How would you feel if you found a way to search your entire Mac system for every single piece of data connected with a person — and in only the time it takes to type that person's name? We're not just talking about files and folders that might include that name, but every e-mail message and every iCal calendar or event that references that person and even that person's Address Book card to boot!
Well, you can do all this, right now. The technology is a new Mac OS X feature named Spotlight, built right into the Tiger operating system.
Spotlight explained: Invoking the magic of Spotlight is a snap. The Spotlight search field always hangs out on the right side of the Finder menu bar. You can either click once on the magnifying glass icon or just press F5. Either way, Tiger displays the Spotlight search box.
Spotlight works by indexing — in other words, searching for and keeping track of keywords within your files. In fact, Tiger indexes the contents of your iMac's hard drives into a huge file, which it constantly maintains while you create new files and modify existing files. Tiger can search this index file in a fraction of a second after you enter your search criteria. The index file contains all sorts of data, including quite a bit of information from inside various documents — hence Spotlight's ability to present matching data inside your files and application records.
When you first boot Tiger, it spends anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or two creating the Spotlight index file. If you click the Spotlight icon while indexing is taking place, you see a progress bar indicating how much longer you have to wait before you can use Spotlight. Creating this full index happens only once, so it's no great burden to bear.
You can search for any string of text characters in Spotlight, and you'll be surprised at everything this plucky feature will search. For example, Spotlight searches through your Address Book contacts, Mail messages, iCal calendars, iChat transcripts, and even System Preferences! Yep, you can even use it to find specific settings in all those System Preferences panes, like printer sharing or Dashboard. Of course, Spotlight includes matching files and folders — like that other operating system — but it does it in the blink of an eye.
Spotlight matches only those items that include all your search text: Therefore, if you enter just the word horse, you're likely to get far more matches than if you enter a word string, like horse show ticket.
If you add metadata to your documents (like the Comments field in a Word document or the keywords embedded in a Photoshop image), Spotlight can match that information as well. Other recognized file formats include AppleWorks documents, Excel spreadsheets, Keynote presentations, Pages documents, and third-party applications that offer a Spotlight plug-in.
Spotlight works so seamlessly — and so doggone fast — because it's literally built into the core of Tiger (unlike that other operating system that begins with a W, which uses a separate program to search and can take a couple of minutes to return just matching filenames). Spotlight's integration into the heart of Tiger allows those high-IQ Apple developers (and even smart folks outside the company) to easily use it elsewhere within Tiger.
Searching with Spotlight
To begin a Spotlight search, display the Spotlight box, click in it, and start typing. As soon as your finger presses the first key, you'll see matching items start to appear. (No need to press Return, by the way. This is all automatic from here on.) As you continue to type, Spotlight's results are updated in real time to reflect the new characters.
Spotlight displays what it considers the top 20 matching items within the Spotlight menu itself. These most relevant hits are arranged into categories like Documents, Images, and Folders. You can change the order in which categories appear (via the Spotlight pane within System Preferences).
Using internal magic, Spotlight presents the category Top Hit (with what it considers the single most relevant match) at the top of the search results. You'll find that the Top Hit is often just what you're looking for. To open or launch the Top Hit item from the keyboard, press cmd+Return.
Didn't find what you were after? Click the X icon that appears at the right side of the Spotlight box to reset the box and start over.
If all you know about the item you're searching for is what type of file it is — for example, you know it's a QuickTime movie, but you know nothing about the title — just use the file type, like movies, all by itself as the keyword in the Searchlight field. This trick also works with image files and audio files, too.
Here's another trick that's built into Spotlight: You can type in a relative time period — like yesterday, last week, or last month — and Spotlight matches every item that was created or received within that period. Pretty cool, huh?
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