NATSORTFILES Examples

The function NATSORTFILES sorts a cell array of filenames or filepaths (1xN char), taking into account any number values within the strings. This is known as a natural order sort or an alphanumeric sort. Note that MATLAB's inbuilt SORT function sorts the character codes only (as does SORT in most programming languages).

NATSORTFILES is not a naive natural-order sort, but splits and sorts file/folder names and file extensions separately, which means that shorter names come before longer ones. For the same reason filepaths are split at every path-separator character (either '\' or '/'), and each path level is sorted separately. See the "Explanation" sections below for more details.

For sorting the rows of a cell array of strings (1xN char) use NATSORTROWS.

For sorting a cell array of strings (1xN char) use NATSORT.

Contents

Basic Usage

By default NATSORTFILES interprets consecutive digits as being part of a single integer, any remaining substring/s are treated as characters:

A = {'a2.txt', 'a10.txt', 'a1.txt'};
sort(A)
natsortfiles(A)
ans = 
    'a1.txt'    'a10.txt'    'a2.txt'
ans = 
    'a1.txt'    'a2.txt'    'a10.txt'

Output 2: Sort Index

The second output argument is a numeric array of the sort indices ndx, such that Y = X(ndx) where Y = natsortfiles(X):

[~,ndx] = natsortfiles(A)
ndx =
     3     1     2

Output 3: Debugging Array

The third output is a cell vector of cell arrays, where the cell arrays correspond to the directory hierarchy, filenames, and file extensions. The cell arrays contain all matched numbers (after converting to numeric using the specified SSCANF format) and all split character substrings. These cell arrays are useful for confirming that the numbers are being correctly identified by the regular expression. Note that the even columns contain any matched number values, while the odd columns contain any split substrings:

[~,~,dbg] = natsortfiles(A);
dbg{:}
ans = 
    'a'    [ 2]
    'a'    [10]
    'a'    [ 1]
ans = 
    '.txt'
    '.txt'
    '.txt'

Input 2: Regular Expression

The optional second input argument is a regular expression which specifies the number matching:

B = {'1.3.txt','1.10.txt','1.2.txt'};
natsortfiles(B)   % by default match integers
natsortfiles(B, '\d+\.?\d*') % match decimal fractions
ans = 
    '1.2.txt'    '1.3.txt'    '1.10.txt'
ans = 
    '1.10.txt'    '1.2.txt'    '1.3.txt'

Input 3+: No File Extension

For names that do not have file extensions (e.g. folder names, filenames without extensions) then the optional 'noext' argument should be used:

X = {'1.9','1.10','1.2'}; % names without extensions
natsortfiles(X,'\d+\.?\d*') % by default the period character indicates the file extension
natsortfiles(X,'\d+\.?\d*','noext')
ans = 
    '1.2'    '1.9'    '1.10'
ans = 
    '1.10'    '1.2'    '1.9'

Inputs 3+: Optional Arguments

Further inputs are passed directly to NATSORT, thus giving control over the case sensitivity, sort direction, and other options. See the NATSORT help for explanations and examples of the supported options:

C = {'B.txt','10.txt','1.txt','A.txt','2.txt'};
natsortfiles(C, [], 'descend')
natsortfiles(C, [], 'char<num')
ans = 
    'B.txt'    'A.txt'    '10.txt'    '2.txt'    '1.txt'
ans = 
    'A.txt'    'B.txt'    '1.txt'    '2.txt'    '10.txt'

Example with DIR and a Cell Array

One common situation is to use DIR to identify files in a folder, sort them into the correct order, and then loop over them: below is an example of how to do this. Remember to preallocate all output arrays before the loop!

P = 'natsortfiles_test'; % directory path
S = dir(fullfile(P,'*.txt')); % get list of files in directory
C = natsortfiles({S.name}); % sort file names into order
for k = 1:numel(C)
    disp(fullfile(P,C{k}))
end
natsortfiles_test\A_1.txt
natsortfiles_test\A_1-new.txt
natsortfiles_test\A_1_new.txt
natsortfiles_test\A_2.txt
natsortfiles_test\A_3.txt
natsortfiles_test\A_10.txt
natsortfiles_test\A_100.txt
natsortfiles_test\A_200.txt

Example with DIR and a Structure

Users who need to access the DIR structure fields can use NATSORTFILE's second output to sort DIR's output structure into the correct order:

P = 'natsortfiles_test'; % directory path
S = dir(fullfile(P,'*.txt')); % get list of files in directory
[~,ndx] = natsortfiles({S.name}); % indices of correct order
S = S(ndx); % sort structure using indices
for k = 1:numel(S)
    fprintf('%-13s%s\n',S(k).name,S(k).date)
end
A_1.txt      22-Jul-2017 09:13:24
A_1-new.txt  22-Jul-2017 09:13:24
A_1_new.txt  22-Jul-2017 09:13:24
A_2.txt      22-Jul-2017 09:13:24
A_3.txt      22-Jul-2017 09:13:24
A_10.txt     22-Jul-2017 09:13:24
A_100.txt    22-Jul-2017 09:13:24
A_200.txt    22-Jul-2017 09:13:24

Explanation: Short Before Long

Filenames and file extensions are joined by the extension separator, the period character '.'. Using a normal SORT this period gets sorted after all of the characters from 0 to 45 (including !"#$%&'()*+,-, the space character, and all of the control characters, e.g. newlines, tabs, etc). This means that a naive sort returns some shorter filenames after longer filenames. To ensure that shorter filenames come first, NATSORTFILES splits filenames from file extensions and sorts them separately:

D = {'test_ccc.m'; 'test-aaa.m'; 'test.m'; 'test.bbb.m'};
sort(D) % '-' sorts before '.'
natsort(D) % '-' sorts before '.'
natsortfiles(D) % short before long
ans = 
    'test-aaa.m'
    'test.bbb.m'
    'test.m'
    'test_ccc.m'
ans = 
    'test-aaa.m'
    'test.bbb.m'
    'test.m'
    'test_ccc.m'
ans = 
    'test.m'
    'test-aaa.m'
    'test.bbb.m'
    'test_ccc.m'

Explanation: Filenames

NATSORTFILES sorts the split name parts using a natural-order sort, so that the number values within the filenames are taken into consideration:

E = {'test2.m'; 'test10-old.m'; 'test.m'; 'test10.m'; 'test1.m'};
sort(E) % Wrong number order.
natsort(E) % Correct number order, but longer before shorter.
natsortfiles(E) % Correct number order and short before long.
ans = 
    'test.m'
    'test1.m'
    'test10-old.m'
    'test10.m'
    'test2.m'
ans = 
    'test1.m'
    'test2.m'
    'test10-old.m'
    'test10.m'
    'test.m'
ans = 
    'test.m'
    'test1.m'
    'test2.m'
    'test10.m'
    'test10-old.m'

Explanation: Filepaths

For the same reasons, filepaths are split at each file path separator character (both '/' and '\' are treated as file path separators) and every level of the directory structure is sorted separately:

F = {'A2-old\test.m';'A10\test.m';'A2\test.m';'AXarchive.zip';'A1\test.m'};
sort(F) % Wrong number order, and '-' sorts before '\'.
natsort(F) % Correct number order, but long before short.
natsortfiles(F) % Correct number order and short before long.
ans = 
    'A10\test.m'
    'A1\test.m'
    'A2-old\test.m'
    'A2\test.m'
    'AXarchive.zip'
ans = 
    'A1\test.m'
    'A2-old\test.m'
    'A2\test.m'
    'A10\test.m'
    'AXarchive.zip'
ans = 
    'AXarchive.zip'
    'A1\test.m'
    'A2\test.m'
    'A2-old\test.m'
    'A10\test.m'

Regular Expression: Decimal Numbers, E-notation, +/- Sign

NATSORTFILES number matching can be customized to detect numbers with a decimal fraction, E-notation, a +/- sign, binary/hexadecimal, or other required features. The number matching is specified using an appropriate regular expression: see NATSORT for details and examples.

G = {'1.23V.csv','-1V.csv','+1.csv','+NaNV.csv','1.200V.csv'};
natsortfiles(G) % by default match integers only.
natsortfiles(G,'[-+]?(NaN|Inf|\d+\.?\d*)')
ans = 
    '1.23V.csv'    '1.200V.csv'    '+1.csv'    '+NaNV.csv'    '-1V.csv'
ans = 
    '-1V.csv'    '+1.csv'    '1.200V.csv'    '1.23V.csv'    '+NaNV.csv'

Bonus: Interactive Regular Expression Tool

Regular expressions are powerful and compact, but getting them right is not always easy. One assistance is to download my interactive tool IREGEXP, which lets you quickly try different regular expressions and see all of REGEXP's outputs displayed and updated as you type.