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Despite the numerous ways you can organize files and folders on your computer, things can sometimes get lost or folder locations forgotten. Luckily, Windows has robust search capabilities, and a search box or search tool is never very far away.

What is File Indexing?

Windows uses an indexing system to help keep track of files.

An indexing system basically makes a quick alphabetical list of all items inside a folder. Whenever you search for a particular item inside a folder using the Search box, only the items that are contained inside that folder will be searched (instead of all the files on your computer being searched at once). An indexing service does have a disadvantage, however, in that when a folder is first opened, every item is analyzed. If a folder contains hundreds or thousands of items, your computer will become noticeably slower for a short time while the index is built. However, once the indexing has been completed, searching becomes much faster and therefore allows computer navigation to become much faster. This quickly makes back the time spent on indexing.

Not all areas of your computer are indexed. Most of the files associated with the inner workings of a program, for example, are not indexed. This is because there can literally be thousands of files associated with a single program. If every single file was indexed, there would eventually come a point where the time it took to search the index would actually take longer that it would take to blindly search the files.

Using a Search Box

Every folder contains a search box, usually right at the top of the window. To use a Search Box, just type in the name of a file you are looking for. You don't even need to press Enter; results of your search become more refined as you enter more information:

Figure 1: Search box in windows explorer.

Using Search in the Start Menu

Searching locally inside a folder is easy to do with the Search bar, but doesn't help you very much if you don't know what folder to look in! Therefore Windows includes a broad search tool in the Start menu, just above the Start button.
Type the first few letters of the file name or program you are looking for and Windows will display some of the best matches for you as you type based on files that have been indexed.

Search Results Window

The Start menu is an easily accessible location where you can search for things. However, if there are many responses to your search and you don't think any of them are quite what you were looking for, you can see the full list of results by clicking "See more results:"

Figure 2: Searching in the Start Menu.

This will open the Search Results window:

Figure 3: Search results window.

In the Search Bar at the top of this window, your original search term will appear. All results from indexed locations that match your search term are highlighted in the center of the window. Double-click any item to open it.

At the bottom of the search results, there are a few links to search different areas of your computer again:

Figure 5: Search location links.

You can tell Windows to search exclusively in the Libraries, on the Internet, your entire computer (including non-indexed locations), or define a Custom search.

If you click the Computer link, Windows will search your entire computer. While the computer is searching, you will see a green progress indicator behind the address bar showing the approximate overall progress of the search:

Figure 6: Search progress indicator.

Once the search has completed, you can scroll through the results. Be warned however, that some searches of your entire computer may yield quite a few results.

Figure 7: 23,569 search results.

If you click the Custom option at the bottom of the Search Results window, you can specify which indexed or non-indexed locations will be included in your search.

Figure 8: Choose search location dialog.

Sometimes you may have better luck by telling your computer where not to look!

Searching Tips and Tricks

There are numerous ways to help improve your search results. We know that the Search tool only searches indexed locations, which are all commonly used folders, but only a very small part of your computer. You can try to be more specific with your search term(s), but being too specific may not yield any search results. And searching your entire computer may find the file, but it might take you a long time to search through the search results!
Luckily, there are a few different things you can do to make your searches more efficient.

If you only know part of the file name, you can use the asterisk (star) character to help find files that have similar names. If we were to search for "sym*," the * represents any possible characters after the letters "sym." Search results might include things like "symbol," "symphony," and "symbiosis."
If you press Ctrl + F when the Search Results window is open, you can add more criteria to your search. You can search based on the following criteria:




Define the kind of file you are looking for. This includes documents, pictures, music, movies, etc. Windows will examine the file extensions and search for relevant matches.

For example, common picture file extensions include .jpg, .gif, .png, .bmp.

Date modified

Specify the date the file or program was last modified.


The Type option is a more precise version of the Kind searching. Define the exact type of file extension you are looking for. Windows 7 recognizes a large number of different file extensions, and the more programs you have installed on your computer the more file types Windows will be able to recognize.


You can define approximately how large the file is in bytes.

To use one of the search criteria, just click one of the options in blue:

Figure 9: Search filters.

For example, if you click the Kind option, you can choose the general file type from the list:

Figure 10: Kinds of files to search.

If you click the E-mail option, the criteria will be added to the search field:

Figure 11: Search email files.

This will further refine your existing search or let you search for something else based on the criteria.

You can combine several search criteria together so you could be very specific with your search. If you know you are searching for an e-mail approximately 100K in size, and you know the subject started with "P," chances are if it does exist you will find it!

Setting Search Options

To specify with even more detail how the Search tool should operate, click the Organize button and then click "Folder and search options:"

Figure 12: Folder and search options under the Organize button.

When the Folder Options dialog appears, click the Search tab:

Figure 13: Search options.

Adjust the options here to change how the Search tool functions. Enabling some options will require extra search time; however, they may yield much more accurate results.

Let's explore the different options:



What to search

Specify how you want the Search tool to look for and how deep in a file to dig for it. Specify if you want to always use indexed locations or if you want Windows to search everywhere, including the contents of the file.

How to search

The options here let you specify how much freedom you want to give to the Search tool. The two default options shown above (Include subfolders, Find partial matches) are best to use for an all rounded approach.



When searching a non-indexed location

We know that some folder locations are indexed, meaning that a list of information about the files in a folder has been compiled, making searching faster. If you want to search every nook and cranny of your computer in order to find a system file or file that is stored in a compressed folder, enable both of the bottom options.

Depending on the information you are looking for, some combinations of search options can produce very slow search times. Unfortunately it is impossible to provide a perfect solution for everyone; it will simply involve some trial and error. Nonetheless, you can always return the search options to their defaults by clicking the Restore Defaults button.