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Windows 7 and Windows 8 Basics: Searching by File Size, Modification Date and Other File Properties

It was one of these days, not long ago, that I work up one day and realized that I had become an Old Man. Mine is the last generation that remembers a time prior to the internet. I remember using acoustic couplers. My first laptop, a Toshiba, had dual 5 1/2 inch floppy drives, but had no hard drive. I was so excited when I got my hands on that machine. It meant I could connect to networks using my acoustic coupler from a pay phone!

My ruminations on aging is at least somewhat related to the topic at hand. You see, among the memories rattling around my grey hair ensconced head are a few about searching Windows file systems for files of specific types. This sort of thing is very important, even just for every day normal computer usage.

When your computer starts running out of space, wouldn't it be nice to be able to find all of the really large files on that computer? Or perhaps you are looking for an important document you wrote - you can't remember the name of the file but you remember the week that you wrote it. Doing this in Windows XP is straight-forward, because the Windows XP search box (what Microsoft calls the "Search Companion") includes these more advanced functions, and accessing that search box is as simple as clicking the Start button and clicking Search from the resulting contextual menu. Such a search box typically looks similar to this:

Windows XP, Josh Wieder, search, dog
As you can see selecting size and date modification are simple in this format. However, Microsoft, in their infinite wisdom, decided to abandon this simple and straight forward menu, replacing it with a single magnifying glass icon without any options whatsoever:

Windows 7, Josh Wieder, Search bar
Searching mad stupid.
Without the simple and easy to use Search Companion, how are we supposed to look for files based on their properties instead of their name?

The answer, unfortunately for users only accustomed to graphical interfaces, is a series of command line arguments.

Here is a list of such the available search commands for Windows 7 and Windows 8, taken from the relevant Microsoft KB article:

Example search termUse this to find
Files whose names begin with "notes." The ~< means "begins with."
System.FileName:="quarterly report"
Files named "quarterly report." The = means "matches exactly."
Files whose names contain the word "pro" or the characters pro as part of another word (such as "process" or "procedure"). The ~= means "contains."
Files that aren't pictures. The <> means "is not."
Files that were modified on that date. You can also type "System.DateModified:2010" to find files changed at any time during that year.
Files whose authors don't have "herb" in their name. The ~! means "doesn't contain."
Files that are tagged with the word sunset.
Files that are less than 1 MB in size.
Files that are more than 1 MB in size.

In addition to these commands, users can also use a series of Boolean command line operators to further refine searches:

OperatorExampleUse this to
tropical AND island
Find files that contain both of the words "tropical" and "island" (even if those words are in different places in the file). In the case of a simple text search, this gives the same results as typing "tropical island."
tropical NOT island
Find files that contain the word "tropical," but not "island."
tropical OR island
Find files that contain either of the words "tropical" or "island."

Although the commands themselves are non-intuitive, using them is straight-forward. Simply type the appropriate command into the Windows search box, either in the Start menu or in the top-right corner of a File Manager menu. Here is an example, where we have searched for all files larger than 100MB in size in the drive C:\

Windows 7, Josh Wieder, search terms
A search example in Windows 7
There are a variety of circumstances where Windows' search implementation will fail to meet a user's needs. First and foremost, the search function is resource intensive, inaccurate and slow. Compared to Linux's `grep`, `find` and `locate` commands, Windows Search is almost laughably bad, particularly when attempting to search for strings inside of files.

There are other tools available for Windows that vastly improve on the default Windows search function. My recommendation at this time is GrepWin built by Stefan Kiing, available for download at the Google Code site.

GrepWin allows users to search by simple strings, operators and terms like those we described above, providing faster more accurate responses than those available from Windows' default search. In addition to basic search functionality, GrepWin also accepts regular expressions as input. While cryptic, and with a steep initial learning curve, regular expressions are incredibly powerful and a fundamental part of modern computer programming. With regular expressions, you may find specific and complex patterns from large datasets efficiently and quickly. We will almost certainly explore regular expressions in depth with their own post (or perhaps series of posts).

Thats it for now on Windows-based searching. When we return to searching in the future, we will likely spend more time on searching databases, arrays and other data structures as well as providing more theoretical explanations for file system search.