If you’ve migrated from Windows XP, you’re likely used to its frustratingly inefficient searching capabilities. Vista and Windows 7 progressively made some gains, but it took third-party add-ons like Google Desktop (also available for Mac at desktop.google.com) to provide a vastly improved search.
However, now that you’re on a Mac you should become intimately acquainted with your new best friend: Spotlight.
It scans everything you save on your Mac, then indexes it for easy recovery. It will run when you first start your Mac, and sporadically run again when you’ve made large changes to your disk contents, such as when you restore a backup.
To use it, type Command-space or click on the magnifying glass on your desktop’s upper-right, then type in your search terms. Spotlight displays matching hits with each letter you type.
Don’t be hasty pressing Enter or you’ll get the wrong result: Spotlight displays a ‘Top Hit’ that is sometimes just what you’re looking for, but often is not.
If you press Enter before Spotlight has found the right file, you’ll be loading the wrong thing and will have to start all over.
If you don’t press enter, you can scroll up or down using the arrow keys or mouse, or select Show All to open a new window listing all the results.
This often becomes necessary because, by default, Spotlight only shows the top one to three hits for each of the 14 types of content it searches: applications, documents, messages, events & to dos, images, PDF documents, web pages, music, system preferences, contacts, movies, fonts, folders and presentations.
Customise which types of results are displayed, and in which order, using the Spotlight Preferences… option at the bottom of the popup bar. This option also lets you exclude specific folders from being searched by Spotlight, if you want.
You can limit Spotlight searches by adding parameters like ‘kind:music’ or ‘date:yesterday’ in the search bar, and add search terms to files by selecting them in Finder, pressing c-I and entering your keywords in the ‘Spotlight comments’ field.
One thing to note: you can’t drag files from the Spotlight window, or right-click (pardon me: Control-click) on them, to act on them; if you want to open a Spotlight result with a non-default application, click Show All and you’ll get a list of actionable results – or 1-click on the item and it will be opened in its enclosing folder.
If you do use Show All, you may find the results exhaustingly comprehensive: a search for the word ‘hello’ on our Mac, for example, turned up 5856 items dutifully listed in alphabetical order. Click on ‘File Name’ in the top menu bar of the Searching window (next to Contents), and the volume of results will be significantly reduced. You can also limit searches to a particular user’s files, or search for files on shared drives by clicking Shared. And clicking on the ‘Items matching text’ pulldown will let you manage your search based on other criteria.
Note the ‘Save’ and + buttons at the top right-hand corner of the Searching window. Clicking Save will create a Smart Folder (in the Saved Searches folder by default) that will be automatically added to the sidebar of your Finder windows; this is indispensable if you often need to locate specific types of files.
You can launch applications with Spotlight by typing their first few letters, type in mathematical calculations and see dictionary definitions. You can also do a Spotlight search on any word in any Cocoa-based application (Mail, TextEdit, Safari, etc) by right-clicking (Control-clicking) on it and selecting ‘Search in Spotlight’.
Used correctly and efficiently, Spotlight is an invaluable part of everyday Mac life.
This article originally appeared in the October issue of Australian Macworld magazine.