Your iMac: What Spotlight Can Do

By Mark L. Chambers

As you use your iMac, don’t get fooled into simply using Spotlight as another file-’n-folder-name search tool. Sure, it can do that, but Spotlight can also search inside PDF, Pages, Word documents, and HTML files, finding matching text that doesn’t appear in the name of the file. To wit: A search for Mavericks on my system pulls up all sorts of items not only with Mavericks in their names but also files with Mavericks in them. For example

  • A PowerPoint presentation with several slides containing the text Mavericks

  • A rather cryptically named Microsoft Word file chapter of another For Dummies book of mine that mentions Mavericks in several spots

  • Conference Call with Bob: A Calendar event pointing to a conference call with your neighbor about upcoming little league games (your kid’s team is called the Mavericks)

Not one of these three examples actually has the word Mavericks occurring anywhere in the title or filename, yet Spotlight found them because they all contain the text Mavericks 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 time periods, such as yesterday, last week, or last month, to see every item that you saved or received within that period.

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

So how about all those files, folders, contacts, and events that you don’t want to appear in Spotlight? What if you’re sharing your iMac as a multiuser computer or accessing other Macs remotely? Can others search for and access your personal information through Spotlight? Definitely not!

The results displayed by Spotlight are controlled by file and folder permissions as well as your account login, just as the applications that create and display your personal data are. For example, you can’t access other users’ calendars using Calendar, and they can’t see your Mail messages. Only you have access to your data, and only after you’ve logged in with your username and password. Spotlight works the same way. If a user doesn’t normally have access to an item, the item simply doesn’t appear when that user performs a Spotlight search. (In other words, only you get to see your stuff.)

However, you can hide certain folders and disks from your own Spotlight searches if necessary. Check out the final section of this chapter for details on setting private locations on your system.

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 that will 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, using 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: Collects all references to both those barnyard animals into one search

  • Batman OR Robin: Returns all references to either Batman or Robin

  • Apple NOT PC: Displays all references to Apple that don’t include any information on dastardly PCs