Spotlight set-up

One of the major new features of OS X 10.4 is Spotlight, Apple’s new system-wide “find everything” search system. In addition to its documented ability to dig out the proverbial needle within a haystack (a file), Spotlight can also find (and hence open) applications on your drive with but a few keystrokes. Want to launch a somewhat buried application like Disk Utility? Hit Command-Space then type

Disk Uti
, wait a bit, and you’ll soon see the Disk Utility application at the top of the results list. Click on it, and Disk Utility opens.

While this seems quite useful, especially for deeply-buried applications, the “wait a bit” portion of the process can get old quickly—on larger drives, “a bit” may be several seconds, during which time you’re watching Spotlight spit out results that aren’t quite the one you’re looking for.

Enter the third-party launchers. While there are a number of launcher apps out there, probably the three best-known programs are LaunchBar ($19.95 shareware), Butler ($18 donationware), and Quicksilver (presently free). These programs are designed to help launch programs (and open documents), and they all work in a similar manner: type a keyboard shortcut, enter a few letters of the program (or document) name, and (in most cases) just press Return to open the highlighted item (or use the mouse keys to choose it from a list of results). Unlike Spotlight, these searches happen basically instantly—so much so that you’ll probably see the matching program in less than a second.

What they don’t do as well as Spotlight, however, is look inside files for bits of data—some of them don’t do this at all, while others have a limited ability to do so. In an ideal world then, you’d use Spotlight to search for information, and one of the launchers to open files and documents.

Thankfully, in this case, the world is nearly ideal, as you can set up both Spotlight and your launcher application to play to their strengths. The first thing to do is to tell Spotlight not to look for applications. Open the Spotlight System Preferences panel and make sure the Search Results tab is active, then uncheck the boxes next to both Applications (and System Preferences as well—the three main launchers handle these as well). Since the launcher apps will handle these tasks with ease, there’s no need to have Spotlight do the work.

Spotlight Settings

That’s really all you need to do; Spotlight will no longer search for applications or system preferences’ panels, and you should see an increase in its performance when using it for other searches. If you wish to, however, you could customize your launcher of choice to tell it not to look for things that you’ll be using Spotlight to find—Address Book entries, perhaps.

To customize Butler, select Butler: Customize from its menubar icon, and then uncheck anything you don’t wish to match in the Filer section on the right. To modify Quicksilver, select Preferences from its Dock pop-up menu, then click on Catalog. Uncheck the box next to any items you wish to exclude from Quicksilver’s domain. To customize LaunchBar, first activate the application (click its dock icon), then select Configuration: Open Configuration and you’ll see a window that allows you to enable and disable as many things as you like, at either the group (“Indexing Rules”) or item (the Index tab with a group selected) level.

By letting Spotlight focus on what it’s good at, and using a launcher to open your documents and applications, you’ll be getting the best of both worlds.

[ Note: I updated this blog entry after its initial posting to add information on customizing Butler. Thanks to Gaston Gosselin for writing in with that info.]

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