How to arrange and sort files in Lion Finder

by Kirk McElhearn

Like its predecessors, Lion’s Finder gives you four ways to view your files: icon view, list view, column view and Cover Flow view. But it also gives you some new ways to arrange files within those views: In addition to Arrange By, Lion adds Sort By and Clean Up By. Unfortunately, those arrangements aren’t so straightforward.

The three sorting tools do have three distinct functions: Arrange By lets you organize files into groups. The new Sort By option does much of what Arrange By did in the past. And Clean Up By is a kind of impermanent Sort By. 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 new organizing tools are easiest to explain and demonstrate in icon view; many of the things 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.

Start by Control-clicking (or right-clicking) in an open space in the Finder window. In the resulting context menu, you’ll see three options: Clean Up, Clean Up By, and Arrange By. Let’s start with the last one.

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, Label, 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. 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.

Once you’ve organized files into groups with Arrange By, hold down the Option key and Control-click in the Finder window again. The Arrange By option in the contextual menu changes to Sort By. That lets you sort files within groups. So, for example, if you’ve arranged files by Kind, you can use Sort By to array them within each group by name. The Sort By menu doesn’t offer all of the same options as Arrange By; you can’t sort by Application. If you arrange by None, you can still use Sort By to arrange the window as a whole.

When you start combining Arrange By and Sort By, things can get a little confusing: Let’s say you arrange by Kind, then open the Sort By menu: You can sort your files within their groups by Name, Label, or other criteria. But if you Arrange By any of Date or by Size, all of the Sort By options will be grayed out. If you arrange by Name, you can’t sort them, because Name doesn’t move files into groups; it just sorts them by name. Point being, you can’t always combine Arrange By and Sort By.

The contextual menu isn’t the only way to invoke Arrange By and Sort By. You can also: select View -> Arrange By; click on the Arrange By button in the Finder toolbar (if it’s there); select Arrange By from the Action menu in that toolbar (again, if that button is there); or open the View Options palette (which itself can be done in several ways). In many of those cases, the Option-key trick still works, changing Arrange By to Sort By.

Some folders have special Arrange By and Sort By criteria. For example, in the Applications folder you can arrange apps by Application Category (Productivity, Games, Social Networking, etc.). These categories are inherited from the Mac App Store; if you have apps from some other source, they’ll all be lumped in Other.

Arranged by Kind, sorted by Date Added

If you arrange icons by Name or None, you also get a Clean Up By option in the context menu (and elsewhere). This sorts your icons by whatever criteria you wish (Name, Kind, Date Modified, Date Created, Size, or Label), but you can then move the icons around within the view; when you Arrange By, you can’t move the icons. Clean Up By is also a one-time action; if you add new files to that folder, their icons won’t follow your Clean Up By arrangement. If you choose Arrange By, new files you add to that folder will be automatically placed into the appropriate group. The simple Clean Up option just moves file icons into a grid, with no organization.

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