files and folders.

Files and Folders

Creating, Saving, and Organizing Files

Creating and Saving Files

Creating files is done from within an application. In Windows, you can right-click on the Desktop and select a new file type on the contextual menu that appears. Right-clicking on the Desktop in OS X brings up a contextual menu that only allows you to create a new folder, call for Help, Get Info on whatever item you clicked on, or change the background picture on the desktop. If you right-click on an open spot in a folder in OS X, you’ll get a contextual menu that isn’t much different, i.e., it only offers you the ability to create a new folder, Get Info, or get Help. So, calling up an application first is a must before you create a new file.

I’m going to use Microsoft Word v.X to demonstrate how files are saved and managed within OS X. First, to save files, you use “File/Save” or “File/Save As commands” in your application’s menus. If you haven’t saved a file since beginning it, when you select “File/Save” (The keyboard shortcut is Command-S.), you’ll be presented with a dialogue box that looks like this:


At the top of the dialog, I’ve typed in a file name of “Disks, Files, and Folders”. I’m creating a Microsoft Word document and am saving it to the Desktop on my machine. Notice a couple of things. First, since I don’t have the “Append File Extension” block selected, no file extension is being appended to the file name. The Mac really doesn’t need the file extension to do anything; it automatically knows what kind of file it’s dealing with. Someone else might not, however. For instance, if you ship the file to a Linux or a Windows user, their computer will not know what kind of file it is and will automatically classify it as a “generic” file. If he or she double-clicks on the file to open it, his/her operating system will not know what application to use. Because of this, I usually append the file extension. That way I always know what kind of file it is and sharing it with someone else, no matter what platform they are using. If you decide not to save the file with its file extensions, never fear. If you subsequently need to share it with a friend or comrade who’s using a different operating system, you can always add the file extension later before giving it to them by using the OS X’s Rename feature.

Speaking of naming and renaming, the file naming convention in OS X is, well, interesting. You can use up to 256 characters to give a file a name as long as it doesn’t include a colon and you don’t use use a slash or a period to begin it. (Periods and slashes are reserved for system use.). Easy enough, except that not every OS X application will let you use the full 256 character set. Word v.X is a good example. Word restricts your file name to 31 characters, which is also the character limit for file names created under OS 9. (I suspect this was done so that Word files created in OS X would be compatible with OS 9. Others may think this was a Microsoft conspiracy to make people think that OS X was a lot more restrictive than Windows. Apple must have conspired against itself since AppleWorks also holds to the 31 character restriction.) Safari, however, does not; so, you’ll want to play with each application to see what it will allow you to do. In any case, eve n if you find yourself restricted to 31 characters, once the file is in an OS X folder or on the desktop, you can change its name to whatever you want as long as it doesn’t exceed the 256 character limit. (Keep in mind, though, that if you ship the file out to someone other than another OS X user, they will see it as having a strange and cryptic name.)

If you save a file to a folder and one is already there with the same name, OS X will alert you with a dialog box asking you if you want to cancel the save or replace the pre-existing file with it. You can see this in the picture below:


You now have the option of canceling the operation or replacing the file with the more recent version.

Organizing Files

When saving files, it’s best to think ahead about how to organize them. OS X windows arrange all items in whatever hierarchy you ask for (by name, by size, by kind, by date created, by date modified) no matter whether the object is a file or a folder. Windows, on the other hand, uses a folder/file hierarchy. In other words, when you open an Explorer window in a Windows OS, you’ll see folders arranged at the top of the window followed by files in whatever priority you’ve set up, i.e., files and folders are treated separately. Not so in OS X. Files and folders within a folder or in a disk directory will all be mixed together even if you’ve asked the OS to arrange them by some criteria. I find this confusing when trying to find an item from within a program dialogue (like a “save” or “save as” box). To keep things straight, I generally organize my disks into folders and subfolders and put all files within one or the other. Let me show you the difference. To do that, I’ll use Word’s File/Open dialogue to look at a folder organized that way. The folder uses “arrange by name” as its means of organizing.


As you can see, my Documents folder is arranged into subfolders. That yields a neat, organized appearance. Shuffling through a lot of folders is not a problem since they stand out so clearly. I do have to know what folder I have put the file I’m looking for in, and that is the only downside to organizing things this way. (If you happen to be forgetful, you can use the Finder to search for the file, so nothing is really lost.)

Click here to continue with Disks, Files, and Folders!