Search Folders

File-management gurus exhort users to organize their documents by creating folders and subfolders to store related files. Microsoft decided to force the issue a bit by automatically creating folders such as My Documents, My Pictures, and My Music (now called just Documents, Pictures, and Music in Vista).

However, even if you used these dedicated folders religiously and scrupulously, you still ended up with lots of subfolders for different topics, artists, albums, and so on. That's as it should be according to the file-management pros, but it can lead to problems:

  • How can you view all of your image files?
  • How can you view all the documents written by a particular person?
  • How can you view all the music files with the word love in the title?

These are thorny conundrums, and they're all created by the fact that users have similar files that are scattered among dozens or even hundreds of subfolders. One of the design goals of Windows Vista is to maintain the usefulness and organizational clarity of storing similar documents in their own subfolders, while at the same time eliminating the difficulties inherent in viewing similar documents across all those subfolders.

Microsoft's solution to these difficulties is a new concept called the search folder. The idea behind this new technology is simple but radical: The operating system knows (or can be told) enough about your files that it can organize all related files into a single, virtual location. Here, "virtual" means that although your files still physically reside in specific folders and subfolders on your hard disk, they simultaneously reside in a separate objecta kind of virtual folderthat stores similar files.

The best way to understand these "virtual" folders is to think of the results of a file search. When you enter your criteria and run the search, Windows returns a list of files that match your criteria. That result set is "virtual" in the sense that the files still reside on disk, but they simultaneously and temporarily reside in the search results. For example, if you rename or even delete a file in the search results, you rename or delete the actual file.

In other words, the items in the search results are actual files, not shortcuts or pointers to the files. In Vista, a virtual folder is essentially a saved search result, which is why Microsoft now uses the term search folder instead of virtual folder. When you open a search folder, Vista runs the search and displays the results.