Become a Spotlight Super User

Spotlight has been an integral part of OS X for the better part of the last decade. This Swiss army knife utility may seem like a simple search bar, but there's a ton more functionality just beneath the surface.
Today we're going to dive into the basics of what Spotlight is and how to use it, then go much further and tour the advanced functionality and features that you may not even know exist!

What is Spotlight?

At its core, Spotlight is a way to search for things on your Mac. Your Mac has thousands and thousands of files on it and when you need something but don't know where to look, or have simply lost that file that you put in some random folder six months ago, Spotlight will save the day.
Each Spotlight location has its own strengths and weaknesses and knowing what feature to use where will significantly improve your Spotlight productivity.
Spotlight is located in two primary places on your Mac, both of which are placed out of the way of distraction but just close enough to get to in a flash when you need to.
The first location is accessible by clicking the ever-present Spotlight icon at the far top right of your screen. This brings up a simple search bar that awaits your input.
The menu bar Spotlight
The second Spotlight location is at the top right of a Finder window. You might be tempted to think that the two are exactly the same but they actually aren't. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses and knowing what feature to use where will significantly improve your Spotlight productivity.
The Finder Spotlight
In both locations, Spotlight shows and refines the results live as you type. These days that doesn't seem very impressive but if you ever used OS X search before Spotlight came around you'll definitely appreciate the amazing speed behind it.
The bottom line is, even if you're brand new to OS X, it's pretty easy to wrap your mind around the concept of a search. Spotlight works exactly like you think it will, but there are some powerful features that you might never discover on your own. Let's take a look at all of the major aspects and features of this impressive utility.

Setup & Customization

Before we jump into actually using Spotlight, let's take a minute to learn how to set it up the way that you want it. Most people will find it perfectly usable right out of the box, but for those who love to tinker, customization options always make an app or utility feel more powerful and friendly.
To set up Spotlight, launch System Preferences and find the Spotlight icon in the first row. This should take you to a very simple window with three main purposes.

Search Categories

The first thing that you can customize in Spotlight is the search categories. You should see a big list of the different types of items that Spotlight will show in its search results, everything from Applications to fonts.
Drag to rearrange Spotlight Categories
Each category has a little checkbox next to it, which allows you disable that category from the search results. Use caution here, you don't want to severely limit the usefulness of Spotlight by restricting it to only a few categories. That being said, the results can be a little overwhelming so turning off categories that you will genuinely never use can make the entire utility seem more manageable.
You can click and drag these items to rearrange them, which affects their order in your actual search results.
The interesting thing about this category list that I personally really never paid attention to until recently was the fact that you can click and drag these items to rearrange them, which affects their order in your actual search results.
This is a really great feature that allows you to give priority to the types of items that you typically find yourself searching for. For instance, if you find yourself using Spotlight primarily for searching contacts and iCal appointments, you should consider moving those near the top of the list.

Keyboard Shortcuts

Typically, I don't mess too much with the default Spotlight setup for categories. One area that I do tweak instantly on a new machine though is the shortcuts associated with Spotlight.
You'll find the controls for these at the bottom of the Spotlight Preference Pane. These are typical OS X shortcut fields, simply insert your cursor and press your desired key combination to set a shortcut. You can set one for both the menu bar Spotlight location and the Finder window location.
Spotlight Keyboard Shortcuts
The default shortcut for Spotlight is Command+Space, which is fine for most users, but this gets in the way of Photoshop, which uses the same shortcut for a quick zoom. Consequently, I like to change Spotlight to something else.
The default shortcut for Spotlight is Command+Space, which is fine for most users, but this gets in the way of Photoshop, which uses the same shortcut for a quick zoom.
While we're on the topic of keyboard shortcuts, it's worth noting that the old Command-F shortcut that you used to launch a search in Finder before Spotlight still works as a way to bring up a Spotlight windowed search (this isn't a global shortcut, it only works in a few places like Finder and System Preferences).


For whatever reason, there might be files and folders on your machine that you simply don't want Spotlight to search. Whether you're ashamed of the contents of these folders or just don't want extra search clutter, you can ditch them pretty easily.
Spotlight allows you to exclude folders from search results
From the Spotlight Preference Pane, click the "Privacy" tab near the top of the window. From here, click the little "+" to browse to the location that you'd like to exclude. It's as easy as that!
It's important to note that this isn't a very secure way to protect your privacy. This option isn't password protected so if I sit down at your machine, it's pretty easy for me to see and disable any exclusions that you've made.
It's a good practice to make sure your entire computer is password protected, especially if you tend to travel with it. Try going to the "Security" pane, and setting your computer to require a password when it wakes so that no one can sit down and use your machine without your permission.

Cool Things You Can Do With Spotlight

Now that you have Spotlight set up exactly the way you want it from a category, shortcut and privacy perspective, it's time to learn about some of the cool ways that you can use it. Obviously, it's a utility for file search. That is both its most basic and most advanced feature, so we'll save it for later. For now, let's look at some other things to do with Spotlight.
As I mentioned before, the windowed Spotlight and the menu bar Spotlight possess different features. Unless otherwise stated, you can assume that the features in this section apply mainly to the menu bar location.

Launch Apps

I imagine that one of the first third party apps that many Mac users install on a new machine is some sort of app launcher. Launchpad is a mess, the dock is handy but limited, only app launchers give you the power to launch absolutely any application on your machine in mere seconds.
Like most of you, I'm a big fan of third party app launchers like Alfred and Quicksilver because of their advanced feature sets, but if all you're looking for is something to launch apps at the speed of typing, Spotlight is really all you need.
The default category setup that we saw above for Spotlight places applications at the very top of the list. As long as you don't change this, Spotlight is an awesome little app laucher. Just as with Quicksilver, you just hit your keyboard shortcut, type the first few letters in the name of an app and hit enter to launch it.
Spotlight is an awesome app launcher
Because Spotlight updates the results live as you type, there's no need to type the full name of an app. Just type until the results are filtered enough so that your desired app is the top result and you're ready to go. You can also use the arrow keys to jump down to a result.

Grab a Quick Definition

Another great use for Spotlight is to grab a quick definition. So if I mention how this article was an exercise in lucubration, you can hit up Spotlight to see just what the heck I mean.
Use Spotlight as a dictionary
Looking up a word in Spotlight is as simple as typing it in. Near the bottom of your results window you should see the "Look Up" option, which provides you with a definition from the OS X dictionary.
There are two different ways to use this search result. The first is to click on it, which brings up the actual Dictionary app with the definition of the word loaded in. A more convenient route is simply to hover over the result, which pops up a temporary window that shows the definition.
Tip: In many OS X apps, you can hit Command+Control+D while hovering over a word to see a pop up window with a definition.

Make Calculations

Spotlight covers reading, writing and even arithmetic. Whenever you need to make a basic calculation, you rarely need to actually launch the calculator app, Spotlight is faster and more convenient!
To use the calculation features in Spotlight, simply launch it and begin typing some numbers. You can type something simple like 148*78 or take it further and throw in some parentheses to manipulate the order of operations.
Basic math in Spotlight
Your answer should be shown near the top of the Spolight results, hover over it and hit Command+C to put it in the clipboard.
If you find yourself needing more advanced calculations, Spotlight may still have you covered. There are a number of special functions supported: square roots, factorials, pi, logarithms and more.
Spotlight has some mad math skills
Tip: Just a friendly warning, Spotlight has had some weird rounding tendencies in the past with complex equations. If you're using it for anything important, you may want to check its results against something else!

Search Through a Sea of Menu Items

There's a third handy Spotlight location that I haven't mentioned yet: directly in the file menu of every app. Launch any native or third party application on your machine and chances are pretty good that you'll find a menu item labelled "Help" at the far right of the list along the top of the screen.
As you no doubt guessed, this allows you to search the help files related to a given app for whatever you're having trouble with. The other purpose of this menu though is a little less obvious: it helps you find menu commands.
Use Spotlight to find menu commands
Let's say you're in Photoshop with its wealth of menu options and you know that somewhere there's an option to rotate your canvas ninety degrees, you just can't remember where. Simply type "rotate" into this Help menu Spotlight implementation and you'll see a list of all of the menu items that contain that word.
From here you can click on the items directly to activate them, or even better, hover over one to see it suddenly revealed in its original location so that you can learn where it lives.

Search Wikipedia and The Web

Another great feature that you'll find in Spotlight is the ability to search Google and/or Wikipedia. To do this, jump down the to very bottom of your search results and you should see an option for either action,
Searching the web will bring up a new window in your default browser but searching Wikipedia will actually bring up the Wikipedia tab on the built-in dictionary app.
Use Spotlight to search Wikipedia

Search Your Files

Obviously, the most important feature of Spotlight is its ability to search through pretty much everything on your Mac, often in a split second.
To launch a Spotlight search, hit your designated shortcut and simply begin to type. This of course will apply to menu bar Spotlight implementation. When you do this, Spotlight doesn't give you a big mess of results, instead you'll see a highly targeted and neatly organized list of some of the files that meet your criteria.
Menu bar results are organized by file type
As you can see, each file is categorized by its file type. I'm sure you instinctively know that Spotlight is perfect for finding all your basic file types such as PDFs, text documents and the like, but it goes much further than that. Nearly any search you would normally run inside of an app, such as Mail, can be started right here in Spotlight.
Here are some of the things you can but might not think to use Spotlight to search:
  • Mail Messages
  • iTunes Music
  • Contacts
  • Web History
  • Preference Panes

Seeing is Believing

One of the newer tricks that Spotlight has added in recent versions of OS X is the ability to preview files with Quick Look. All you have to do is hover over one of the results in the big list and a little pop-up window will fly out to the left with a preview (hold Command to make this happen faster).
Spotlight has built-in Quick Look previews
This is actually a really robust little feature that handles most file types you can throw at it: movies, audio files, text documents, PDFs, Mail conversations, web pages and more.

Viewing the Full Results

As you've probably noticed, the main Spotlight interface really only shows you the tip of the iceberg. These are Spotlight's best guess as to what you're looking for and don't at all represent everything it has found.
This is an important point of differentiation between the menu bar Spotlight implementation and the version in the Finder window, which shows all of the results.
Fortunately, you can jump from the former to the latter pretty easily by hitting the very top result: "Show All in Finder". When you do this, a Finder window will pop up with your search query.
Viewing more results
Knowing how to navigate your way from here really increases your success with Spotlight. The first thing that you need to know is that you computer will either be set to search the active folder or "This Mac" by default. You can change this behavior in Finder's Preferences (I prefer the folder search option). Regardless of the default, you can switch what's currently being searched by clicking on the little buttons at the top of the window, note that "Shared" is another option.
Finder Spotlight results
Another helpful way to improve your search success rate is to simply change the way the they're presented. Activate the list view to maximize viewing efficiency and then choose to organize your results in some way: date modified, kind, etc.
Organized results are much easier to sort through

Refining Your Search Results

The most powerful way to boost the success of your searches is to refine your results based on the specific attributes of whatever you happen to be attempting to find.
There are actually several different ways to go about this. For starters, as you type in the search field in a Finder window, you'll see the matching filters appear. Simply click on one to apply it.
So for instance, if I type in "November" I'll see an option to restrict the results to that time period. You can even chain these together to really create a powerful filter.
Filtering results
The same results can be achieved with the little filter controls at the top of the Finder window. Just hit the little "+" button and continue adding filters until you see the result you're looking for.
Filtering results

Saved Searches

Once you get used to the process, building custom searches is an extremely helpful tool, especially when you convert them into Smart Folders with the little "Save" button.
For example, I can easily set up a Smart Folder that shows me all of the items in my "Work" folder that have been opened in the last day or two. This gives me a convenient list of everything I've been working on lately.
Saved searches can save you tons of time

Powerful File Attribute Searches

The really neat trick that very few users know about is that you can actually perform some fancy custom searches right from the menu bar Spotlight. It requires you to remember some geeky syntax, but it can legitimately lead to some super fast custom searches.


Before we get into attribute searching, it's interesting to note that you can use boolean syntax to run a search. For instance, "time NOT machine" will search for the term "time" in my files while excluding anything related to Time Machine. You can also use "AND" to add to a search or "-" instead of "NOT".
A Spotlight boolean search

File Attributes

The big realization though is that you can use a colon to define various attributes for your search. For example, including "kind:history" in your search will limit it to your browsing history.
Spotlight allows searching of file attributes
The list of the possible file attributes goes on and on. Here are some handy searches that you should try:
  • "kind:music" will search for a song
  • "georgia by:mayer" will search for songs with "georgia" in the name artists named "Mayer"
  • "category:music" will search your apps for those related to music
  • "name:mac kind:pdf" will search for a PDF with "mac" in the name
  • "modified:07/10/12" will search for files modified on that date (also works with "created")
If you know of any other useful attributes, let us know in the comment section, I'd love to see some more examples!

The Spotlight Plugin Blues

The sad fact is that this market is fairly stagnant with no real surges of content in the last few years.
One interesting thing about Spotlight that falls short of its promise is Spotlight plugins. The fact that Spotlight even supports plugins opens up a ton of cool possibilities, but the sad fact is that this market is fairly stagnant with no real surges of content in the last few years.
If you're in the market for a list of Spotlight plugins, Find Mac Stuff and Softpedia each have one, but don't expect to be too impressed. Both Quicksilver and Alfred seem to do far better on the plugin front than Spotlight.
If you do want to install or uninstall a Spotlight plugin, check the Spotlight folder inside of the Library folder: "~/Library/Spotlight"

Tell Us Your Spotlight Tricks!

After reading the massive tome of Spotlight knowledge above you should be a real professional, ready to search out and find any file on your Mac in a matter of seconds.
Help keep the discussion going by telling us about some of your Spotlight tips and tricks. How do you use Spotlight daily? Are there any cool plugins that you'd recommend? Do you use saved searches? Let us know!


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