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What is Spotlight on macOS and how to use it

Start using your Mac on steroids.
By
December 7, 2022

Spotlight is one of the best — and at the same time, one of the most overlooked — features on macOS. I ignored it for many years, but once I started paying proper attention to it, I was blown away by how efficient it was and how it accelerated my productivity and output. What is Spotlight, and how can it turn you into a Speedy Gonzalez on the Mac? Read on to get all the details.

Read more: How to enable notifications and Focus modes on a Mac

QUICK ANSWER

Spotlight is a search function on macOS that can quickly bring up apps, documents, emails, and other files on your computer. You can also use Spotlight to make online search results, search the App Store, and get current information such as news, sports scores, weather, and stock prices.


JUMP TO KEY SECTIONS

What is Spotlight on a Mac?

spotlight search macbook

When you want to open a file or an app, what do you normally do? You would stop what you’re doing, go to Finder, find the file or app you want to open, and double-click it to open. This involves more clicks than is necessary, and if you’re deep in the middle of something, breaking away from it to go rooting about in Finder can break your momentum entirely. Especially if you don’t know where you’re meant to be looking in the first place.

Spotlight is a hyper-charged launcher that helps to streamline that process. The beauty of it is that you can do it all with your keyboard without leaving what you’re currently doing. If your fingers are fast on the keyboard, you can open files and apps using Spotlight in two or three seconds.

The main competitor to Spotlight is Alfred, which has both a free and paid version. But arguably, you only get the full benefit by buying the paid version. Spotlight, on the other hand, is completely free.

How to use Spotlight

spotlight mac menu icon

If you haven’t used Spotlight before, you can access it by clicking the magnifying glass next to the clock in the menu bar. But since we’re trying to keep our fingers on the keyboard and overall reduce the amount of clicking, we need to set up a keyboard shortcut to bring up the Spotlight search bar.

Setting up Spotlight

Go to System Settings > Keyboard and click Keyboard Shortcuts.

macos keyboard settings

Click Spotlight in the left sidebar. On the right, you will see two keyboard shortcuts — one for Spotlight search and one for a Finder search window. I have designated my shortcut for the Spotlight search box to be the Command key and the space bar. You can change it to whatever you want by double-clicking the shortcut and entering what you want to use.

Naturally, the keyboard shortcut cannot already be in use by another app. Click Done when you’re finished.

macos settings keyboard shortcuts spotlight

Now go to the Siri & Spotlight section, and scroll down to Spotlight. You will see a list here of all the things Spotlight will continually index so you can find them in search results. But if you don’t want a certain app or feature to be indexed, you can disable it here. Sometimes, limiting your indexing options speeds your computer up a bit because Spotlight has less to do.

macos settings siri spotlight

Keeping sensitive Spotlight results private

At the bottom of that same window, you will find a Spotlight Privacy button. If you click that, you can specify if there are any folders, files, or apps in Finder which should be excluded from Spotlight search. Either to keep results tidier or because you may have a nosy relative or roommate.

Just click the + button, navigate to the file’s location in Finder, and it will be added to the Privacy list.

macos settings spotlight privacy

Using it for the first time

macos spotlight search bar

Now, either by clicking the magnifying glass icon in the top menu bar or by using your new keyboard shortcut, you can now open the Spotlight search box. The box can be moved around the screen with your cursor, and it always takes on the color of your Mac’s wallpaper.

Things that Spotlight can do for you

The best thing you can do, if you’re a beginner to this feature, is just to start typing and see what comes up. Play around with it. You’ll soon get the hang of it. By entering the right keywords for what you’re looking for, you can find virtually anything.

mac spotlight calculator
  • Find any file, image, app, music file, or movie file stored on your computer in a split-second. You can also drag them from the Spotlight bar to the desktop.
  • Spotlight can read inside documents based on the keywords you specify.
  • Look inside Zip files to find compressed files.
  • Bring up events and reminders.
  • Bring up items on your to-do list.
  • Bring up photos from your Photos app.
  • Search your podcast app for specific episodes.
  • Make searches on your preferred search engine. You never have to go to the search page or the browser omnibar ever again. Get variations of your search keyword as well.
  • Make mathematical calculations and conversions. Never pull up the calculator again.
  • Access any part of your Mac’s settings and be taken there instantly.
  • Type in a company name to get taken to its location on Apple Maps.
  • Type in the name of an app to be taken to its Mac App Store listing.

And much more!

mac spotlight search result

FAQs

The actual feature itself can’t be removed, but you can just tell it in System Settings not to index anything, so it becomes essentially dormant.

It can do in certain situations, depending on the size of the files it is attempting to index, as well as what you’re trying to do at the same time. If you are experiencing speed issues on your Mac, try deselecting some big file types from Spotlight’s settings. A system restart wouldn’t hurt, either.

In System Settings, you can disable certain categories or certain file formats from appearing in searches. If it’s already indexed, deselecting those formats will instantly delete them from Spotlight’s index.

Usually, it’s just an indexing bottleneck and can be fixed with a simple system restart.