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Advanced Spotlight Searching on Your MacBook

Don’t get fooled into simply using Spotlight on your MacBook as another file-’n-folder-name search tool. Sure, it can do that, but Spotlight can also search inside PDF, Word, Pages and HTML files, finding matching text that doesn’t appear in the name of the file!

To wit: A search for Lion pulls up all sorts of items with Lion in their names, but also files with Lion in them:

  • Apple Store SF.ppt: A PowerPoint presentation that contains several slides containing the text Lion

  • bk01ch03.doc: A rather cryptically named Word file that mentions Lion in several spots

  • Conference Call with Bob: An iCal event pointing to a conference call about upcoming Lion book projects

Notice that not one of these three examples actually has the words Lion occurring anywhere in the title or filename, yet Spotlight found them because they all contain the text Lion therein.

That is the true power of Spotlight, and how it can literally guarantee you that you’ll never lose another piece of information that Spotlight can locate in the hundreds of thousands of files and folders on your hard drive!

Heck, suppose that all you remember about a file is that you received it in your mail last week or last month. To find it, you can actually type in time periods, such as yesterday, last week, or last month, to see every item that you saved or received within that period.

Be careful, however, when you’re considering a search string. Don’t forget that (by default) Spotlight matches only those items that have all the words you enter in the Spotlight box.

To return the highest number of possible matches, use the fewest number of words to identify the item; for example, use horse rather than horse image, and you’re certain to be rewarded with more hits.

(On the other hand, if you’re looking specifically for a picture of a knight on horseback, a series of keywords, such as horse knight image, shortens your search considerably. It all depends on what you’re looking for and how widely you want to cast your Spotlight net.)

To allow greater flexibility in searches, Apple also includes those helpful Boolean friends that you may already be familiar with: AND, OR, and NOT. For example, you can perform Spotlight searches, such as

  • Horse AND cow (which collects all references to both those barnyard animals into one search)

  • Batman OR Robin (which returns all references to either Batman or Robin, but not both)

  • Apple NOT PC (which displays all references to Apple that don’t include any information on dastardly PCs)

Because Spotlight functions are a core technology of Mac OS X Lion — in other words, all sorts of applications can make use of Spotlight throughout the operating system, including the Finder — the Finder window’s Search box now shares many of the capabilities of Spotlight. In fact, you can use the time period trick (entering yesterday as a keyword) in the Finder window Search box.

Okay, parents, listen closely: Here’s a (somewhat sneaky) tip that might help you monitor your kid’s computer time as well as what your kids are typing/reading in iChat:

  1. Enable the iChat transcript feature.

    Follow these steps:

    1. From within iChat, choose iChat→Preferences.

    2. Click Messages.

    3. Select the Save Chat Transcripts To check box and choose a destination folder in a location you can access.

  2. Click the Close button to return to iChat.

    Now you can use Spotlight to search for questionable words, phrases, and names within those iChat transcripts.

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