7 Spotlight Hacks That Make OS X Better

Stone bas-relief of spotlight and magnifying glass on shield
Spotlight is one of the most underused features in OS X. It not only helps you find just about any file on your Mac, but also works as a very powerful app launcher.

You can use Spotlight exactly how you want and change it to fit your exact needs, making it more powerful than you probably thought it could be. It’s easy to harness that power so you can do more on your Mac.

These seven hacks not only make Spotlight better; they make OS X better, too. If you haven’t used Spotlight much, it’s going to be your new best friend after you read this.

To open Spotlight, you can either click on the magnifying glass icon at the far right of the OS X menu bar or use the keyboard shortcut Command + Spacebar.

Now let’s take a look at what you can do with it.

1. Calculator

You can actually use Spotlight to do basic math for you. Instead of opening the Calculator app, simply open Spotlight.

Using Calculator in Spotlight search box

Type your math equation in the Spotlight search box, but don’t hit Return. Your answer will show up automatically.

If you want the Calculator to open, you can hit Return after you type the equation.

2. Dictionary

What if you need a word defined? Instead of loading the Dictionary app, just type the word into Spotlight and hover over the “Look Up” listing in the items that Spotlight finds.

Looking up a word definition in Spotlight

You can either click on the word to load it in the Dictionary app or just hover over it to get a preview of the definition.

Pop-up box with preview definition in Spotlight

3. Open in Finder

Spotlight really shines when it comes to finding files on your Mac. Whether it’s an email that you just can’t find or an Excel file that you don’t care to navigate through folders to locate, Spotlight is generally the fastest way of finding files.

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Sometimes you don’t want to find a file just to open it. Maybe you need to see its size, or just what folder it’s in. Spotlight allows you to do this with the help of Finder.

Open up Spotlight and type in your search. You should see a pretty long list of files, folders, applications, etc.

At the top of this list there’s a link that says “Show All in Finder.” Click this, and all the items in the Spotlight list will appear in a new Finder search window.

Selecting Show All in Finder from Spotlight results list

  • From here you can right-click on any file and select Get Info.
  • If you want to go into the folder a file is located in, right-click on the file and select Show in Enclosing Folder. This will open up the folder in a new Finder window.

Selecting Show in Enclosing Folder

4. Keyboard Shortcuts

So far we’ve explored a few useful tools in Spotlight, but they’re not really hacks per se, just simple ways to use the application. From this tip on we’ll get into what would be considered hacks.

Everybody loves a good productivity-boosting keyboard shortcut, so why not learn a few for Spotlight?

  • In item 2 you learned how to look up words via Spotlight. When you type a word into Spotlight that you want defined and opened in the Dictionary app, hit Command + D after typing it in. This will load the word in the Dictionary app immediately. No need to scroll down and click the word.

    Definition and picture of sloth in Dictionary app

  • If you want to just jump to the word in the Spotlight list and preview the definition, hit Command + L.
  • How about doing a Web search right from Spotlight? Type the word(s) you want to search for into Spotlight and hit Command + B. A new search will appear in your default browser.

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  • Let’s say you want to reveal a specific item in Finder. Instead of going through the steps in item 3, just highlight the item you want to reveal in Finder and hit Command + R.
  • The last really useful keyboard shortcut for Spotlight helps you get info about a specific file. Instead of viewing the file in Finder, then right-clicking it, then clicking on Get Info, just highlight the file you want to know more about and hit Command + I.

Info window for PDF document

5. Spotlight Privacy

If you have a super-secret folder that you don’t want Spotlight searching, you can actually tell OS X to skip that folder or drive when doing a Spotlight search.

Whether you want your plans for world domination to stay nicely tucked away or you just hate when Spotlight searches your funny-pictures folder, it’s easy to fix.

  • Open up System Preferences by clicking on the Apple menu in the OS X menu bar and selecting System Preferences.

    Selecting System Preferences from Apple menu

  • Click on Spotlight in the System Preferences window and then click on the Privacy tab.
  • Here, click the + at the bottom of the central portion of the Preferences pane.
  • Navigate to the folder or location you want Spotlight to ignore and click Choose.

Privacy tab in Spotlight Preferences window

Now when you do a Spotlight search, the folders you add here will be skipped.

6. File Type Display

Let’s say you always search for some file types and rarely look at others when doing a Spotlight search. If you never search for MP3 files or emails in Spotlight, you don’t have to deal with their always appearing. Or if you want them to appear you can actually change their order in the list.

  • Using the same Spotlight Preferences window we looked at in item 5, click on the Search Results tab.

    Search Results tab in Spotlight Preferences window

  • Uncheck any file types you want excluded from Spotlight searches. You can also drag and drop file types to order how they appear in the Spotlight results list.

So, if you always search for regular text documents, why not have them appear first?

Modified results list for sloth in Spotlight

7. Re-index Spotlight

This last hack is the most technical and is really more a fix than a feature.

Spotlight works by making a huge list of everything on your Mac. It then searches this list instead of trying to search the actual drive itself.

Think of it just like using Evernote to organize your home. You search the list instead of everything in your house, making the process far quicker and easier.

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Sometimes Spotlight misses things, and if you make big changes to the files on your Mac, it can become confused. If Spotlight ever gives you any issues, you can re-index it, which rebuilds the list it keeps.

  • To re-index Spotlight, open up a Terminal window and paste the following command in, then hit Return:

    sudo mdutil -E /
  • Once you hit Return, you’ll have to type in your admin password and hit Return one more time.

    Code in Terminal window

  • Re-indexing Spotlight takes some time, so let it do its thing overnight or while you’re away for a little while.

    Spotlight Indexing status box

Once Spotlight finishes indexing – which, depending on how many files you have, can take 3 or more hours – it should be good for the foreseeable future and you will be set to search again.

For more about Spotlight, check out Apple’s help documentation here.

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