How to increase the efficiency of the Spotlight menu in OS X

SpotlightIconXEven though Apple’s Spotlight indexing routine is a quick and convenient way to find files and folders on your system, for any given search it may give you a rather large set of results, especially if you only use a short or common search term. If you find yourself burdened by how Spotlight presents its search results to you, there are several ways you can go about making them more convenient.

Most of these can be done by performing a few quick changes in the Spotlight system preferences.

Enable the Spotlight keyboard shortcuts

Spotlight hotkeys in OS X

These two hotkey options can be used to quickly activate Spotlight from any application.

At the bottom of the Spotlight system preferences you should see options to activate the Spotlight menu and window searches using keyboard shortcuts. Of these, I recommend you at least enable and use the Spotlight menu shortcut.

With the Spotlight menu hotkey enabled, simply pressing it will bring up a Spotlight search, and pressing it again will close the search. You should then be able to quickly access Spotlight from most applications, which can be useful for opening and copying documents and folders, and even switching between applications.

Remove unused categories

Spotlight will include all of its supported search categories by default, which include various document types, folders, Mail messages, recent Web searches, and Fonts; however, if you do not need to find these items with Spotlight, then you can disable them to make the search results more relevant. To do this, go to the Spotlight system preferences and uncheck the categories you do not need in the Search Results tab.

You can also disable searching of specific folders, or entire drives, to limit Spotlight’s results to folders you think are relevant. One example of this might be to ignore a secondary drive that you use to clone your system, where its contents would cause redundant search results.

Reorganize categories

Reorganizing categories in Spotlight

To make the Movies category show above others, simply move it up in the list (click for larger view).

In addition to disabling specific categories in Spotlight, you can also reorganize them to show the more frequently used ones at the top of the Spotlight search results. One popular option for this is to ensure Applications that meet the search term are positioned toward the top, allowing you to easily use Spotlight as an application launcher. For instance, to launch TextEdit, just typing “Text” and pressing Enter in Spotlight should highlight and open the application.

To reorganize your searches, go to the Search Results tab of the Spotlight system preferences, and drag the categories to be in the order you want them presented in the Spotlight menu.

Quickly navigate the Spotlight menu

Finally, when you have the Spotlight menu open and displaying search results, there are a couple of tips you can use to quickly navigate it and get to your desired result:

  1. Jump between categories — Hold the Command key and press the up or down arrows.
  2. Jump to the beginning or end — Hold the Control key while pressing the up or down arrows (you can also use the Home and End, or Page Up and Page Down keys for the same effect).

While the use of the mouse may arguably be a faster way to access some of the items in the spotlight menu, for those who are fast at typing and/or those who use the keyboard more, these tips may offer some added convenience.

4 thoughts on “How to increase the efficiency of the Spotlight menu in OS X

  1. msadesign

    MaX is correct. I’m not sure why I continually turn to EasyFind, but I do; I know it’s a real-time searcher, meaning it doesn’t have an index (it doesn’t, does it?), but it still finds stuff for me). And it will find things by type as well as toggling visibility, and toggling file name/ content. Used to use the very excellent FileBuddy; It is truly superior to all of the others but I have to say the developer is a bit, well, I think the word ‘acerbic’ is fair; so is ‘unresponsive’, and it’s too bad as it is excellent. Add LaunchBar to the mix, and you are a Power User!

  2. B. Jefferson Le Blanc

    I will use the search bar in a Finder window toolbar, which uses Spotlight, when I’m looking for something in that folder. Otherwise, I avoid Spotlight. I use Find Any File, which has a less modern UI than EasyFind but works just as well. FAF looks, and works, like the old Find File in OS 7, which is as easy to use as anything else and has that familiar look for us old-timers. Yes, like EasyFind FAF does a new search every time its run, but on today’s fast Macs it only takes a few seconds to search a single drive.

    Spotlight’s strong suit is that it catalogs file content, which third-party tools do not – except for those that utilize the Spotlight database, like HoudahSpot.

    I know Spotlight is popular as an app launcher with some people, but as an app switcher? I don’t get that. Apple’s built in App Switcher is perfectly simple to use. The Dock takes only slightly more effort.

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