Using data from Quick Look windows

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I’ve said this before, but Quick Look—the ability to see a file’s contents without actually opening the file—is one of my favorite OS X 10.5 features. Many times, I just want to glance at a file to find a tidbit of information, and Quick Look saves lots of time in those situations.

One thing about Quick Look, though, is that its window is only visible in the Finder—as soon as you switch to another application, the Quick Look window vanishes, though it will reappear when you switch back to the Finder. This makes it somewhat tricky to use information from the Quick Look window in other applications—you basically need to memorize the information you need to use, then type it into the other application.

While there’s not a perfect solution to this issue, here’s one way around the problem. You can, of course, actually open the file in its application and use it in the regular way…but perhaps you have a ton of apps running already and you don’t want to add too much to your Mac’s workload. It’s also possible you don’t have the parent application on the machine—most Quick Look viewers are built into the OS, so you don’t need the parent application to see the file’s contents.

One alternative is to use Shift-Command-Control-4 while in the Finder to grab a screenshot of a portion of the Quick Look window to the clipboard, then paste that image into your target app, giving you an always-visible reference to the data you need. If the destination app doesn’t accept images (it’s a text editor, for instance), you could use Preview (File -> New with something on the clipboard) to display the image. Since Preview won’t vanish when you switch to another app, you’ll still have access to the data you need. Not an ideal solution, of course, but it works.

In one particular case, though, there’s a more elegant solution. Say you’re using Quick Look on a spreadsheet, and you just need to run a quick calculation on some of those numbers. If you launch Calculator, of course, the Quick Look window vanishes. You could use the calculator widget on the Dashboard, but that’s not a true calculator, it actually works more like an adding machine—results are displayed as soon as there’s enough data to calculate an answer. (As a quick example of the difference between the two, try this calculation in both Calculator and the Dashboard widget: 2 + 2 * 3. In math, multiplication always comes first, so the correct answer is eight, which is what Calculator will show. The Dashboard calculator, though, will display 12, because it first calculates two plus two, then multiplies by three.)

In 10.5, though, you’ve got a third hidden calculator—one that behaves like a true calculator—and that won’t make the Quick Look window vanish when activated: Spotlight. Spotlight’s ability to perform calculations means you can use it while viewing the spreadsheet in Quick Look. Just activate Spotlight (Command-Space), then type in the calculation you need done. As you type, Spotlight constantly calculates the answer, but it’s smart enough to handle our sample case correctly. When you first type 2+2, you’ll see Spotlight showing four as the result. But as soon as you press the “*” key for multiplication, the answer disappears. Type 3, and Spotlight will display the proper answer, eight, based on the order of operations.

Not a huge hint, but one that might prove useful in some situations.

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