Opinion: A dim view of Spotlight

When Mac OS X 10.4 was in its preview stages, Spotlight was one of its most-discussed features. This new technology would make it simple to find anything anywhere on your system. No more hunting for lost files, or for words that you vaguely recall reading within some file; Spotlight would quickly show you exactly what you were looking for. “Find anything, anywhere, fast,” as Apple describes it. When I first heard about the technology, I was quite excited, as today’s ever-larger hard drives mean an ever-increasing collection of stuff one must dig through to find things.

Once Tiger hit the streets, however, I was less than impressed with the real-world usability of Spotlight, as I discussed in this entry on my personal blog. When I wrote that entry back in May, I focused a fair bit on the interface and the performance. Now that I’ve had several months to adjust to using Spotlight, I’m ready to follow-up with some additional observations gained over the last six months, and some recommendations on what I’d love to see in “version 2.0” of Spotlight. But before that, let’s revisit a few of my first impressions of Tiger’s search technology.

Some background info

First, about my Mac. It’s a first-generation dual 2.0GHz Power Mac G5 with 2.5GB of RAM and two internal drives: a 160GB Seagate with three partitions, and a 300GB Maxtor with six partitions. The drives are about 65 percent full, with the data pretty evenly spread across most of the partitions. I’m always running the latest OS X release, which is 10.4.3 as of this writing.

Second, I’ll refer to a couple of different Spotlight interfaces in this writeup. If you see “Spotlight box” or “Spotlight window,” that’s what you see when you press Command-Space:


When I write about the “Spotlight Results window,” that’s what you see when you press Command-Option-Space:


The original issues

Summarized from the original Spotlight article, here are the things that bugged me back then:

  • Finding something by name in the Finder is now much harder than it used to be. Unfortunately, this is the kind of search I (and I think, many people) run most often. Thankfully, there’s a way to revert (sort of) to the old default “find by name” behavior—we covered it in this Tiger Tips article, in the section titled “Revert to the previous Find window.” But Apple should make “search by filename as a default” an option within Spotlight.
  • If you have the Spotlight Results window open, why doesn’t it show up in the Command-Tab switcher? If you leave this window open, it gets lost in a hurry.
  • In the Spotlight Results window, Page Up and Page Down won’t work until you click somewhere in the left-half of the window. Why isn’t this active by default when the window opens?
  • Why isn’t there a path bar in the Spotlight Results window? To see where a file lives, you need to (a) control-click on it and use either Get Info or Reveal in Finder, or (b) click (or option-click to open all in the section) on the small arrow icon to the right of each entry. But using (b) switches the results from a list-type-view into a space-wasting icon-type view. A path bar would let me use the list view results, yet still see the path to each selected item.
  • Spotlight has a really bad interface for creating advanced searches. It’s inconsistently available, and uses programming symbols such as || and !=. There should be a simple way to do something like (kind:document AND date newer than yesterday) BUT NOT (author:robg) .
  • If you’re looking at the results of a kind:images search in the Spotlight Results window, the only way you can use the ‘image preview’ view (icon view) is with Group By set to Kind. But since all the results are images, why can’t you use icon view and, for example, Group By Date?
  • Spotlight excludes a large number of folders from indexing (mainly Unix-related stuff, and things in the Library folders), and there’s no easy way to add those excluded folders to the index. There’s a hint that explains how to add directories, but it’s not for the faint of heart.
  • There’s no way to turn the contents of the Spotlight Results window into a Smart Folder. So if you’ve just run a useful search you’d like to save, you’ll have to do it again in the Finder in order to save it.
  • Why are Smart Folders only savable to the Desktop, home folder, or Saved Searches folder? Once saved, they can be moved, so why not just use a regular Save dialog and let us save them anywhere to begin with?
  • How to exit the Finder’s Spotlight Search interface isn’t necessarily obvious. The Back button turns out to be the easiest way, but a Cancel button next to Save would make more sense.
  • Spotlight doesn’t really belong in the System Preferences panel. I use keyboard navigation to open preferences panels, but the cursor insists on starting in the Spotlight field each time. Thankfully, you can now Tab out of the field, though this wasn’t possible in the first 10.4 releases.
  • In addition to the above, I also talked about Spotlight’s poor performance on my machine, especially with searches that return a large number of results ( kind:images , for instance). Unfortunately, this hasn’t improved with time at all—running searches in the Spotlight window (not as much so in the Finder) can be painfully slow. The kind:images search still takes anywhere from 30 seconds to well over a minute, depending (I guess) on the phase of the moon and the mood of the G5. Thankfully, since I don’t use Spotlight all that much, this doesn’t bother me all that much.

    The new issues

    So what else have I learned in trying to use Spotlight over these last few months? Quite a bit, and none of it has changed my belief that Spotlight has a long way to go to true usability. Here’s what’s been bugging me about it lately…

    No Match This Phrase Feature By far my biggest new gripe is that Spotlight doesn’t support phrase searches. Given the amount of stuff I write, I clearly don’t remember every word of it. But when looking for an old article, I’ll often remember a phrase that I used, and want to search on it. Something like discover hidden keyboard shortcuts , for instance. If I run a Spotlight search on those words, I get 122 matches. But only one of those matches contains the exact phrase, and I have to hope I recognize its name in the list of matches.

    To outsmart Spotlight, I tried the same search, but surrounded it first with double quotes (no matches) and then single quotes (122 matches). So it seems single quotes are ignored, but double quotes are not (see the next point for more on this). The inability to do a simple ‘match this phrase’ search is a huge oversight, and one that makes using Spotlight more tedious than it need be.

    Spotty Symbol Searches Spotlight’s handling of non-alphanumeric characters is quite strange. Try searching for a dollar value you know you’ve got in some file, for instance. When I searched for $150 , I got matches for all files that contained 150 , but not necessarily the dollar sign. Similarly, I was looking for a piece of Unix code that I knew contained %i . So I searched on that term, and Spotlight found 99,271 matches, only a couple of which had the %i string I was looking for. So maybe Spotlight just ignores the non-alphanumeric characters?

    That doesn’t seem to be the case at all, as a search for just i found 298,436 matches (and took a long time to run!). So just what’s happening here? If it’s ignoring the non-alphanumeric characters, I should have seen the same number of matches in both searches. But I didn’t, so what exactly is it doing with them?

    Flawed Find-As-You Type The more I use it, the less I like Spotlight’s find-as-you-type feature. If you’ve got a lot of drives and data, as I do, find-as-you-type really slows down matching. If I search for “computer,” for instance, Spotlight starts to find matches for c , then co , com , etc. Which means when I get to comp , it’s starting to find matches for complex , complicated , compound , and who knows how many other terms. But as soon as I type u , all those matches are thrown out! So not only is time wasted, the search results list is jumping around like a caffeine addict after a triple shot of espresso.

    I wrote about a workaround in a recent Mac OS X Hints blog—just copy-and-paste your search term from some other app, and then Spotlight won’t show the interim matches—as this behavior really annoys me. There are also third-party-apps that do nothing but feed search strings to Spotlight, and the launcher app LaunchBar will do this as well. But Spotlight really shouldn’t work like this, should it? What’s the point of showing early non-relevant matches?

    Unconstructive Comments The Finder includes a very useful feature called Spotlight Comments. This lets you tag any file with a customized comment, which Spotlight can then find. (Kirk McElhearn explained Spotlight Comments in the above-referenced Tiger Tips article.) This is great…in theory.

    In practice, there’s one big issue: these comments are very, very fragile. If you use the Terminal, for instance, to move or copy the file, the comments will be lost. If you transfer the file to a coworker via iChat, the comments will be lost. If you e-mail the file to someone, the comments will be lost. If you upload the file to a Unix or Windows file server, the comments will be lost.

    The comments will, however, survive being copied across volumes on one machine, and when transferred via a local network connection to another Mac. But that’s it; all other methods of sharing your commented files seem to be fatal to the comments. So what we have here is a useful customizable keyword system…that breaks at the slightest provocation. Not good.

    Saving Searches There’s no easy way to save a search setup—those conditions you add to a search before actually starting the search. Yes, you can create Smart Folders. But a Smart Folder isn’t just a search setup, it’s a full set of search criteria and the matching results. What I’d rather be able to do is define all of a search, with the exception of the actual search term(s).

    Perhaps an example would help. I search in my “Columns for Macworld” folder quite a lot, and typically I’m looking for something I’ve written in the last 12 months. But I’m never quite sure what word(s) I’ll be searching for until it’s time to search. So I’d like to save a search with the criteria set to “Date modified is within the last 12 months,” but no actual search terms specified.

    Unforuntately, I can’t do that—I need to have a search term to create a Smart Folder. So instead, I just enter some basic text ( the ) as the search term, add my date criteria, and save the search. When I want to re-use this saved search, I open it, hit the Edit button, and then set the new search criteria. It works, but it takes longer and feels more complicated than it should be.

    The future’s so bright…

    Despite my complaints about Spotlight, I still think it’s an amazing technology, and it has proven useful to me on more than a few occasions. And I also realize that a number of things on my list probably aren’t issues for many users. As such, I’ll probably never see those issues addressed by Apple. So here’s a short list of five changes that I think would make most users happier with Spotlight, and that I hope Apple chooses to implement at some point:

  • Bring back a super-simple ‘find by name’ setting that could be enabled as the default for Finder searches. Let the user decide between content and filename searches, based on their needs.
  • Get rid of on-the-fly searching, or at least let it be easily disabled. I can’t think of a single benefit to this, other than helping to show how quickly Spotlight is finding matches (most of which won’t be correct, but at least they’re fast!).
  • Support phrase searches, hopefully by letting us do something as simple as surrounding the search phrase with quotes.
  • Provide an advanced search interface that lets the user build boolean searches, using AND, OR, NOT, and parentheses to control the search parameters.
  • Improve Spotlight’s speed, especially on multiple-partition drives with lots of data. OK, so that one may be impossible, given the volume of data being searched…but it sure would make me happy!
  • Spotlight has tremendous potential…I just hope future updates will turn some of that potential into reality!

    [ Rob Griffiths is a senior editor at Macworld and runs the Mac OS X Hints Web site. ]

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