How to Overhaul macOS’ Spotlight Search Using Alfred

Spotlight Search on macOS has gotten a lot better over the last few years, but there’s still so much potential that’s missing. Enter Alfred, which is similar to Spotlight Search, but on some major steroids.

What Can Alfred Do?

In essence, Alfred is a Spotlight Search replacement. It’s not quite as smart as Spotlight Search at first (e.g. typing “Red Sox” wouldn’t show you sports scores in Alfred like it would in Spotlight Search), but with some customization and add-ons, you can make Alfred do so much more than Spotlight Search ever could.

Alfred does have some basic features that make it stand out right away, like its web search functionality. This allows you to quickly search a handful of different sites like Google, Wikipedia, IMDB, Amazon, and more. You can even add your own custom search protocols for specific websites that you frequent.

If you buy the Powerpack (more about that down below), you get even more capabilities, like text expansion and “Workflows“. Workflows are basically macros that let you assign a keystroke to an action, like opening up iTunes and turning up the volume when you enter “music” into the Alfred bar. It’s very similar to AutoHotkey or Keyboard Maestro.

Workflows can also add further capabilities to Alfred, like the ability to convert different units, create timers, look up movie ratings, and even control your Philips Hue lights right from the Alfred bar.

If you’re convinced, here’s how to set up Alfred and get going in no time.

Step One: Download and Install Alfred

To download Alfred, visit the app’s websitedon’t download it from the Mac App Store, since the company abandoned the Mac App Store (probably due to dumb restrictions by Apple).

Once on the Alfred website, click on “Download Alfred 3”. After it’s done downloading (which should take less than a minute, depending on your internet connection), double-click the .DMG file to open it up and begin the installation process.

Drag the Alfred icon into the Applications folder, just like you would with any other app you’re installing on your Mac.

Next, open up the Applications folder and double-click the Alfred app to fire it up for the first time.

Once open, Alfred will continue to run in the background, and if you have “Launch Alfred at login” enabled, it will automatically begin to run whenever you boot up your computer.

Step Two: Change Alfred’s Hotkey

The first thing you’ll want to do is change the hotkey for bringing up Alfred, which is a bit different than bringing up Spotlight Search. By default, Spotlight Search uses Command+Space, and since we’ll want to replace Spotlight Search with Alfred, we’ll need to change the Alfred hotkey to Command+Space.

This step is technically optional, but our goal is to replace Spotlight Search, so we want to change the hotkey Alfred uses to the one that Spotlight Search normally uses. You can use a different hotkey for both if you want to continue using Spotlight Search alongside Alfred, but that would be needlessly redundant.

Before we can change Alfred’s hotkey, though, we need to disable Spotlight Search’s hotkey so that Alfred can use it. To do this, open up System Preferences and click on “Spotlight”.

Down at the bottom, click on “Keyboard Shortcuts”.

Click on the checkmark next to “Show Spotlight Search” to uncheck it.

Next, go back to the main Alfred window and click inside the box next to “Alfred Hotkey”.

Press Command+Space on your keyboard to change Alfred’s hotkey to that same keystroke. Now, whenever you hit Command+Space on your keyboard, Alfred will pop up instead of Spotlight Search.

Step Three: Learn About and Customize Alfred

Once you have Alfred all ready to go, you’ll want to take some time to look through the different menus and features to not only learn about what all Alfred can do, but to customize the settings to your specific needs. Most of these things are within the “Features” tab.

To make things a bit easier for you, though, here’s a rundown of the different sidebar menus available to you within the “Features” tab:

  • Default Results: Default results show up in the Alfred bar when you just enter in a generic search term without a keyword first. This is where you can customize default results.
  • File Search: This is where you can customize and modify how you search for files in the Alfred bar, like changing keywords and excluding certain results from showing up.
  • Web Search: Here you can create a list of different websites that you can search from the Alfred bar. As mentioned above, there are already some there by default to get you started, but you can create your own.
  • Calculator: Settings for the calculator feature of Alfred. There’s not much to change here, though.
  • Dictionary: Settings for the dictionary feature. You can change the language, as well as the keywords for enabling the dictionary in the Alfred bar.
  • Contacts: Customize how Alfred handles your contacts that are stored on your Mac. You can also send emails to a contact from the Alfred bar. This is a paid Powerpack feature.
  • Clipboard: Alfred can save your clipboard history in case you copied something but forgot to paste it, or something like that. In this menu, you can customize these settings. This is a paid Powerpack feature.
  • Snippets: This is where you can create and manage your text expansion macros. The best thing is that you don’t need the Alfred bar at all to use snippets—they work pretty much in any text field. This is a paid Powerpack feature.
  • iTunes: This is where you can customize the iTunes integration, which allows you to control your music right from the Alfred bar. This is a paid Powerpack feature.
  • 1Password: If you use 1Password, you can integrate it into Alfred, allowing you to search for a password and immediately go to that website and login. This is a paid Powerpack feature.
  • System: This is where you can customize all of the different system commands you can give your Mac from the Alfred bar, like sleep, restart, lock, and even quit apps.
  • Terminal/Shell: This allows you to execute shell or Terminal commands right from the Alfred bar. There’s not a lot to customize here, but it’s pretty basic in the first place. This is a paid Powerpack feature.

As for the other tabs at the top of the window, there’s “Workflows”, “Appearance”, “Advanced”, and “Remote”. Here’s a quick rundown of those features:

  • Workflows: These are what make Alfred so great. I already sort of explained Workflows up top, so I won’t bore you again, but I will say that you can also install pre-created Workflows on top of creating your own, and there are a lot of great Workflows that users have created on the Alfred Forums and on Packal.
  • Appearance: This is where you can customize the look of Alfred, as well as where you want the bar to pop up on your screen.
  • Advanced: An assortment of miscellaneous settings that you probably won’t need to mess with, but they’re there just in case.
  • Remote: This is where you can set up and customize Alfred Remote, which can turn your iPhone or iPad into a screen full of different shortcuts that execute on your Mac.

Overall, the best way to learn how to use Alfred is to just experiment with it, and if you ever discover something that you can’t do with Alfred, then there’s probably a Workflow that you can create or install to add that specific capability.

About the Powerpack

Alfred is free to use, but you can unlock a handful of extra features at a cost, called the Powerpack. I highly recommend getting it because it gives you features like text expansion, integration with different apps (namely iTunes and 1Password, but also through Workflows), the ability to run shell and Terminal commands right from the Alfred bar, and access to Workflows that I’ve mentioned several times already.

The only downside is the price. The Powerpack costs $25, which is only good through a single version of Alfred, but you can spend $46 to get free lifetime support. In other words, if you buy the Powerpack now, it will only be good for Alfred v3. If the company were to ever release an Alfred v4, you’d have to buy the Powerpack again if you went with the cheapest option to begin with.

The good news is that with the Powerpack, Alfred essentially replaces a handful of paid apps that you would normally still spend money for, like TextExpander ($40/year) and Keyboard Maestro ($36), so it evens out in the end.

Craig Lloyd writes about smarthome for How-To Geek, and is an aspiring handyman who loves tinkering with anything and everything around the house. He's also a mediocre gamer, aviation geek, baseball fan, motorcyclist, and proud introvert.