Make the most of the Spotlight menu

Today's Best Tech Deals

Picked by Macworld's Editors

Top Deals On Great Products

Picked by Techconnect's Editors

The easiest way to access OS X's powerful Spotlight search technology is using the systemwide Spotlight menu. But chances are you aren’t getting as much out of this menu as you could be. In this video, Dan Frakes show you a few tricks for making the most of the Spotlight menu.


Apple’s Spotlight search technology is everywhere in OS X, but the easiest and quickest way to use it is the systemwide Spotlight menu: the little magnifying-glass icon at the far right end of your menu bar. Click this icon, and you can instantly search for many kinds of files and data on your hard—even applications; just select a result to open it.

But chances are you aren’t getting as much out of this menu as you could be. In this video, I’m going to show you a few tricks for making the Spotlight menu more useful.

Tweak your Spotlight settings: Before I get to the menu itself, let’s take a trip to the Spotlight pane of System Preferences. First, click the Privacy tab. If there are particular volumes or folders you never want Spotlight to search, drag them into the list here. Items contained in these folders and volumes will never appear in your Spotlight-menu search results.

Click the Search Results tab, and you can choose which kinds of items appear in Spotlight-menu search results. Uncheck any item you want to omit. For example, I personally never search for email messages using the Spotlight menu, so I’ve unchecked Messages & Chats.

You can also choose the order in which items appear in Spotlight-menu search results by dragging categories up or down the list. I’ve got Documents, PDF Documents, and Folders at the top of my list, because those are the items I search for most often.

At the bottom of the window, you can also choose your keyboard shortcut for activating the Spotlight menu. Pressing this shortcut, no matter what you’re doing in which app, displays the Spotlight search field, ready for you to type your query.

Refine your searches: While simply typing a word or two—or even just part of a word—will often be enough for Spotlight to find what you’re looking for, sometimes it will find so many matching items that the menu can’t display them all (or displays too few of the particular type of file you’re looking for). The solution is to use better queries.

If you’re searching for a phrase, the easiest tweak is to enclose your search in quotation marks. This forces Spotlight to look for that exact phrase, rather than for the individual words it contains.

A bit more advanced are Spotlight options for designating the type of thing you’re searching for. You do this using keywords. For example, if I’m looking for a folder with the word test in its name, I can add kind:folder (with no spaces) after test to restrict the search to folders. Other kinds include contact, email, image, movie, music, and pdf. (By limiting the kind of item displayed in results, the menu can also show you many more results of that kind of item.)

Similarly, Spotlight indexes the name, contents, and metadata of all your documents, so you’ll find that a document search for the word test produces a slew of documents with test anywhere in its contents or metadata. But type kind:document name:test and your results include only those documents with test in the actual file name. Spotlight even knows the dimensions of images: kind:image width:580 height:388 shows you images that are 580 pixels wide by 388 pixels tall.

Other possible keywords include author (for an item’s author metadata), label (for the name of an item’s Finder label), date (for the item’s creation or modification date), and modified (for the item’s modification date).

You can also use boolean operators (OR or NOT) with keyword criteria: date:today NOT app shows you all items created, modified, or opened today, but omits applications.

Similarly, you can omit particular words from your results by adding the minus sign (-) to the beginning of each. For example, kind:pdf name:sports -authority searches for PDF documents with sports in the name, but omits results that contain authority, thus ignoring your online receipts from Sports Authority when you’re looking for your daughter’s sports-camp schedule.

Calculate, Define, and Browse: The Spotlight menu can also do things other than find items on your drive. Near the bottom of the results menu are a few of these special options. Choose Look Up to look up your word (or common phrase) in OS X’s Dictionary app. (If, like me, you generally need synonyms more often than definitions, open the Dictionary app, open its preferences window, and drag the thesaurus source to the top of the list. Now you’ll get thesaurus info first.)

Choose Search Web For [your search term] to perform a Web search, using the search engine you’ve chosen in Safari’s preferences, for your query.

Choose Search Wikipedia For [your search term] to perform a Wikipedia search. Although it might seem as though this option would use your Web browser, it instead uses the Wikipedia module of the Dictionary app.

Finally, if you type a numeric equation into the Spotlight-menu’s search field, the first item in the results list will be the solution to that equation. You can even copy that result to the clipboard for pasting elsewhere. (Use the arrow keys to select the result, and then press Command+C.) Typing pi gives you, well, pi, and ^ means “to the power of.” Spotlight actually understands a variety of mathematical notations and functions.

Preview items: If you’re not sure if a particular item is what you were looking for, you don’t have to open it to see. Just hover the pointer over an item, and a Quick Look popover appears showing a preview of that item. (You can also use the arrow keys to select an item, and then press Command+Y to show the preview.) For the Dictionary option, you see a preview of the actual Dictionary entry.

If an item is a multi-page document or webpage, move the pointer over the preview and you can scroll through the pages. If it’s a movie or audio file, moving the pointer over the preview gives you a Play button.

The preview popover for contacts offers additional options. Click the category text next to a phone number, address, email address, or URL and you can, for example, send a message, open an address in Google Maps, or view the info in large type on your screen.

When viewing the preview popover for a file or folder, pressing Command shows you the item’s full name and then shows its file path. Press Command+Option to show the file path immediately.

Work with items directly: Once you’ve found what you want, you can of course open it, but you can also grab it and drag it out of the menu. Drag it to the Desktop or to a Finder window to copy it there, or drag it onto or into an application to use the item in that app. If you hold Command+Option when dragging an item, you create an alias to the item wherever you drop its icon.

Keyboard shortcuts: One last thing: If you’re a keyboard person like me, you’ll be happy to learn that the Spotlight menu offers keyboard shortcuts for most of its features.

For example, after typing your search query, press Command to immediately show a preview of the top result, or press Command+T to immediately open that item. Command+L shows a Quick Look preview of the dictionary or thesaurus entry for the search term, Command+D opens it in the Dictionary app, Command+K opens Dictionary to the Wikipedia entry for the search term, and Command+B performs a Web search.

You can use the arrow keys to select a result in the menu, and then press Return to open the item, or Command+Return (for a file or folder) to reveal the item in the Finder. If you instead wait a moment, a Quick Look preview appears. You can also press Command+I to open the Finder’s Get Info window for the selected item.

I’ve included the full list of keyboard shortcuts here. (These shortcuts are for OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion; most have equivalents in OS X 10.7 Lion.)

  • Activate Spotlight menu: Command+Spacebar (configurable)
  • Move up or down in results: Up and Down arrows, respectively
  • Move to first item in next (or previous) category: Command+Down (or Up) arrow
  • View dictionary/thesaurus popover: Command+L
  • View term in Dictionary app: Command+D
  • View Wikipedia entry in Dictionary app: Command+K
  • Perform web search for search term: Command+B
  • Preview Top Hit: Command
  • Open Top Hit: Command+T
  • Use arrow keys to select an item, then:
    • Open item: Return, Enter, or Command+O
    • Reveal item in Finder: Command+Return or Command+R
    • Show file name, then path: Command
    • Show path immediately: Command+Option
    • Display Finder Info window: Command+I
  • Clear search field: Escape
  • Close Spotlight menu: Escape when search field is empty
Note: When you purchase something after clicking links in our articles, we may earn a small commission. Read our affiliate link policy for more details.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon