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Get the Most From Spotlight

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Spotlight is the search tool that’s built into macOS and, before that, OS X. Over the last few generations of the Mac operating system, it’s become much more powerful. 

If you normally launch applications, find files, or search Google by clicking around with the mouse, then read on; I’ll change your world. 

After this tutorial, there’ll be no more clicking on Dock icons, navigating the Applications folder or using Launchpad to open an app. You won’t be digging through the Finder to get to important files. You won’t even have to open a web browser to search the internet. 

Getting Started With Spotlight 

To launch Spotlight, you’ve two options: you can use the keyboard shortcut Command-Space or you can click on the Spotlight icon in the menubar. Since I'm avoiding use of the mouse, I’ll overlook the menubar shortcut.

Spotlight as it appears in macOS Sierra.

When you trigger Spotlight, a search bar appears roughly in the centre of the screen on top of all the other windows. It even appears when you’re in full screen mode. To start searching, just type what you’re looking for.

So, for example, if you want to launch Safari, you just type SA and Spotlight will auto-suggest the rest.

simple spotlight searchsimple spotlight searchsimple spotlight search
A simple search using Spotlight.

If there’s more than one result for the search term, navigate Spotlight’s results with the Arrow-Up and Arrow-Down keys. To launch a result, press Return.

Searching With Spotlight

Before OS X Yosemite, Spotlight was quite basic. It could search for files and applications, but didn’t do a whole lot more. Since then, it’s been overhauled and now is a lot more useful. These are the things that you can use Spotlight to search for:

  • Applications on the Mac and available in the Mac App Store
  • Bing results from the web
  • Bookmarks & History in Safari
  • Contacts in iCloud or on the Mac
  • Definition of the word you're searching for with the system dictionary
  • Documents containing the search term
  • Events & Reminders with the search term
  • eBooks available in the iBooks Store with the search term
  • Folders containing the search term
  • Fonts named for the search term
  • Images with the search term in their name or other metadata
  • Locations nearby that match the search term
  • Mail & Messages where the search term appears
  • Movies with the search term in their name or other metadata on the Mac as well as in the iTunes Store
  • Movie Showtimes for nearby cinemas
  • Music with the search term in the track name or other metadata on the Mac as well as in the iTunes Store
  • News from major websites that matches the search term
  • Other unspecified file types where the search term matches their metadata
  • PDF Documents where the search term appears
  • Presentations containing the search term
  • Spreadsheets with the search term in them
  • Stocks and their prices that are relevant to the search term
  • Suggested Websites that match the search term
  • System Preferences relevant to the search term
  • Web Video that matches the search term
  • Wikipedia results for the search term

Whenever you search for something with Spotlight, it will auto-suggest some combination of the above potential results. The relevance algorithms are pretty good so it rarely fails to find the result you’re looking for, as long as you’re specific enough. 

Simple Calculations and Conversions

As well as searching the Mac and the internet, Spotlight can also do some simple calculations and conversions. If you enter “50231/361” it tells you the result is 139.144. Similarly, if you enter “57mm” you find out that’s roughly 2.24 inches. 

currency conversioncurrency conversioncurrency conversion
Currency conversion using Spotlight.

Right now, searching €100 in £ tells me that the Sterling has tanked: I get a whopping £90.09 for my money.

Controlling Privacy

Apple, more than any other consumer company, prides themselves on looking after their customers’ data. They’re not in the business of selling your email addresses, message content and search history to companies looking to target you with ads. 

Anything you enter in Spotlight is kept anonymous, however, it is used if you search other services like YouTube. If you’re concerned about the potential for your privacy to be lost, you can turn off some of these features.

configuring privacyconfiguring privacyconfiguring privacy
Configuring privacy for Spotlight.

Go to System Preferences > Spotlight (or, if you’ve been following along, just type Spotlight into the Spotlight search bar) and uncheck Spotlight Suggestions. This will confine it to local searches.

If you’re also concerned about the content of some of the files on the Mac, click the Privacy tab. You can then add any sensitive files or folders to the list of locations Spotlight won’t search.

Going Further

The updated Spotlight is much improved but it doesn’t quite compare to even more powerful options like Alfred or Launchbar

If you’ve started using Spotlight to launch apps and files and loved how much quicker it is than using the mouse, you should look into some more advanced options. 

Alfred and Launchbar can do a whole lot more than just launch apps. We’ve written about them before on Tuts+ so, for more information, check out the posts below.

Wrapping Up

Spotlight, macOS’s built-in search, is great for quickly finding applications and files. It’s always a simple keyboard shortcut away so there’s no excuse to go clicking around Finder looking for applications or important files; it’s amazing how much faster just using the keyboard is. 

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