macOS’ Spotlight has an image problem. The much-overlooked universal search bar never really got its due. When it was released, it was underpowered compared to third-party tools. Updates have dramatically improved Spotlight’s functionality, but it seems like the news never got out. It’s not Spotlight’s fault anymore: it’s a fast and flexible application launcher and search bar.
Spotlight also suffers from a discoverability problem. If you don’t already know Spotlight exists, you might have a hard time finding it. The same goes for Spotlight’s surprisingly broad feature list.
Here’s how novices and experienced users alike can master Spotlight and make it work for you.
You can open a Spotlight search window in two ways.
1. Press Command + Space Bar at the same time.
2. Click on the magnifying glass in the upper-right corner of your screen.
This will pop up the Spotlight window and place your cursor inside it, allowing you to type your query instantly.
Command + Space is definitely the preferred method. It’s faster and universally accessible. It will work with any app in the foreground, too. If you’re in full screen mode, Command + Space will also work, appearing directly on top of your full screen application.
1. Launching Apps with Spotlight
In simple terms, Spotlight is a very powerful search bar. It uses a pre-built cache of your system’s files and applications to make searching fast and accurate.
The simplest way to use Spotlight is by launching an application. Type the application’s name into the Spotlight bar and press Enter to launch it.
While this use might seem simplistic, it’s likely the most common use of Spotlight. When you realize it saves you the trouble of finding an application in the tangled nest of the Applications folder, it makes life much easier. This is especially true for apps like Wireless Diagnostics, which isn’t where you might think it would be. Spotlight finds it immediately, no hunting required.
2. Searching for Files on macOS
Beyond launching applications, you can search for a wide range of files. Type in the name of a file, and Spotlight will crawl your Mac’s file system to locate any files with that name.
Here’s the thing about searching for files. Spotlight tries, it really does. But it’s frequently buggy, returning incomplete or inaccurate search results when employing complicated searches. So if Spotlight falls down on a search, don’t say we didn’t warn you.
In addition to simple terms, natural language queries generally work. Searching “emails from Emily” will return those emails (provided your email is synced with Mail.app) and “messages from Sam” will get those messages.
3. Using “kind” to refine searches
File searches can get much more specific than just keywords. Use the kind:PDF qualifier to limit your search to only PDFs.
For a full list of “kind” qualifiers, check out Apple’s documentation.
4. Using Boolean operators
Spotlight supports the Boolean operators
OR. The minus sign (
-) can also be used in place of the
ANDwill only return results that match both conditions. Typically, this isn’t necessary, as adding keywords to your search is very similar to using the
NOTeliminates results that match the subsequent search term. For example, “NOT kind:PDF” would eliminate any results that are PDFs.
ORreturns results that match only one of the conditions, rather than all. For example, “author:sean OR author:shaun OR author:shawn” will return documents by Sean/Shaun/Shawn. Normally, two “author” qualifiers would lead to no results, but
ORallows you to string them together.
5. Searching by date
modified:mm/dd/yyyy, you can search Spotlight for files based on their dates. This can be combined with other operators through Boolean operators to create more specific searches.
Unfortunately, relative dates don’t work. For example,
created:today won’t return the results you would hope for.
6. Get dictionary definitions
Spotlight can also work as a pop-up reference tool. To define a word, type it in Spotlight and use the up and down arrows on your keyboard to navigate to the Dictionary item for that word.
7. Calculate simple mathematics
Spotlight performs basic mathematical calculations from the search bar. Type the
/ symbols to define your calculations and employ parentheses to mark the order of operations.
8. Convert Units
Unit conversions work the same way, including obscure and customary units. Type in the unit you want to convert and the target unit, and Spotlight will display the result. This is handy for Americans and Brits with their unusual measuring systems.
9. Using Siri Knowledge in Spotlight
Spotlight and Siri are closely linked on the Mac. In fact, the Siri voice recognition program is essentially a method for performing spotlight searches with your voice. This means that many of the Siri tricks from iOS work on the Mac.
Spotlight can hook into Siri Knowledge. This is often just a well-presented Wikipedia result, but it gives in-place background on ideas you might not be familiar with.
10. Crawling Siri’s Knowledge Graph
Using Siri’s knowledge graph, you can grab sports scores, stock prices, weather, and movie times. These are invoked with natural-language queries, but following the structure display below tends to work best.
11. Find local attractions
You can also turn up nearby local businesses, like coffee shops or restaurants. Type what you’re looking for into Spotlight, and you’ll receive results from Apple Maps in the window.
12. Search Safari History and Bookmarks
If you use Safari as your primary browser, Spotlight can search your history and bookmarks from Spotlight. This lets you navigate to websites faster and can save the step of opening Safari first.
Many years ago, Spotlight’s clunky semi-functionality was easily bested by apps like Quicksilver and Alfred. While Alfred still trumps Spotlight when it comes to extensibility and extra features, the app-launching and file-searching features of Spotlight are just as strong as any third-party tool.
Users dedicated to expansion can explore Flashlight, an open-source plugin framework for adding functionality to Spotlight. If you’re a fan of keyboard shortcuts, give Spotlight a try next time you sit down at your Mac.
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