11 Ways to get more out of Spotlight

I feel like I’m on a Spotlight kick lately. The more I play around with the Mac’s built in search engine the more cool uses I find for it. Here is my list of favorite Spotlight tips.

1. Keyboard Shortcut

The fastest way to invoke Spotlight on your Mac is to use a keyboard shortcut. Don’t bother using the mouse, it will only slow you down. The default shortcut – Command+Spacebar –  is very easy to remember and to use. However, if you prefer another shortcut, you can specify your shortcut in System Preferences.

2. Customize Spotlight

Since we are already in System Preferences, let us take some time to customize our Spotlight Search Results. First, deselect whichever categories that you don’t want to appear in your search results. Personally, I don’t use spotlight to search for Mail or Webpages. Next, change the order of the categories to specify their priority. I keep Applications on top, followed by Contacts, Documents and Folders. Now if you do a search, your results will be in the order that you specified.

3. Application Launcher

Notice from step 2 that I keep ‘Applications’ as my top category in my search results. This is because I use Spotlight as an application launcher. Rather than going to my applications folder, I simply invoke Spotlight with my keyboard shortcut, start typing the first few letters of the app I wish to launch and press enter. It is very efficient and works like a charm! This is especially useful when launching applications that are buried deep within folders such as Xcode or even Terminal. Now you don’t need to crowd your Dock with so many applications 🙂

4. Instant Calculator

If you need to do a quick calculation, Spotlight can do it for you. Apart from doing simple functions such as adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, you can use the following:

– pi – uses the pi constant
– sqrt(625) – calculate the square root of a number
– pow(5,2) – Raises 5 to the power of 2
– log(100) – Find the log of a number
– sin(0.5) – Calculates the sine, result is in radian. Same for other trig functions
P.S. The division functions also serves to convert fractions to decimal

5. Address Book

Rather than launching Address Book then searching for a contact, do it directly from Spotlight. Just start typing the name of your contact or their contact number. Select the result and press enter to launch Address Book with their info.

6. Definition for words

Quite often, you may need to quickly look up the definition for a word. Just type the word in Spotlight and quickly launch it in Dictionary. Also remember that you can use the system-wide dictionary keyboard shortcut.

7. Open The Parent Folder

So Spotlight just found the file that is buried deep somewhere on your computer. Pressing enter will automatically launch the file, but what if you wanted to reveal the file in Finder? The trick is to hold down the Command key while pressing enter. This will open the parent folder of the file so you can see it in Finder.

8. Search for Phrases

If you search for a phrase in Spotlight, the computer automatically puts an ‘and’ qualifier between each word. Spotlight will therefore show all documents that contain any one of the words in your phrase. As you can imagine, this can bring up many irrelevant results. To search for exact phrases within a document, put it within quotation marks such as “apple characters dedicate”.

9. Boolean Queries

You can tell Spotlight to omit certain results from your search. For example if I am looking for a specific file containing Turner and want to omit those with Tina Turner, I search for – Turner NOT Tina. This will omit all results with Tina Turner included. Similarly, you can use other qualifiers such as OR, AND. Note that qualifiers must be typed in all caps.

10. Clear Search Field

Sometimes you may change your mind in the middle of a search or may need to clear a previous entry. Rather than using backspace, save some time by hitting the Esc key.

11. Operators

Use kind operators to specify the type of file you wish to search for. Type an operator before a search term to limit the result to that file type. There are tons of operators that you will pick up as you become more familiar with your Mac. Here are a few to get you started:

– kind:pdf
– kind:folder
– kind:image
– kind:audio
– date:today /date:yesterday /date:tomorrow

How do you use Spotlight?

Spotlight is an awesome productivity tool. What are some ways you use it to work on your Mac more efficently? Let me know in the comments.

About Joe Cotellese

Joe is the founder of Learning OS X. He's often spending way too much time playing with new Mac software in order to improve his ability at "Getting Things Done."


  1. hey that is pretty handy! thanks!

  2. Do you know how to find contacts?
    The answer is instead of launching Address Book or Entourage when you need somebody’s phone number or email address, just have Spotlight find the exact contact you’re looking for. Type a name into your Spotlight window (Command-Space) and use the arrow keys to select that person from the Contacts section of the results list. Pressing Return launches your contact application with that person front and center, or you can mouse over the name in the results list for a tooltip displaying their phone numbers.

  3. Bernabé says:

    Just what I was looking for.

    But, where are the other 10 ways to get out more?

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