The more files you store on your PC, the harder they are to find and manage. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Copernic Desktop Search, my favorite local-search freebie, and compared it to Google Desktop Search and Windows Desktop Search. All three retrieve the files you're looking for much faster and more simply than Windows' built-in search tool, but I prefer Copernic for its customizability and clean interface.
Still, most people spend the majority of their file-management time in Windows Explorer, which by default isn't particularly informative about the files and folders it displays. You can spend time tweaking Details view so that it shows more information about files and folders, or choose Thumbnails view to convert image-file icons to mini versions and to get a glimpse of up to four of the image files stored in a folder, but this still leaves the searching to you.
A faster way to find a particular file among the gigabytes of data on your PC's various storage media is to create virtual folders that store all the files matching specific search criteria. Vista even updates these folders for you automatically, though in XP you have to perform a new search to add recent files when you return to these folders.
You already use virtual folders all the time. Desktop, My Documents (or Documents in Vista), the Recycle Bin, and many other standard file "locations" in Windows are virtual. The contents of these folders don't depend on the actual physical location of the files. In fact, the WinFS (Windows Future Storage) technology originally intended for use in Vista relies completely on virtual folders.
To create a virtual folder in Vista, click Start > Search, enter your search term (click the down arrow to the right of Advanced Search to see more options), and once the search is completed, click Save Search. By default, the new virtual folder is placed in the Searches folder under your user ID, along with Vista's pre-built virtual folders: Recent Documents, Recent E-mail, Recent Music, Recent Images and Video, Recently Changed, and Shared by Me. You can save the new folder anywhere, but I find it simplest to keep all my virtual folders in one place.
Now whenever you're looking for a file matching the criteria you specified, simply navigate to and select that virtual folder in the Searches folder under your user name to see an updated list of the files returned by the search.
You can approximate Vista's virtual folders in XP by clicking Start > Search, entering your search term in either or both of the two text boxes, choosing the drive or location to search, or using any of the other search options available, and clicking Search. When the search finishes, click File > Save Search, specify a location for your saved search file (the default is My Documents), give the file a name (or accepting Windows' default name), and click Save. When you open that .fnd file subsequently, a search window opens with the specified criteria entered automatically, but with no files in the results window. Click Search to repeat the search.
Tomorrow: Do desktop-search tools slow down your PC?