Learn How to Use OS X’s Spotlight Search Like a Champ

Spotlight is Apple’s search feature in OS X and more recently, iOS. In the latest version of OS X, Spotlight has received a beautiful makeover and merits another look.

We have covered Windows Search to a considerable extent, so its only fair we give Spotlight some attention. How does it work, and what are the keys to its mastery?

We’ll cover it basics, some more advanced concepts, and also tricks you need to know to search your Mac like a champ. Note, you don’t have to be running Yosemite. Most of the information we go over is applicable to older versions of OS X as well.

Spotlight Basics

To open Spotlight, you can use the little magnifying glass in the upper-right corner of the menu bar, but it’s far easier to use “Command + Space” to open Spotlight.

Results are displayed as you type. Spotlight works similarly to Windows Search, in that it builds an index from the content of your computer.

Let’s check out the results we get when we type “spotlight.”

The first thing you will probably notice is that the top result is the Spotlight system preferences. We’ll talk more about this shortly. The other thing that’s apparent is that Spotlight search returns are a rather wide variety of results. There’s the usual assortment of documents, which have the word “spotlight” in their contents or title, but there are also online results, images, mail messages, and more.

You see that there’s a result for Wikipedia, or you can look up the definition in OS X’s dictionary, among other things.

If you use the up or down arrows, you can quickly scroll through the rest of the results. With such a broad search term we get a lot of stuff to sort through, so it might just be easier to see everything in the Finder.

If you scroll to the bottom, you’ll see the option to “Show all in Finder… .” You can double-click or hit “Return” and a Finder window will open to show all the local occurrences (system preferences, documents, mail & messages, etc.) of the word “Spotlight.”

There’s a couple of cool items to note here. First you can click “Save” to save your searches, which is great if you have a search that you use often.  To make things even more convenient, you can add your custom search to your Finder sidebar for convenient, quick access.

You can also use the Finder window to refine your searches.

So, note that we refined this search to only show documents (Kind) modified within the last three months. You can also save this particular search rather than the broader search shown in the earlier screenshot.

More About Refining Spotlight Searches

You don’t have to use the Spotlight search box. In fact, you can jump right to the point using the keyboard combo “Option + Command + Space” to open a Finder search. Of course, using the other method is a lot more fun and nice looking, but if you really need to conduct a tight, focused search, the tools to do so are already there for you to click and build your queries.

Thus, we can search by “kind” or “name” or “author” or any one of dozens of attributes.

This is what you see if you click “Other…” from the dropdown menu in the previous screenshot. You can add any or all (thought that would be impractical) of these search attributes to your Finder’s search powers.

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Also, you don’t actually need to be using the Finder to narrow your searches in this fashion. You can construct queries right from the Spotlight interface. You do this by entering your search term, and then your modifier. In this example, we search for “spotlight” in documents (kind:document).

You can also use Boolean operators such as AND, OR, and NOT. If you read our series on Windows Search, you might remember that you can use Boolean there as well. It works the same with Spotlight as it does there.

If you use Boolean, remember it always have to be capitalized. In this example, we’re searching for “outlook” in documents (kind:) AND, which have been authored (author:) by Matt.

This is pretty simple, but you can read Apple’s official documentation on narrowing down search results for more information.

So, that’s how to use Spotlight. We want to turn now to Spotlight preferences, which let you reorder search results, turn off certain criteria, and restrict the locations from which Spotlight returns results.

Tweaking Your Spotlight Preferences

You might have noticed in our earlier screenshots that our top Spotlight “spotlight” result was its system preferences.

If you double-click or press “return” on that result, you’ll be whisked to the Spotlight system preferences, which are comparable to Windows Search’s Indexing Options control panel. In the Spotlight preferences, you can check or uncheck anything you do no or do not, respectively, want to appear in Spotlight results.

If you grab and drag any of these categories, you can change the order in which they appear, so if you wanted images or documents to show first, you’d drag them to the top.

Check out the bottom of the preferences. You can turn off the keyboard shortcuts or change them. You’ll also want to remember the shortcut for Finder searches – “Option + Command + Space” – which will immediately open the Finder Spotlight search we showed you in the previous section.

We should point out that Spotlight provides results now from Bing. Yes, that’s right Apple’s flagship desktop OS provides web results from one of its biggest rivals. Regardless, what you should know is that your local searches won’t be local unless you uncheck “Bing Web Searches.” Users who are concerned about their privacy and don’t want their searches being sent to Bing’s servers will definitely be interested in this.

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Speaking of privacy, if you click “Privacy” you can prevent Spotlight from searching folders or disk locations.

Feel free to drag locations onto the list from Finder or click the + sign in the bottom-left corner of the Privacy preferences to add locations. Click the location, or hold “Command” to select multiple locations, then click “Choose” when you’re finished.

Your private locations will be listed now in the Privacy window. If you want to remove any locations, click the minus sign (-).

Keep in mind, these locations will still be accessible from the Finder, they just won’t show up in Spotlight searches.

Other Spotlight Tips and Tricks

So that’s an overview of Spotlight. It should be pretty simple to pick up, but there’s a few other bonus bits of knowledge we want to leave you with before we wrap up. Select a result, which has a local, accessible path (stuff like mail won’t work), and hold down the “Command” key. Spotlight will display the path in the preview pane (highlighted in red).

Hold down the “Option” key and the you can zoom the preview (click and hold to pan around).

Click and hold a result and then drag it to the Desktop or another folder to copy it.

There’s no need in many cases to even open the associated source, you can see a preview right there in the Spotlight window. For example, we don’t need to actually use the Dictionary app to see the definition. We can just select the “Definition” result and see it in Spotlight’s preview.

Don’t feel like opening up the Calculator? No problem, you can do calculations in Spotlight.

Another great tip, if you want to open locations, you type “~/[location]”. For example, if you wanted to open the Desktop, you would type “~/desktop” and the Finder will open to the Desktop.

Finally, you can highlight a result, and then press “Command + Enter” to show it in Finder, then you can simply hit “Space” to have a quick look.

It’s easy to see why Spotlight is so cool. It’s easy to use, yet it can perform so many powerful actions. With the release of Yosemite however, OS X has moved Spotlight from its lonely screen corner to front-and-center. We think it’s a small but elegant change, which will foster and encourage its use.

OS X isn’t really an operating system that you want to spend time browsing locations. Not when Spotlight is so effective at returning results, and if you’ve ever used Windows Search or tried your hand at Boolean, then Spotlight should be a natural transition.

In any event, we’d love to know what you think. Did we forget anything? Have a favorite Spotlight trick you like to use? Let us know by sounding off in our discussion forum!

Matt Klein is an aspiring Florida beach bum, displaced honorary Texan, and died-in-wool Ohio State Buckeye, who fancies himself a nerd-of-all-trades. His favorite topics might include operating systems, BBQ, roller skating, and trying to figure out how to explain quantum computers.

  • Published 11/3/14
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