Basic Spotlight Searching on Your MacBook - dummies

Basic Spotlight Searching on Your MacBook

By Mark L. Chambers

Spotlight is Apple’s desktop search technology that you can use to find files and folders on your MacBook as quickly as you can type. (Yep, that includes all the documents, Address Book contacts, Mail messages, folders, and drives that your MacBook can access.) In fact, the version of Spotlight included with Lion can even search folders shared on other Macs across your network!

Yes, you read right: If the information is on your MacBook’s hard drive, a CD, your network, or even another Mac in your network, consider it located.

The Spotlight search field is always available from the Finder menu bar. Click the magnifying glass icon once (or press Command+Spacebar), and the Spotlight search box appears.


To run a search, simply click in the Spotlight box and begin typing. You see matching items appear as soon as you type, and the search results are continually refined while you type the rest of your search criteria. As with the Search box in earlier Finder window toolbars, you don’t need to press Return to begin the search.

The results of your Spotlight search are presented in the Spotlight menu, which is updated automatically in real time while you continue to type. The top 20 most-relevant items are grouped into categories right on the Spotlight menu, including Messages, Definitions, Documents, Folders, Images, Contacts, and so on.

Spotlight takes a guess at the item that’s most likely the match you’re looking for (based on your Search Results list in System Preferences) and presents it in the special Top Hit category that always appears first.

Hover your cursor over an item in the Spotlight menu, and Spotlight uses the Quick Look technology built into Lion to display information on the item! If the item is a song, you can even move your cursor on top of the thumbnail in the Quick Look display and click to play it (without leaving the Spotlight menu).

To open the Top Hit item like a true Lion power user, just press Return.

Literally any text string is acceptable as a Spotlight search. Here’s a short list of the common search criteria:

  • Names and addresses: Because Spotlight has access to Lion’s Address Book, you can immediately display contact information using any portion of a name or address.

  • E-mail message text: Need to open a specific e-mail message, but you’d rather not launch Mail and spend time digging through the message list? Enter the person’s e-mail address or any text string contained in the message you’re looking for.

  • File and folder names: This is the classic search favorite. Spotlight searches your entire system for that one file or folder in the blink of an eye.

  • Events & To Do items: Yep, Spotlight gives you access to your iCal calendars and those all-important To Do lists you’ve created.

  • System Preferences: Now things start to get really interesting! Try typing the word background in the Spotlight field. Some of the results will actually be System Preference panes! That’s right; every setting in System Preferences is referenced in Spotlight. (For example, the desktop background setting is on the Desktop & Screen Saver pane in System Preferences.)

  • Web pages: Whoa. Stand back, Google. You can use Spotlight to search the web pages you’ve recently displayed in Safari! (Note, however, that this feature doesn’t let you search through all the Internet as Google does. It searches only the pages stored in your Safari web cache and any HTML files you’ve saved to your MacBook’s hard drive.)

  • Metadata: If you’re not familiar with the term metadata, think of the information stored by your digital camera each time you take a photo — things like the exposure setting, time and date, and even the location where the photo was taken, which are also transferred to iPhoto when you import.

To reset the Spotlight search and try another text string, click the X icon that appears at the right side of the Spotlight box. (Of course, you can also backspace to the beginning of the field, but that’s a little less elegant — instead, press Command+A to select the entire contents and then press Delete.)

After you find the item that you’re looking for, you can click it once to

  • Launch it (if the item is an application)

  • Open it in System Preferences (if it’s a setting or description on a Preferences pane)

  • Open it within the associated application (if the item is a document or a data item)

  • Display it within a Finder window (if the item is a folder)