Level: Switcher / Basic

The Scenario

You need to:

  • Find something fast
  • Find something specific
  • Get an overview of files and folders
  • Tidy up your Mac

Tips are marked with a ✪

See also: Mac Basics: Spotlight, Find anything on your Mac, Narrow down Spotlight search results

Ever wondered how Google searches 50 billion web pages in less than a second?

Part of the answer has something to do with the subject of this post.

In Google’s case there is much more going on: crawling, indexing, organising, ranking, more organising, more indexing, caching, sending your query to over 1000 custom-built computers with ultra high-speed solid-state storage and more organising to get a relevant result back to you in under 0.2 seconds…

The common factor here is indexing. Google, and other search engines had been doing it for a while, but it took until 2005 to arrive as a native function on personal computers.

Before then you would perform a search and the computer would start scanning all the files on the hard drive or directory. It would take a very long time and put strain on system resources. And the process would be repeated every time a search was performed.

With the 2005 release of MacOS X Tiger with its new Spotlight search and Windows Vista with a similar optional search, local indexed search became a reality. The difference, as the name might suggest, is comparable to trying to find a book in a huge library with – as opposed to without – a card catalogue index system.

Picture Credit: By Stuart Caie from Edinburgh, Scotland (Indexed) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

On a new installation of MacOS X, Spotlight performs an initial scan of all the files on the drive, then tracks all changes, recording not only file names and locations, but also the contents of many types of files and a large number of additional criteria based on a file’s contents, attributes, and metadata. Spotlight is in two places, each with a specific intended usage: Finder windows, and menu bar. In this tutorial we’ll cover some basic usage.

Menu Bar Spotlight

✪The shortcut for menu bar Spotlight is ⌘ spacebar – a highly-recommended habit.

Menu bar Spotlight is closer to a web search in that the results are a quick, pre-ranked cross-section of all results. It is comparable to Start Menu search in Windows.

✪Use Boolean operators AND, OR, NOT. Use type: e.g., type:pdf to get more specific results. These typed attributes also work in Finder window Spotlight.

✪Hovering over one of these results will give a QuickLook preview, particularly useful for dictionary and thesaurus definitions – hover over “Look Up”.

✪Drag and drop items from menu bar Spotlight to the Desktop or into a folder.

✪Spotlight is a great App launcher, in fact the best for when you have a large number of apps installed. Just type ⌘ spacebar, the first few letters of an app’s name, and hit enter.

✪Another great use for menu bar Spotlight is as a quick calculator. Type ⌘ spacebar, type in your equation and Spotlight will instantly deliver the result. Some available functions (x is your number): +, -, *, /, sqrt(x), pi, sin(x), cos(x), tan(x)

Go to the Apple menu | System Preferences, and click the Spotlight icon to see the options for Spotlight.

Finder window Spotlight

Finder window Spotlight is the full deal – the place where you see all your search results and finely tune what is displayed. This short tutorial is best done with Path Bar enabled.

Here’s a scenario: We have categorised our Pictures folder, but can’t remember which folder contains a particular pic. We only know what it looks like, not what it’s called.

Switch to the Finder and navigate to the Pictures folder. Start a search by typing a “.” i.e., a period (full-stop) into the search pane. It’s a character contained in almost all files, so it’s a good way to get Spotlight going.

Spotlight kicks into action, identifiable by the violet folder icon in the title bar, and starts finding all your files.

The search scope can be changed to searching the entire Mac (including connected devices) or the current folder by clicking the label in the search bar.  We will look at changing this default setting in the next installment, but for now choose “Pictures”.

Type ⌘1 to switch to icon view, then ⌘j to bring up View Options (from the View menu). You can customize the view to your liking here by, say, adjusting the Grid Spacing down and sorting the pics by Date Created.

By scrolling, you can visually identify that missing pic. If you have the Path Bar enabled, by clicking on the pic you will immediately see its location at the bottom of the window, otherwise you can right-click (ctrl-click or two-finger tap) on the pic and “Open Enclosing Folder”.

If you think you may be doing this again for this folder, click the “Save” button in the search bar. Give your saved search a name like “All Pics” and Save it. It is now available in the Sidebar as a means of quickly looking at all the pics in the Pictures folder.

Criteria and attributes

This is the part where Finder window Spotlight really shines.

Click the plus (+) sign next to the Save button. This brings up additional criteria with which we can narrow the search.

This topic will be covered extensively in the next installment in the series, but there’s no harm in experimenting here.

Next Installment: More tips for Spotlight: Criteria and attributes