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Mac Basics: Spotlight

Learn how to use Spotlight when you need to find something on your Mac fast and easy.

You can access Spotlight from its menu bar icon or in any Finder window.

Spotlight starts finding files when you begin typing in the Spotlight search field. It will display applications, files, and folders whose names match your search criteria, as well as files that contain your criteria within them, such as in text documents, applications, emails, calendars, and more. For example, if you type "itunes", Spotlight will locate the iTunes application, as well as folders, System Preferences, and web searches that contain the text "itunes" or media files in them.

Click the Spotlight icon in the upper-right corner of your screen (or press Command-Space bar) and type what you're looking for in the resulting field.

The moment you start typing, Spotlight begins to show you what it has found, organizing your results by category (including Applications, Documents, Images, and PDF Documents). The more you type, the more refined your results will be.

Tip: You can use the Spotlight pane of System Preferences to arrange the order of these categories and specify categories which will appear. Choose "Spotlight Preferences..." below the search results.

If there are a lot of results, Spotlight won't display everything in the menu or window. If you want to see everything, choose "Show All in Finder" to open a Finder window that shows all results.

To preview an item in the Spotlight results list, use the Up Arrow and Down Arrow keys, a two-finger trackpad swipe, or move the pointer to scroll through the results. A preview appears for each item as it is highlighted. To open an item in the results list, just click it if you're viewing the Spotlight menu, or double-click the item if you're looking at results in the Finder.

You can also type your search criteria in the search field of any Finder, System Preferences, or application window that supports it. For example, you can type ".jpg" if you want to find all JPEG images on your Mac, or type a friend's name and a couple keywords to locate a particular email from your friend about something.

When searching from within the Finder window, you can change where Spotlight searches by clicking This Mac to search everywhere on your Mac or your current folder location (the search example below shows Documents as the current folder location).

Also, you can click the Add (+) button located on the right side of the search window below the search field to narrow down search results. For example, choose Contents for your search to include the contents of the files, or choose Name to have your search apply only to the name of your files. 

To make more choices available in the search criteria pop-up menu, choose Other and select the checkbox for each attribute you want to add or use the search field to quickly locate an attribute. For example, to be able to search copyright information, select the Copyright checkbox in the list of attributes and click OK. Add or remove search criteria as needed by clicking Add (+) or Delete (–).

Other things you can do with Spotlight

  • You can use Spotlight like a calculator--simply type a mathematical expression in the search field.

  • Look up definitions: Type a word or phrase in the search field, then click the "Look Up" (or "Definition" in Mac OS X v10.6 and earlier) result to see the definition in Dictionary.



Tip: If you hover the cursor over a Look Up result, a definition pops out to the left:

Additional Information

Advanced information

If you want to use Spotlight in Terminal scripts, use the mdfind command.

If you want to use Terminal to manage metadata stores used by Spotlight, use the mdutil command.

Last Modified: Jan 1, 2013
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  • Last Modified: Jan 1, 2013
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