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It's easy to forget, or never be told, exactly where a file is located on your hard drive. Fortunately, it's easy to search.

This is actually a composite of many questions I get where people are unable to locate a file on their computer. Most common is Microsoft Outlook's PST file, which can be buried in a non-obvious place, but I also get this question relating to everything from downloads to pictures do documents that took hours of work, were saved and then apparently vanished.

In many cases, the tools you use can tell you where the files were placed (for example, you can use Outlook to tell you where its PST file is located). On the other hand, for various reasons, you can't and just want to locate the file yourself.

So, we'll search.

First, by far the best thing is to be logged in as Administrator, or using an account that had administrative privileges. The reason is that limited user accounts do not have the permissions required to search everywhere. For our purposes, that means we need really need to be the administrator.

Second, understand what you know about the file you're looking for. Its name? Fantastic. Perhaps only its type? (.PST, for example)? That's ok, too. The more you do know will help better target and then wade through the results we're about to generate. We may not use everything you know right away, though. More on that in a second.

In Windows XP, click on Start, Search, For Files or Folders...

Windows XP Search

Now, one of the first things I'm going to do is scroll down in the list of options and click on Turn off animated character:

Turning off Rover

Now that the dog's gone, click on All Files and Folders to get the search criteria options:

Windows XP Search Criteria

I'm going to look for "Outlook.pst" ... but I'm going to forget that it's called "Outlook", and just look for the ".pst" part. That way I'll find all the ".pst" files on my machine. If I happened to be wrong, and it's not called Outlook.pst at all I'll find it anyway.

Windows XP Search Criteria for *.pst

Let me explain the options I've selected above, as they are important to what we're doing:

  • All or part of the file name: this is where I control how specific my search will be. I've opted to only look for ".pst", so all ".pst" files will be found.

  • A word or phrase in the file: To be honest, I've never used this, and leave it blank.

  • Look in: This defaults to a selection of the drives visible on your system. I've changed it to search only on my "C:" drive, since I do know that the file is somewhere on that drive.

  • When was it modified? Again, I never use this, in favor of techniques that I'll describe below.

  • More advanced options: Absolutely. This is where some of the magic happens.

    • Type of file: leave this set to (All Files and Folders). We've selected our "type" by typing in ".pst" in the search criteria above.

    • Search system folders: Make sure this is checked, we want to search everywhere.

    • Search hidden files and folders: Make sure this is checked, we want to search everywhere.

    • Search subfolders: Make sure this is checked, we want to search everywhere.

    • Case sensitive: Leave this unchecked. Windows filenames are not case sensitive, and we don't want to miss a result because we typed ".pst" when the actual filename ended in ".PST".

    • Search tape backup: Uh, no. Or more correctly, what tape backup? Leave unchecked.

That's it. Click Search

We're scanning the entire hard disk, so depending on the size of that disk, how many files are on it and how fast your system is, this can take a little time. It's worth it.

After my search, my results looked like this:

My search results for '.pst'

As you can see I found not one, but three ".pst" files on my disk. Two (my wife's email and archive), and the Outlook.pst I was looking for.

But this information can be a little more useful - for example, there are more columns of information that we can't see just yet.

We can resize the columns of data simply by clicking and dragging the bar between column headers:

Resizeing the columns in the search results

That, combined with making our window wider as well (or using the scroll bar at the bottom of the results to scroll left and right through the columns) gives us much more information than we saw originally:

All information shown in XP Search Results

You can see that the file size, as well as the "Date Modified" columns are present. It's that last column I wanted to point out, specifically because of what happens when you click on the column header:

Search results sorted by date

Clicking on the "Date Modified" column causes the search results to be sorted by that field.

This is why I never use date search criteria - it's much easier and more reliable to simply sort the search results by date, and see how old the files are. If I see an Outlook.pst that's two years old, and I know that I got email yesterday, then I know that's not the Outlook.pst I was looking for.

Finally, you can see that I've kept the "In Folder" column too narrow to display the entire path to the Outlook.pst file that was found. One solution is to manually widen the column, as we did above. Another approach, to get that information and more about the file, is to right click on it, and select Properties:

Properties of a file in Search Results

You can see that there's a lot of information about the file, and by hovering the mouse over the "Location" in the dialog the full path is displayed in a tooltip.

Exactly what we were looking for.

Article C3707 - April 17, 2009 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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11 Comments
Ed Burkholder
April 17, 2009 2:36 PM

I have been using PCs since DOS 2.0 and one of my favorite and essential utilities is Locate32 by Janne Huttunen. It makes finding files by name, extension, size and/or date both fast and easy. An indexed database of your files is maintained that you periodically regenerate.

I maintain 1.5gb of files over three hard drives and can instantaneously locate any file with this program.

It is offered for FREE, no strings attached, but you can make a PayPal donation if you wish. www.locate32.net

Rob
April 21, 2009 8:56 AM

'Everything' at http://www.voidtools.com/ is unbelievably fast and efficient at finding files by name or partial name etc. Completely free and unobtrusive, it just works.

Rodney
April 21, 2009 10:16 AM

Better still, buy Directory Opus and make your PC
more Amiga-like.

I've had Winders xp-pro for 5 years and I still
hate it!

Rodney

Ken Laninga
April 21, 2009 12:56 PM

Good; now should we cover that for VISTA?

There's a search box right on the start menu. Type "pst" (or whatever you're looking for) there and click "Search everywhere". At the bottom of the results is an advanced search button with many of the options described above.
- Leo
22-Apr-2009

R J Reynolds
April 21, 2009 1:45 PM

By far the simplest file search...Google desktop, a tiny app you download and install from Google.
It uses a double tap on the ctrl key to open a little dialog box, into which you type any word associated with the file you have lost, and up comes a list of files with that characteristic. Your lost file can be found in seconds, if it's actually there. It will even find files that you've deleted, which you can't any longer access. Simple and elegant.

David
April 21, 2009 3:02 PM

I agree with Rob. "Everything" is brilliant. Lightning fast. I`ve been using it for a while now and can't really fault it. It literally indexes everything. System files - the lot! If you have back-ups on other drives, it will show those and you can also do all the usual file manipulation (delete, re-name, drag/drop, etc.) from within the program, which makes Windows' Explorer look positively pedestrian. Be aware that it only works with NTFS formatted drives. As a matter of interest, I bought a WE 640 gig external drive and I didn't realise it was pre-formatted to FAT and couldn't understand why "Everything" wasn't indexing anything on that drive. Had to convert it. No problem now.

David Emmons
April 22, 2009 7:37 PM

Rob and David are right! 'Everything' is really great. The reason that the searches complete instantly is that it uses indexing and updates its index each time it starts. And 'Everything' works with standard wildcards as well.

No more Windows 'Search' for me.

Neville Turbit
April 24, 2009 6:56 PM

I downloaded a file called Xobni which plugs into Outlook. It is brilliant for finding things in Outlook. It displays emails by user, locates words, shows the contacts for another email user e.g. who was on the cc list of emails from them. All sorts of great stuff. Sits on the side of Outlook and can be expanded to a panel. I use it a few times every week to track down email details. Best of all it is free.

Bert386
April 25, 2009 2:07 PM

Just another Flag waver for "Everything" I am a PC Tech ans would use everything at least 50 times a day on my own machine and probably the same amount on clients machines.
Can be used to find evasive files and even as a locator for virus removal......!

Don Davis
June 24, 2012 10:26 PM

OK, I am no computer guy at all! But thanks for the help, now tell me why some files are listed in blue and most in black in the search? Please help!

Mark J
June 25, 2012 7:32 AM

@Don
Blue files in Windows explorer indicate that the files are compressed.
Why are some of my file names blue?

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