How to use the Spotlight Window for simple searches

How to use the Spotlight Window for simple searches
Mac Tip #479, 23 March 2011

If you want to search just one folder, or by the date a file was modified, or by file extension or some other criteria then a Menu Bar Spotlight search may be too simplistic. The Spotlight Window lets you really take charge of your searches, even saving them to use again later. Here’s what you need to know to start with.

See Tune up Spotlight on your Mac for some important basic information about using and adjusting Spotlight.


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Set  the Spotlight Window keyboard shortcut in System Preferences - Spotlight.

Set the Spotlight Window keyboard shortcut in System Preferences – Spotlight.

Overview and quick instructions for the Spotlight Window

  1. Call up the Spotlight Window quickly with the keyboard shortcut as set in the Spotlight pane of System Preferences.
  2. Select criteria in the Search Bar.
  3. Sort results by clicking on column headers.
  4. Save searched for later use — they automatically update with any new files.
  5. Provided you check the Add to Sidebar checkbox saved searches are available in the bottom section of the Sidebar.

Call up the Spotlight Window quickly

If you click on the magnifying glass icon at the right-hand end of the Menu Bar on your Mac a blue search box appears. Type in something you want to find and as you type Spotlight displays possible results. That’s great for a quick search, but Spotlight also has a whole Window that gives you much more control over searching.

Set a keyboard shortcut to quickly call up the Spotlight Window:

  1. Open System Preferences.
  2. Click on the Spotlight pane in the top row. The Spotlight Preferences open up with 2 tabs: Search Results and Privacy.
  3. At the bottom of that window check the box Spotlight window keyboard shortcut and select the shortcut you want to use.
  4. Close the System Preferences window.

My screenshot shows a yellow Alert triangle that suggests my chosen shortcut conflicts with something else on my system. If you see such a triangle then choose a different keyboard shortcut.

Spotlight Window with refined search results.

Spotlight Window with refined search results.

Call up a Spotlight Window

Use your selected keyboard shortcut to call up a Spotlight Window.

Another way to do it is to open any Finder window and start to type a search in the Search Box at the top of the window. Both options have similar results. A Search Toolbar appears below the main Finder window Toolbar. The window’s main Toolbar and Sidebar may or may not be hidden, depending on how you called up the search.

Select where and what to search

The Spotlight Window has a search bar at the top where you enter the text to search for. Below that are some controls to restrict or refine the search.

To search on the whole of your Mac’s hard drive click the This Mac button. It turns dark to show you’ve selected it.

Alternatively click on the name for your Home Folder (mine is “miraz”) or the Shared folder to restrict the search to those areas.

To search inside files click the Contents button, but to restrict the search to file names click the File Name button instead.

For example: My screenshot shows me searching on the word logo. If I wanted only those files in my Home Folder whose name contained the word logo I would select the "miraz" and File Name buttons, as in my screenshot.

Sort the results

Once you have a window full of search results click on the header of any column to sort the results by that criterion.

For example, I could group all the images I found by kind by clicking the Kind heading. In the screenshot my results are sorted by Name.

Search an external drive

If you have an external drive and want to include it in your search, make sure it’s plugged in and turned on. Results from the drive will be included if you choose to search This Mac.

Save a search for future use.

Save a search for future use.

Save a search to use it again

If you often need to search for the same things, for example, all files in the Shared folder with budget in the File Name save the search.

To save a search press the Save button in the Search Toolbar. A standard Save dialog box appears.

Give your saved search a useful name then click the Save button. Make sure you check the box Add to Sidebar near the bottom of the Save dialog box.

I call up files from a saved search.

I call up files from a saved search.

Use a saved search

To use a saved search again call up a Finder window and make sure the Sidebar is visible. See Show the Finder Toolbar, Sidebar and Status Bar if you need help with that.

Expand the SEARCH FOR section in the Sidebar and click on your saved search. Relevant files are displayed, including any you’ve added since you saved the search.

More complex searches

In a future Tip I’ll explain how to create a complex and sophisticated search with more options. Another Tip will also explain how to edit, rename and remove a search that’s saved in the Sidebar.

Share your favourite Spotlight tips in the Comments at the website.

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