Beginners start here: Quick Look

Sean McNamara
24 April, 2008
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Leopard’s Quick Look function is sort of "Preview on steroids" yet super-simple to use. Quick Look is worth reviewing because of how much it can do "out of the box" and how flexible it is.

At its simplest, Quick Look provides you with a high-resolution preview of the contents of a file without you having to open an application. Have a .jpg file you’d like to check before e-mailing? Click on the file, press the space bar and a black window opens showing the file’s contents (press the space bar again and it goes away).

There are other controls on that window, too — the diagonal arrows will display the preview full-screen and the stylised iPhoto icon will add the file to iPhoto (if it’s a file type iPhoto can handle). You can also resize the preview window by dragging the usual control at the lower right hand corner of the window.

Quick Look is a lot more interesting than that. Have an audio or movie file you’d like to preview? Quick Look those file types and you’ll get a mini media player in which you can play the file — you can pause and choose your play point as well. Music files will also have basic information about the file (including album art if it’s present) within the Quick Look window, too. You can scroll through PDFs (and anything else multi-page like Word files, presentations, long file lists, etc.) and look at worksheets within Excel workbooks.

The list of supported file types is extensive, although finding a definitive list is difficult. I’ve found reference on Apple’s site to Quick Look supporting "images, text files, PDF documents, movies, Keynote presentations, Mail attachments, and Microsoft Word and Excel files", but I know it also supports audio files, PowerPoint presentations, .icalevent files, .html files and e-mail .emlx files, amongst others.

For files it doesn’t support (and for folders, applications, disks, network shares, etc.) Quick Look displays a large icon of the item and some basic information. The amount of information varies according to the type of item — network shares and disks only show the share name with the icon, whereas applications and document files also display file size and last modified date (applications also show the version and documents the file type).

One of the really nice things about Quick Look is that it’s extensible. Apple has made it relatively straightforward for developers to create Quick Look plug-ins which allow the previewing of otherwise unsupported filetypes. If you want to check out the contents of .zip files, QuarkXPress 7 files, Installer packages or .eps files (amongst others), head on over to the QLPlugins web site.

Quick Look can also act as a quick and dirty slideshow presenter. Select the files you want to view as a slideshow and press the space bar to call up Quick Look — click the Play triangle, and the file previews will play just like a "real" slideshow, either in the Quick Look window, or full screen if you click the diagonal arrows.

One use of Quick Look I’d never really considered until last week was comparing two files, such as two Excel spreadsheets, before opening the one I want. By invoking Quick Look when two (or more) files are selected, then clicking the thumbnail icon (four boxes in a 2×2 grid), the previews are shown all at once. With Excel 2008 and Word 2008 being anything but sprightly to launch (and generating several hundred console log messages a minute), this is a great way to minimise my time in those apps (and the log files from growing too big) by making sure I’m opening only the file I want.

This works in conjunction with Spotlight too. Say you do a search for a content item such as "Macworld" and several similar-looking results come up. Select each in the Spotlight list, press the space bar, and you get a full preview without having to open anything. No more guesswork!

Oh, and leaving Quick Look invoked while you navigate around your Mac will change the preview (or slideshow if you’ve got one playing) to that of the currently selected item/s. You can navigate with the mouse or the keyboard (the latter allowing you to have an arbitrarily timed slideshow, for example).

All in all, I think Quick Look is the Leopard technology which has changed the way I use my Mac the most. I was already doing backups (although Time Machine’s simplicity is nice) and I already had multiple virtual screens (Spaces’ simplicity is nice, too) — but I open a lot of files, and finding the right one via Quick Look without having to open an application is extraordinarily useful.

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