Best tips and tricks for Spotlight searches in OS X

Spotlight tips and tricks for OS X on the Apple Mac

Many Mac users regard Spotlight as one of the Apple Mac’s best features and this OS X component provides a wide range of functions, from searches to definitions. Here’s how to get more from it.

Spotlight preferences

Customising Spotlight’s preferences is essential and it enables you to choose what information is displayed. Go to the Apple menu in the top left corner and click System Preferences. Click Spotlight.

On the Search Results tab, clear the tick boxes next to any items you want to exclude from the search results. Do you ever search for fonts with Spotlight? Clear the tick box if you don’t. Do you search for movies using Spotlight? Clear the tick if you don’t. The fewer searches categories there are, the faster Spotlight will run and the more relevant the results will be.

Spotlight preferences in OS X on the Apple Mac

Up until recently, you could drag the categories up or down the list to change the order in which the results appear. This is no longer a feature in OS X. It seems Apple decided that we don’t need to do that.

There may be some folders that you never want to include in Spotlight searches. For example, you might not want folders containing personal documents with private information turning up in searches.

Select the Privacy tab, click the plus button at the bottom and select a folder to exclude from search results. Repeat this to add more folders.

Spotlight preferences in OS X on the Apple Mac

Keyboard shortcuts

Click the magnifying glass icon in the top right corner of the screen or press Command+spacebar to open Spotlight. Type a search word or phrase and the results start appearing.

Command+arrow key: Results are organised into categories and pressing Command+down arrow jumps down to the next category of results and Command+up arrow jumps to the previous one. This can be very useful when the category you want is right down near the bottom.

Command+L: The the word you enter has a dictionary definition, pressing Command+L will jump to the entry in the search results.

Command+B: Press this keyboard shortcut and the Spotlight search switches to a web search. Safari opens and a web search is performed on the word or phrase you entered into Spotlight.

Command: Select a file, document, image, folder or some other item on the disk drive in the search results and hold down command. in the bottom right corner of the Spotlight window is the path to the item.

Get the path to a file in Spotlight in OS X on the Apple Mac

Esc: Press Esc once to clear a search so you can search for something else. Press it again to close Spotlight. If you don’t use Esc and just click away, the Spotlight search and results are remembered and are displayed the next to you call up Spotlight.

Enter: Press Enter to select an item, for example, to open an application or file. Press Command+Enter to open a Finder window displaying the folder where that item can be found. If you search for an application, for instance, and press Command+Enter the Finder opens and displays the Applications folder.

Tab: Some results, such as folders, list several items on the right side of the Spotlight window. Press Tab to move the highlight to the right and then use the up/down arrow keys to move the selection.

Use tab in Spotlight in OS X on the Apple Mac

Show all

When searching for files like images, documents, and so on. If you mouse over the category in the results, Show all... appears. Click it and a Finder window opens with the search term entered in the search box. Press Enter and a standard Finder search shows all occurrences of the item.

Spotlight in OS X on the Apple Mac

View recent files

When you want to run an app and open a document, you don’t need to find the app in Applications or find the file in Documents, Spotlight can help. Press Command+spacebar and enter the app name. On the right is a list of recently opened/saved documents.

Support for this is patchy and not all apps provide document lists. Many Apple apps like Pages, Preview and TextEdit work great and you can tab over to the right and select a file to open it in the app. Some other apps also support this feature, such as TextWrangler. Try it with some of the apps you regularly use on your Mac.

Find recently opened files in Spotlight in OS X on the Apple Mac

Search for kinds

Spotlight can produce too many results and it takes time and effort to find the item you are looking for. Narrow the search to a specific item using kind. Here are some examples:

Enter calculator into Spotlight and there are lots of different results. Enter calculator kind:app and only one result is displayed, the Calculator app.

Suppose you want to find something in an email. Enter the search word in Spotlight and add kind:email. For example, apple kind:email will show all emails that contain ‘apple’.

Use these kinds to filter Spotlight results - kind:pdf, kind:audio, kind:image, kind:movie, kind:event (Calendar events), kind:reminder, kind:folder, kind:contact.

Search for kinds of files in in Spotlight in OS X on the Apple Mac

Units conversion 

Spotlight can convert quantities from one unit to another, such as miles to km, pounds to kg, and so on. For example, enter 2 miles in km. It can also convert currencies too, such as $50 in euro, pounds, rupees or whatever you want.

Convert units in Spotlight in OS X on the Apple Mac


Calculator is great for getting the results of calculations, but you don’t need to run an app if you want to perform a quick sum. Press Command+spacebar and type in the calculation, such as 27 * 34 / 1.4. The result is displayed immediately.

Play movies and music

Search for movies or music files and when they are selected in the results, the album and track details or the movie is displayed on the right. Mouse over the image and a play button is displayed. Click it to listen to the music or watch the movie.

There are better ways to play music and watch movies of course, but it is useful if you are searching for something and want to preview the file before copying it elsewhere or opening it in another app.

Play music and movies in Spotlight in OS X on the Apple Mac

Have I missed anything? Are there any more Spotlight tips? Add them as a comment below.



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