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Invisible Files: Making Invisible Files Visible (and Vice Versa)

Should you ever need to locate, view, modify, or delete an invisible file, this is the section that explains how to do it.

Toggle a file's Invisible bit

If a file is invisible because its invisible bit is enabled, just disable the bit to get the file to appear. Conversely, enable the bit get a file to disappear.

XRay and Locator. Mac OS X's Show Info window does not allow you to modify the Invisible bit directly, but you can do it in utilities such as XRay. Just open the file in XRay, and check the checkbox for the Invisible bit. When you click back to the Finder, the file should vanish.

Figure 6.39Figure 6.39 XRay's Invisible-bit option.

When a file is invisible, its invisibility prevents standard methods of opening the file in XRay so as to turn the invisible bit off again. In this case, if you had just finished working with the file, it should be listed via XRay's Open Recent command in the File menu. Otherwise, you can use XRay's Open Quickly command and type the Unix pathway for the file. This method will open even invisible files. Type <~/.Trash> to load the invisible .Trash folder in XRay, for example.

If you don't know the pathway to type, you can use a utility called Locator. Type the name of the file (or even a partial name), and Locator will find all matching files, including invisible files. (Note: Locator is case-sensitive in deciding on matches.) In addition, Locator lists the pathname for each file.

You can select the file you want, choose Copy Path to Clipboard, and paste the pathway in XRay's Open Quickly window. The item will load, and you can deselect its Invisible bit.

Figure 6.40Figure 6.40 Locator finds all copies of an invisible file and their paths.

Sherlock. With Sherlock, you can do a custom search for invisible files. But Sherlock gives you no capability to modify or even open such files, which limits its value.

File Buddy and beyond. Several third-party utilities, such as File Buddy X, allow you to view invisible files and modify the Invisible bit. File Buddy even includes options that allow you not to list the .DS (Directory Store) files in search results, thereby reducing the amount of clutter you would have to sift through otherwise.

Add or remove a dot at the start of a file name

Recently, I downloaded a file from a remote Web server, via FTP, to my local desktop. The file name began with a dot. The result was that the file was invisible after the download was complete. To locate and work with the file, I wanted to eliminate the dot (at least temporarily) so that I could see the file. Following are some options for doing this.

XRay or File Buddy. If you try to add a dot to the start of the file name in the Finder, you will be told that you cannot do so because "these names are reserved for the system."

Third-party utilities will allow you to do this, however. You could add a dot to a file name in XRay, for example. The dot at the start of the file name makes the file invisible, of course, which can make it more tricky to do the reverse (remove a dot from a file's name). In this case, a utility such as File Buddy will be more convenient.

You can similarly use File Buddy to remove a dot from the start of a file name.


"Toggle a file's Invisible bit," earlier in this chapter, for related details.

Figure 6.41Figure 6.41 (Top) File Buddy's option to search for invisible files. (Bottom) File Buddy's list of results and the Info window for one of the found files.

Figure 6.42Figure 6.42 The error message that appears if you try to add a dot to the start of a file name.

Terminal. You can also use Terminal to add a dot to or remove a dot from a file's name quickly. To do so, launch Terminal, and type:

<mv {name of file} {.name of file}> 

As I have commented before, the easiest way to enter the name of a file is to drag the file icon from the Finder to the Terminal window. This technique gives you the full absolute-pathway name of the file. Then type a space and a dot, followed by the same text that you just pasted. This move (mv) command will create a new file (with a dot as the first character of the file name) to replace the original file in the same location. If you go to the Finder, the file icon will vanish.

You can make an invisible file visible by typing the opposite:

<mv {.name of file} {name of file}> 


Typing <ls> in Terminal does not list invisible files. For a listing that contains invisible files, type <ls –a>. You can use this command to see the names of invisible files, which is helpful, as they are not visible in the Finder.

Figure 6.43Figure 6.43 Getting Terminal to list invisible files.

TinkerTool. You could also use TinkerTool to make all invisible files visible, as described in the following section—and then delete the dot in the name if desired.

Use TinkerTool or PropertyList Editor to make invisible files visible

Yet another alternative to working with invisible files is making the files visible in the Finder. Whether you can see invisible files in the Finder is determined by a setting in a .plist (property list or preferences) file, stored in the Preferences folder of the Library folder in your Home directory. Although you can edit this file's setting with any text editor, I recommend using either TinkerTool or the PropertyList Editor application (included as part of the Mac OS X Developer Tools software). Here's what to do.

TinkerTool. Use the shareware System Preferences utility TinkerTool, and enable its Show Hidden and System Files option. This modifies the plist file's preferences setting for you.

PropertyList Editor. Locate the file in the Preferences folder of your Home directory/folder. If PropertyList Editor is on your drive, and you double-click this file, it should open in PropertyList Editor automatically. Then follow these steps:

  1. Click the disclosure triangle to the left of the word Root to reveal the list of properties.

  2. Locate the property called AppleShowAllFiles.

  3. In the Value column, click the word No and hold down the mouse button.

  4. When the pop-up menu appears, choose Yes.

  5. Save and close the document.

In either case, you may need to relaunch the Finder (via the Force Quit window or via the Relaunch Finder button included in the Preferences pane of the latest versions of TinkerTool)—or log out and log back in—before the change takes effect. All hidden files should appear in the Finder. You can navigate directly to the folder or file you want.

After you have done what you want with the invisible files, reverse what you did to return everything to the invisible state.

Figure 6.44Figure 6.44 The Show Hidden and System Files Finder preference, as accessed from (top) TinkerTool and (bottom) the file (in ~/Library/ Preferences), as viewed in PropertyList Editor.The option is off (No) by default.

Use the Finder's Go to Folder command

In some cases, files within a folder are set to be visible, but the folder itself is invisible. Most of the files in Mac OS X's invisible Unix folders work this way. In this case, you can use the Finder's Go to Folder command to open a window for the invisible folder. You simply need to enter the folder's full Unix pathway. Then you will be able to see the files in the invisible folder. I give an example in the following section.

Use an application that lists invisible files in its Open dialog box

Some applications allow you to access and work with invisible files, even while they remain invisible. BBEdit is a good example, as I describe in the following sections.

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