There are two kinds of Mac users: those who use Spotlight constantly, and those who ignore it.

If you’re in the second category, that’s too bad: everything about using a Mac gets faster with Spotlight. This search tool doubles as a text-based Siri alternative, and with just a few keystrokes, you can launch or look up anything. Getting started couldn’t be easier: just click the little magnifying glass.

But if you really want to be quick, don’t click: press Command+Space on your keyboard to launch Spotlight. If you only learn one Mac keyboard shortcut, make it this one. You’ll instantly see a blank search window.

What can this search box do? A lot: just start typing. Let’s dive in, starting with the basics and working our way toward lesser known features.

Getting Started: Looking for Files

The basic functionality of Spotlight is instant search of every file on your computer. A very simple use for this is to launch software: just type the name of the program.

Results will pop up instantly as you type, and you can hit “Enter” right away to launch an app or game. It feels silly at first, but it’s actually faster than clicking an icon somewhere—you never even have to take your hands off the keyboard. Once you get used to it, you will seriously wonder why you ever opened software any other way.

You can also use this to launch individual panels in the System Preferences, again just by typing the name.

This becomes really useful when you need to quickly find a file. If you want to quickly find a photo you took in Paris, just hit Command+Space and search for the word “Paris.”

In the above example, you’ll notice that music came up before photos. No matter: you can use the up and down arrow keys to quickly jump from item to item. As you scroll through the photos, you’ll see thumbnails in the right panel.

Searches look at filenames, but in the case of documents, Spotlight also looks inside the file. For example: way back in college, I helped publish a parody publication that was “written” by a cat named Muffles. All these years later, searching Spotlight for “Muffles” brings up the document, even though “muffles” is nowhere in the filename.

If you’re like me, sometimes you can’t remember where you put a document, or what its filename was. In those cases, typing a phrase you know is in the document can help. You can open the document by hitting Enter, or see where it is in the Finder by hitting Command+Enter.

If you want to get fancy, you can also use basic boolean queries, including OR, AND, and NOT. It’s usually not necessary, but good to have sometimes.

Searching for Files With Natural Language

RELATED: How to Use Natural Language Search in OS X's Spotlight

Spotlight is useful enough for simple searches alone, but you can go deeper by using natural language. What does this mean? That you can type surprisingly specific queries and get the results you’d expect. For example: type “pictures from december 2015” and you will see only photos from that specific month.

You can use similar language to find documents from last week, videos from last Tuesday, or applications installed in March.

RELATED: How to Use Natural Language Search in OS X's Spotlight

We’ve talked a lot more about how to use natural language searches in Spotlight, so check that article out for more depth: there’s a lot to figure out here.

Take It to the Finder

As we said before: you can see any search result in the Finder by pressing Command+Enter while it’s highlighted. But it’s also possible to bring your searches to the Finder, where there’s a much more nuanced set of controls. To do this, scroll down to the bottom of your results, then click “Show all in Finder.”

If you’d rather not scroll down to the bottom of the list, you can use the keyboard shortcut Option+Command+Space instead—this will launch the Finder instantly.

From here you can browse through all of the results, or you can further refine things by clicking the “+” button at top-right. This will allow you to add additional queries.

If you use a search like this often, you can even hit the “Save” button at top-right to add it to your Finder sidebar. That way you can see the results anytime.

Spotlight Internet Tricks

So far we’ve focused on Spotlight’s local capabilities, but it also offers a lot of Internet content. For example, if you want the weather, just type “Weather.”

Or, if you prefer, you can also request the weather in a particular place by typing, for example, “weather in buffalo NY.”

The trick also works for sports scores. Type “NHL scores” and you’ll see a schedule for today and a few recent scores.

There are a few more tricks like this. For example, type “define” followed by any word to see a quick definition from the web.

You can also use Spotlight as a quick calculator.

There are a few more features hidden here: stock prices, currency conversion, online videos, even results from Maps if you’re looking for the location of a nearby business. It’s not quite as feature complete as Siri in macOS, but it’s got a lot of the same features, so give it a shot. Apple seems to add new features with every release.

Customize Spotlight Content and Order

Maybe you’re not a huge fan of these Internet results, or any particular category of results. No problem: just open up the System Preferences, then head to the Spotlight section. From here you can disable any category of results

RELATED: How to Use Natural Language Search in OS X's Spotlight

If you installed Xcode at some point, your results might have all kinds of system files that aren’t really useful to you. We’ve explained how to disable those developer results, and it might be a touch more complicated than you’d like if you deleted XCode.

You can also disable specific folders from coming up in search queries, by heading to the “Privacy” tab.

This can be a good way to keep any collections you might have private from other users of your computer, or to keep things like ebooks from cluttering up results. I find that long books tend to dominate results, because they contain just about every common word.

A Complete List of Spotlight Keyboard Shortcuts

To really get the most out of Spotlight, you should really learn all of its keyboard shortcuts. It makes browsing search results a lot easier. Happily, there’s an official list of Spotlight keyboard shortcuts on the Apple website; here’s a quick summary.

  • Command+Space will launch Spotlight
  • The Right Arrow will complete the search using the currently selected result, turning your query into the full name of that item.
  • The Up and Down Arrows let you browse through the list.
  • Command Up and Command Down let you jump between categories of results.
  • Enter allows you to open the currently selected result.
  • Command+R or Command+Enter will show you the current result in the Finder.
  • Option+Command+Space will open the current search in the Finder, so you can drill down with more tools.
  • Command+L will jump to the definition for any search term.
  • Command+B will look up your search term using the default search engine in your default browser.
  • Command+I will open the “Get Info” window for the result.
  • Command+C will copy the result, just like it would in the Finder.

That’s most of what we could find. We hope some of this makes Spotlight more useful for you, and that you won’t hesitate to get in touch with any other tips.

Profile Photo for Justin Pot Justin Pot
Justin Pot has been writing about technology for over a decade, with work appearing in Digital Trends, The Next Web, Lifehacker, MakeUseOf, and the Zapier Blog. He also runs the Hillsboro Signal, a volunteer-driven local news outlet he founded.
Read Full Bio »