OS X: Advanced Searching (Including System Files!)

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We've all gotten so accustomed to using Spotlight for our Mac-searching needs. Hey, it's convenient! But you may not know that the Finder has a more advanced way to search, and with this method, you can do some pretty awesome stuff when you're looking for your files, including searching for system resources (like .plists) that you may need when you're troubleshooting problems.

To check it out, first open a Finder window by clicking on its icon in your Dock.

Then type your search term in the box in the upper-right corner of the window. After you do that, you'll see a small plus button appear below your search.

Normally, you can use this to configure several different criteria for your search, so you could keep hitting that plus button to add new parameters until you get exactly what you want to find. For example, you could set up a search for all PNGs with particular text in their names that were created after a certain date, as below:

However, I think one of the best features here is that you can use a ton of advanced searching attributes that aren't listed in the default menu. To do that, click the plus button, and then select the first drop-down menu (which is probably labeled "Kind"), and choose "Other."

Then you'll get a long long LONG list of the attributes you can use to search. On this list are some incredibly obscure things you could search for, such as the page height of a document, what the time signature is of a song, or the exposure details of a photograph.

However, I really like using the aforementioned "System files" attribute, which you can select to search through all of the system stuff that you usually can't find through Spotlight.

As I've done in the screenshot above, if you toggle the "In Menu" checkbox on, you'll then be able to select the particular attribute you've chosen from the drop-down instead of having to pick it from that long list every time.

So now when you select "System files" from that menu and toggle the second drop-down to "are included," you'll find everything Spotlight has kept from you all these years. For shame, Spotlight.

Obviously, you can use these search attributes to narrow down what you're looking for even further—find .plist files that were changed in the last day, for example. In any case, it's nice to have an easy, fast way to find things like that, without having to open up a Terminal window, browse through your Library folder, or anything else.

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While it is not surprising to find features that I didn’t even know existed, it is surprising that I can’t follow tutorials because my Mac doesn’t do what is listed in the tutorial.

I open up a Finder window, type “iPhoto.plist” into the search area in the upper right. First surprise is that I get zero hits. Second surprise is that I have only “Save” and a “minus” icon just below the search box. No “plus” icon for expanding my search criteria. End following tutorial.

Any tips on what is going on here?

2009 Mac Pro, Mac OS X 10.8.2

Melissa Holt

Hey Ladd,

I had someone else contact me with this same question, and with him, the problem was that there was already a search saved in his Finder window. So if you look underneath the minus button, is there a plus button there? And are there a couple of drop-downs in the middle of the toolbar (as in my fourth screenshot above)? If so, you can just follow the tip from that part on.

The thing is that, until you actually tell your Mac to include system files by using the steps outlined here, files like .plists won’t show up in your searches. By default, they aren’t included.

Hope that helps!


It took a long time to figure it out by I finally found why I don’t get the “plus” button when I open up a new window by clicking the finder window icon in the dock. When I do so, the window opens up with “all my files” selected in the left column. No plus icon.

Switching to any other selection in the left column (desktop, applications, etc.) changes the window to that selection and the plus icon magically appears.

Melissa Holt

Thanks for noting that, Ladd! I had turned off my Finder windows opening to All My Files some time ago, so I doubt I ever would’ve figured that out. smile

Thanks again!

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