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Copying and Moving: Copying vs. Moving vs. Duplicating Files

In Mac OS X, users probably have more trouble copying, moving, and (especially) deleting files than with any other type of problem. In this section, I explore what you need to know to have success when copying and moving. In a later section, I cover deleting files.

The basics

The primary ways to transfer a file from one location on your Mac to another are:

Copy, as its name implies, places a copy of the original file in the new location while leaving the original file intact in its original location. The simplest way to copy a file is simply to drag its icon to the new location, assuming that it is on a different volume or partition from the original file. If the file is on the same volume, Option-dragging the icon copies it to the new location.

Duplicate is almost the same as Copy, except that the copy is created in the same location as the original and assigned a new name. To do this, choose the Duplicate command (Command-D) from the Finder's File menu. The copy will have the word copy appended to its name. If you otherwise drag an icon of a file to a different location within the same folder, you neither move nor copy the file; you just reposition the icon.

Move literally moves the file to the new location without retaining a copy in its original location. To do this, drag the file to its intended location on the same volume.

To move a file to a different volume, you can Command-drag the item (a feature that does not exist in Mac OS 9!). A word of caution, however: If the move to a new volume fails for any reason, the OS may delete the original without creating the copy, leaving you with no file at all. So if you get an error message when using Command-drag, choose Stop rather than Continue. Or to be even safer, avoid this feature and just copy the file. Then delete the original after you know that the copy was made successfully.

Beyond the basics

Beyond the basics, you should know several additional variations.

Copy Item. Copying a file from one folder to another, via dragging its icon, can be inconvenient, as you need to be able to open and position the originating and destination folders on the Desktop so that both are visible and you are able to drag the icon from one to the other. That's why Mac OS X offers an alternative: the Copy Item command. Here's how it works:

  1. Select an item in the Finder.

  2. The Copy command in the Edit menu changes to Copy {name of selected item}.

  3. Choose the new Copy command.

  4. Click inside the window of the destination location.

  5. The Paste command in the Edit menu now reads Paste Item.

  6. Choose Paste Item.

The item is pasted to the new location, as though you had done a drag-copy.

The Copy Item and Paste Item options are also available via contextual menus. Thus, if you Control-click an item, a Copy {name of file} command will appear. Then you can Control-click the destination location and choose Paste Item from the contextual menu.

Figure 6.16Figure 6.16 The Copy Item command.

Copy/Replace. When you attempt to move or copy a file to a location where a file of the same name already exists, you typically get an alert message warning you that the action will replace the existing file, essentially deleting it. Be careful about clicking OK. If the two files have different content, you could erase something you wanted to save.

In some cases, such as when you're downloading files from the Internet, rather than offering to replace a file with the same name, the Internet software may instead append an extension to the duplicate file so that both files are saved. Thus, if you download the file CoolApp twice to the same location, the second download will likely have the name CoolApp.1.

Move results in a copy. If you attempt to move a file from a folder where you do not have sufficient permission to modify the folder contents, dragging the file typically results in a copy's being placed at the new location rather than the file's being moved. The original file remains intact, even if that was not your intention. No error message will appear. In some situations, the copy may fail completely, with an error message appearing.

In the next section ("Problems copying and moving files"), I explain how permissions settings affect the ability to copy and move files.

Copy results in an alias. When you drag the icon of one partition over to another or drag a disk image file to a folder on a hard drive, an alias of the original volume is created, rather than a copy's being made. This situation is not an error. Mac OS X assumes that when you drag a disk image or a volume to a new location, you want to create an alias of it. You rarely would copy these typically large volumes except for backup purposes.

If you truly want to copy the actual volume contents, select the volume and choose the Copy Item command, followed by the Paste command, as explained earlier in this chapter. Or open the window for the originating volume, choose All, and drag the selected files to the new location.


"Aliases and symbolic links," later in this chapter, for more information.

Move to Trash. The only other common variation of moving of a file is moving the file to the Trash. This special case deserves a section of its own, which is coming up later in this chapter.

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