I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been helping someone out with their iPhone—a neighbor, friend, or family member—and I have to walk them through finding something with Spotlight. When I explain that a simple drag-down on the home screen lets them search for anything on their phone—an app, contact, contents of an iMessage or email, photo—I can practically see the light bulb go off.
And then, inevitably, they go right back to pecking around their six pages of home screen icons trying to find where they put the Settings app.
Spotlight is the most criminally underused feature of the iPhone, and it’s getting better in iOS 15. Now if only Apple would fix its biggest problem: discoverability.
Just swipe down… no, not there!
If Spotlight has a problem, it’s that so few people seem to even know it exists. Oh sure, you probably use Spotlight every day. Macworld readers tend to be a little more informed about the ins and outs of their Apple hardware, understandably. But out of the billion-plus iPhone users in the world, it consistently seems like a fairly small percentage of them seem to know about Spotlight search and what it can do. There are two ways to access Spotlight search, and neither one of them seem to be obvious enough.
First, you can swipe down from somewhere on the home screen (and with iOS 15, even the lock screen). Each time I tell someone to do this, they invariably swipe from the top edge of the screen, opening the Notification Center or Control Center instead of Spotlight. Oops. “No, swipe down from the middle,” I always say, which makes them swipe down on the middle of their notifications. “Sorry, I mean, on your home screen, swipe down on the middle…” and there’s a 50/50 chance the person will actually get to the search page instead of opening the context menu for whatever icon or folder is in the middle of their home screen. Sigh.
The other way to get there is to simply swipe right, until you’re looking at the widgets screen to the left of the first home screen. Frankly, a lot of iPhone users seem unaware that this screen exists. There’s a search bar at the top for Spotlight, but it’s not at all clear that it searches all the stuff on your iPhone, plus the web. If a person is aware of that at all, they probably think it just searches the stuff on that screen and maybe widgets. That would make sense, right? There’s a search bar just like this at the top of the App Library, after all, and it only searches the App Library. Yeah, it’s actually labeled “App Library” but most users don’t seem to get past the superficial similarities to pay attention to that distinction.
Spotlight is getting even better
In iOS 15, Apple’s making Spotlight search even better.
Your searches will deliver more results from your phone, even the contents of photos (search for “sign” or “car”, or even for text within photos!). Results from the App Store are better, and you can install apps right from the Spotlight results. Search for things like actors, musicians, or movies and you’ll get richer details. You can get web images, better definitions, Wikipedia listings, and probably a bunch of other stuff I haven’t found yet.
Honestly, whether you’re looking for content on your iPhone or just want to search the web, using Spotlight search in iOS 15 may be the best place to start.
But for all of Apple’s welcome improvements to this already killer feature, it still isn’t making the one change that would mean the most: making people aware of it.
Spotlight, front and center
Apple needs to make Spotlight a little more obvious. Google has long since put a search bar right on the Android home screen, but then Google is a search company that makes money off ads.
Maybe this is crazy talk, but I think it’s high time the Dock gets replaced by something more useful. A dock makes sense on the Mac, where lots of things are visible at once, but on the iPhone? All apps are full screen, so the Dock is hidden unless you’re on a home screen anyway. And between Widgets, the App Library, and folders, the idea that you’ll need these to keep these four specific apps at the bottom of every home screen just seems outdated. On the Mac or iPad it’s always available (and has more functionality), but on the iPhone, the dock is just another row of App icons you can only see when you’re on the home screen.
I don’t know about you, but I’d use a Spotlight bar a lot more than four app icons I could just as easily just place anywhere else on my home screen. I doubt Apple would go so far as to replace the dock with a search bar. But maybe a widget? Apple definitely needs to do something to clue in everyday iPhone users that there’s this magic search feature that locates anything on their phone a lot faster than poking around and browsing through apps, not to mention deliver lots of relevant web content.
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I have written professionally about technology for my entire adult professional life - over 20 years. I like to figure out how complicated technology works and explain it in a way anyone can understand.