When you think about it, the Finder is probably the single-most used program in Mac OS X. After all, it runs from the moment you log in until the time you log out, handling all your file-management tasks. It's also the public face of the OS X interface when you're not using an application.

That public face undergoes a transformation in OS X 10.5 Leopard. Apple has put some polish on the Finder, adding some often-suggested features, including at least one that was present back in the OS 9 days. There's also an entirely new look for the Finder that inspired debate long before Leopard's arrival. On top of that, Apple added a new view mode and addressed performance issues. So there's a lot of ground to cover.

The big changes

New appearance The first thing most OS x 10.5 users will notice is the new look of the Finder. Gone are the bright, colourful folder icons of OS X 10.4 (and every Mac OS release since the days of System 7). In their place, you'll find a look of uniform blue and grayness, with much more subtle indicators of the folders' contents.

In addition to new folders, the menu bar and menus are translucent, and the Dock is no longer a dock - it's more of a shelf, complete with reflections of windows that get close to the shelf and pronounced drop shadows for icons in the Dock. Some people will love the look, and others will hate it - and find ways to tinker with it. But once you get beyond the look, there are other, more substantive changes to be found.

Quick Look Quick Look is a new technology designed to let you see inside your files without going through the trouble of actually opening them. Quick Look is really somewhat more of a system-wide feature, as it's available in the Finder, Spotlight's results window, and Time Machine.

However, you'll end up using Quick Look often in the Finder.

The idea behind Quick Look is that you can quickly see the contents of a given file without having to open that file in its related application. Instead, you control-click on the file in question in the Finder and select Quick Look from the contextual menu. A new window will grow from the selected file, displaying the contents of the file.

This window is scrollable (for multi-page documents), resizable, and movable, and contains a couple of buttons at the bottom - one that will add a displayed image to iPhoto, and the other to enter full-screen Quick Look mode.

You can Quick Look nearly any kind of file you might have on your system. Text files, movies, Adobe Photoshop images, PDFs, Microsoft Office 2004 documents, image files, and even MP3s all show (and in the case of movies and audio files, play) in the Quick Look window. Once open, you can resize the window and even page through multi-page documents.

If you use a third-party program that uses a proprietary file format, however, you may not be able to use Quick Look on those files, at least not until developers update their applications to provide a Quick Look preview - hence the spate of "Leopard-compatible" releases you've seen from developers in recent days. As time passes, the number of non-supported applications is likely to continue to shrink.

After spending just a few minutes using Quick Look, you'll never want to go back to using preview icons and click-and-hope to find a given file. Anyone who uses OS X 10.5 will probably find that Quick Look not only saves time, but makes the difficult task of finding a certain document or image not only easier and faster, but actually almost pleasant.

Cover Flow The Finder now sports a Cover Flow view to go with the existing Icon, List, and Column views; Finder's Cover Flow implementation looks just like it does in iTunes. Much like Quick Look, Cover Flow view gives you a preview of your files without opening them, and it can page through PDFs and text files, and play movie files (although not audio files).

For folders of images or movies, we found the Cover Flow view a great way to browse for that certain file we wanted. For other sorts of files, however, we didn't find it particularly useful, and quickly returned to Column view.

Stacks Stacks are a new way of looking at folders stored on the end of the Dock. In prior versions of OS X, clicking on folders kept there turned them into navigable pop-up menus.

In Leopard, you'll get what's known as a stack - a visual representation of the folder's contents. If the folder contains fewer than 10 items, you'll see the stack presented as a curving column of icons; with 10 or more items, you'll instead see a pop-up window full of icons. If you click on a file's icon in a stack, the chosen file will open in its parent application. Click on a folder, and that folder opens in the Finder.

If you've got folders of images in your stacks, this is a useful feature. But if you made extensive use of the Dock's navigable pop-up folders in OS X10.4, you'll likely be disappointed by stacks in OS X 10.5, as they're somewhat less powerful. You can't, for instance, drill down into subfolders in stacks; you can merely select the top-level folder to open it in the Finder.

Dock Pop-up Folders Leopard's Dock inherits a useful feature from the Finder: spring-loaded folders. With this new feature, you can drag an item over a folder in the Dock, and the folder will open momentarily in the Finder, allowing you to drop the item into a sub-folder - or to dig even further down into sub-sub-folders until you find the desired destination. Once you've dropped the file, the folder (and all sub-folders) will close and return to its resting place in the Dock.

Searches in the Sidebar The Finder now sports an iTunes-like sidebar where things are grouped together as Devices Devices (hard drives, CDs, DVDs), Shared (network volumes and computers), Places (folders and files on your hard drive), and Search For. That last area comes pre-populated with a number of handy saved searches - to help you quickly find items modified today, yesterday, or in the last week; and show all movies, images, or documents.

Even more useful than the canned searches, however, is the ability to add your own. After creating a search in the Finder, click on the Save button and you'll see a new Add To Sidebar checkbox that does just what you think it should do. To remove or rearrange searches, you can just drag them around as you do with other entries in the sidebar. Having fast access to your most-used searches via the sidebar is a welcome feature.

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