Using Finder Views on Your Mac

Four Finder views, and all of them worth a bit of investigating

Finder views offer four different ways of looking at the files and folders stored on your Mac. Most new Mac users tend to work with only one of the four Finder views: Icon, List, Column, or Cover Flow/Gallery. Working in one Finder view may not seem like a bad idea. After all, you will become very adept at the ins and outs of using that view. But it’s probably much more productive in the long run to learn how to use each Finder view, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of each view.

In this guide, we will examine the four Finder views, how to access them, and learn the best time to use each type of view.

Finder Views

  • Icon: Each file or folder is represented by an icon. The Mac desktop is a good example of icon view.
  • List: List view shows details about a file or folder, including its many attributes. List view is similar to the standard view in Windows Explorer.
  • Column: Column view provides a visual trail of where you have been, and displays a hierarchical view of where a file is stored.
  • Cover Flow or Gallery: A modified list view that displays a thumbnail view of a file’s contents.
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Using Finder Views on Your Mac: Icon View

Icon view in macOS Mojave Finder.
Icon view is the oldest Finder view.

The Finder’s icon view presents a Mac’s files and folders as icons, either on the desktop or within a Finder window. Apple provides sets of generic icons for drives, files, and folders. These generic icons are used if no specific icon is assigned to an item. In Leopard (OS X 10.5), and later, a thumbnail image derived directly from a file’s content may serve as the icon. For instance, a PDF file may display the first page as a thumbnail; if the file is a photo, the icon may be a thumbnail of the photo.

Selecting Icon View

Icon view is the default Finder view, but if you have changed views you can return to icon view by either clicking the ‘Icon View’ button (the left-most button in the group of four view buttons) at the top of a Finder window, or selecting ‘View, as Icons’ from the Finder menu.

Icon View Advantages

You can arrange icons in a Finder window by clicking and dragging them around the window. This lets you customize how a Finder window looks. Your Mac will remember the locations of the icons and display them in the same locations the next time you open that folder in the Finder.

You can customize icon view in other ways besides just dragging icons around. You can control icon size, grid spacing, text size, and background color. You can even select an image to be used as the background.

Icon View Disadvantages

Icon view can become messy. As you move icons around, they can overlap and end up piled on top of each other. Icon view also lacks detailed information about each file or folder. For instance, at a glance, you can’t see the size of a file or folder, when a file was created, or other attributes of an item.

Best Use of Icon View

With the advent of Leopard, and the ability to show thumbnails, icon view can be handy for viewing folders of images, music, or other multimedia files.

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Using Finder Views on Your Mac: List View

List view in macOS Mojave.
List view may be the most versatile of the Finder views.

List view may be the most versatile of all the Finder views. List view shows not only a file’s name, but also many of the file’s attributes, including date, size, kind, version, comments, and labels. It also displays a scaled-down icon.

Selecting List View

You can display your files and folders in list view by clicking the ‘List View’ button (the second button from the left in the group of four view buttons) at the top of a Finder window, or selecting ‘View, as List’ from the Finder menu.

List View Advantages

Aside from the advantage of seeing file or folder attributes at a glance, list view also has the advantage of displaying more items within a given window size than can be displayed in any of the other views.

List view is very versatile. For starters, it displays file attributes in columns. Clicking the name of a column changes the sorting order, allowing you to sort on any of the attributes. One of my favorite sorting orders is by date, so I can see the most recently accessed or created files first.

You can also use list view to drill down into folders by clicking the disclosure triangle located to the left of a folder’s name. You can drill down as far as you wish, folder to folder until you find the file you need.

List View Disadvantages

One problem with list view is that when a list takes up all of the viewing room in a Finder window, it can be difficult to create new folders or other contextual menu options because there is limited free space to right-click in. You can, of course, perform all of these functions from Finder menus and buttons.

Best Use of List View

List view is likely to be a favorite view simply because of the versatility of seeing the maximum amount of information at a glance. List view can be especially helpful when you need to sort items or drill down through a folder hierarchy to find a file.

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Using Finder Views on Your Mac: Column View

Column view in macOS Mojave
Column view lets you see where a selected file is located within the file system.

The Finder’s column view displays files and folders in a hierarchical view that allows you to keep track of where you are within your Mac’s file system. Column view presents each level of a file or folder path in its own column, allowing you to see all of the items along a file or folder’s path.

Selecting Column View

You can display your files and folders in column view by clicking the ‘Column View’ button (the second button from the right in the group of four view buttons) at the top of a Finder window, or selecting ‘View, as Columns’ from the Finder menu.

Column View Advantages

Aside from the obvious advantage of being able to see an item’s path, one of the key features of column view is the ease of moving files and folders around. Unlike any of the other views, column view lets you copy or move files without having to open a second Finder window.

The other unique feature of column view is that the last column shows the same type of file attributes available in list view. Of course, it only shows attributes for the selected item, not all of the items in a column or folder.

Column View Disadvantages

Column view is dynamic, that is, the number of columns and where they are displayed within a Finder window can change. The changes usually occur when you are selecting or moving an item. This can make column view difficult to work with, at least until you get the hang of things.

Best Use of Column View

Column view is very good for moving or copying files. The ability to move and copy files using a single Finder window can’t be overstated for productivity and just plain ease of use. Column view is also ideal for those who really like to always know where they are in the file system.

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Gallery View in macOS Mojave.
Gallery view, formerly known as Cover Flow.

Gallery view is the newest of the Finder views and made its first appearance in macOS Mojave. Although the name is new, it is heavily based on the older Cover flow view which first showed up in OS X 10.5 (Leopard). Cover flow and Gallery view are based on a feature found in iTunes, and like the iTunes feature, it allows you to see the contents of a file as a thumbnail icon. This view arranges the thumbnail icons in a folder like a collection of music albums you can quickly flip through. Cover flow view splits the Finder window and shows a list-style view just below the cover flow section while Gallery omits the list view and instead uses a large thumbnail of the selected file and a group of small thumbnails below to show you what is in the current folder.

You can display your files and folders in cover flow/gallery view by clicking the Cover Flow/Gallery View button (the right-most button in the group of four view buttons) at the top of a Finder window, or selecting View, as Cover Flow/Gallery from the Finder menu.

Cover Flow/Gallery View Advantages

Cover flow/Gallery view is a great way to search through music, image, and even text or PDF files because it displays an album cover, a photo, or the first page of a document as a thumbnail icon whenever it can. Because you can adjust the size of a cover flow icon, you can make it large enough to view the actual text on the first page of a document or get a closer look at a photo, album cover, or other image.


Displaying those thumbnail previews can hog resources, although most new Macs shouldn’t have any problems.

Once you make cover flow view images large enough for practical use, you tend to limit the number of files that can be shown at any one time.

Best Use of Cover Flow/Gallery View

Cover flow/Gallery view is best for flipping through folders that contain a lot of images, checking out music files with associated cover art, or previewing text and PDF documents that can have their first page rendered as a cover flow image.

This view isn’t very useful for folders filled with mixed documents and files, which may be rendered with generic icons.

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Using Finder Views on Your Mac: Which Is Best?

Which Finder view is the best view? We would have to say “all of them.” Each has its strengths as well as its weaknesses. We use all of them at one time or another, depending on the task at hand.

When pressed, we’d have to say that we find list view to be the one we're most comfortable with, and use most often. It lets us quickly toggle between various sorting preferences by simply clicking on the name of a column, so we can sort files alphabetically, by date, or by size. There are other sorting options, but those are the ones we use the most.

Column view is handy when we have some file maintenance tasks to perform, such as cleaning up files and folders. With column view, we can move and copy items quickly without having to open multiple Finder windows. we can also see where within the file system our selected items reside.

Finally, we use cover flow view for browsing through images. While it’s true that we could use iPhoto, Photoshop, or another image manipulation or management program to perform this task, we find that cover flow view works just as well and is usually faster than opening an app just to find and select an image file.

What about icon view? Surprisingly, that’s the Finder view we use the least. While we love the desktop and all of the icons on it, within a Finder window, we prefer list view for most tasks.

No matter which Finder view you prefer, knowing about the others, and when and how to use them, can help you be more productive and enjoy using your Mac more.

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