The art of Windows file search

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Arnoldas Zdanevicius needed help finding a file. Luckily, Windows’ built-in search tool can be a powerful ally—if you know its tricks.

At first glance, Windows’ search tool seems simple but underpowered. You open up Windows Explorer (File Explorer in Windows 8), type a word in the search field, and files containing that word appear. But there’s really much more to it than that.

[Have a tech question? Ask PCWorld Contributing Editor Lincoln Spector. Send your query to answer@pcworld.com.]

To begin a search, pick a location to search through. Open Windows/File Explorer and go to the location you want to search. If in doubt, try Documents, your user folder, or the whole drive. Windows will search through that location and its subfolders.

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Indexing options

But remember that searching through unindexed folders slows things down considerably. So what’s indexed? By default, your libraries (Documents, Music, Pictures, and Video), email, and other common data folders. To see and possibly change what’s indexed, type index into the Start menu’s Search field or Windows 8’s search charm, and select Indexing Options.

Once you’ve got Explorer up in the right location, type the word you’re looking for in the Search field, which you’ll find in the upper-right corner of the Explorer window. You’ll soon get a list of every file containing that word in either the file name, the contents, or the metadata.

But searching for more than one word complicates things. For instance, if you typed daisy miller (upper- and lowercase is irrelevant here), you would get every file containing the full name Daisy Miller. But you’d also get every file containing the words daisy and miller, even if there are hundreds of words between them.

To find only files with the name, type "daisy miller" with quotation marks as shown, so it will be treated as a whole phrase and not two separate words.

There are other options: daisy NOT miller will bring up files that have the word daisy but not miller. Daisy OR miller would find every file that has either of these words.

By the way, NOT and OR have to be capitalized. daisy not miller will find every file with those three words.

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You’ve probably noticed that filter options appear when you click the search field—although which filters pop up will vary as Windows tries to second-guess you. You might get Authors, Kind, Date modified, Type, and so on. What’s the difference between Kind and Type? Kind filters by broad definitions—documents, pictures, and so on. Type really means file extension—DOCX, XLS, JPG, and so on.

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If the filter you want doesn’t show up, just type it. When you type or select a filter, you’ll get a pull-down list of options.

And that brings us to the metadata filters. You can type in the name of a metadata field—say, tag:—and a word, and Windows will find any file with that word in that metadata field.

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