Spotlight: Using the Finder Search Window

Use the Finder Search Window to Refine Spotlight Search Criteria

Sherlock Holmes with magnifying glass
Spotlight searches are more powerful when conducted in a Finder window. Sven Hagolani / Getty Images
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Spotlight, the system-wide search service in Mac OS X, is one of the easiest and quickest search systems available for the Mac. You can access Spotlight by clicking the ‘Spotlight’ icon (the magnifying glass) in the Apple menu bar, or by using the search box available in the top right corner of every Finder window.

When you're using the Finder's search box, you're actually still using the Spotlight search index your Mac creates, so the results won’t be any different from a standard Spotlight search.

However, there are advantages to searching from a Finder window, including more control over how the search is performed, and the ability to build complex search queries and add to your search phrase as you hone your search.

Finder Search Basics

The problem with using the Finder window search box is that its default behavior is to search your entire Mac. I prefer to use Finder search boxes to search the folder that is currently open in a Finder window, my thinking being that whatever it is I'm looking for, it's probably within the folder I already have open.

That's why the first thing I do is set the Finder search preferences to limit a search to the current folder. Don't worry if this option isn't to your liking; you can actually choose from three preferences, including searching your whole Mac. No matter how you want to begin your search, you can always reset the search field from within the Finder, as needed.

Set the Default Finder Search Field

Ever since the arrival of Snow Leopard (OS X 10.6), the Finder preferences included the ability to define the default Spotlight search field.

Setting the Finder’s Search Box Preferences

  1. Click the ‘Finder’ icon in the Dock. The ‘Finder’ icon is usually the first icon on the left side of the Dock.
  1. From the Apple menu, select ‘Finder, Preferences.’
  2. Click the ‘Advanced’ icon in the Finder Preferences window.
  3. Use the dropdown menu to select the default action when performing a search. The options are:
  • Search This Mac. This option uses Spotlight to perform a search of your entire Mac. This is the same as using the ‘Spotlight’ icon in the Mac’s Apple menu bar.
  • Search the Current Folder. This option restricts the search to the folder currently in view in the Finder window, and all of its sub-folders.
  • Use the Previous Search Scope. This option tells Spotlight to use whatever search parameters were set the last time a Spotlight search was conducted.

Make your selection and then close the Finder Preferences window.

The next search you perform from a Finder search box will use the parameters you just set in Finder Preferences.

Jump From a Spotlight Search to a Finder Search

You don't have to start your searches from within a Finder window to take advantage of the Finder search's added benefits. You can start your search from the normal Spotlight menu bar item.

I tend to do this a lot; I start a search using the Spotlight in the menu bar, thinking the search should only produce a handful of results, but instead, discover that it's producing dozens of results, making it difficult to view and sort through the results in the standard Spotlight search pane.

By moving the search results from the Spotlight sheet to the Finder, you can better manipulate the results to narrow down the search.

With the Spotlight results sheet visible, scroll to the bottom of the sheet.

Select the Show all in Finder option by double-clicking the item.

The Finder will open a window with the current search phrase and the search results displayed in the Finder window.

Finder Search Window

The Finder search window allows you to add and refine the search criteria. You can override the default search field you set in the first part of this article by simply clicking on the first search criteria entry, Search: This Mac, Folder, Shared.

  • This Mac: This will search your entire Mac.
  • Folder: This will be the name of the folder that was open in the Finder before you used Spotlight. If no Finder window was open, it will display the Desktop folder. Selecting this item will narrow the search field to the specific folder.
  • Shared: This entry will narrow the search to any shared folder or drives you have mounted on your Mac.

Adding Search Criteria

You can add additional search criteria, such as date last opened, creation date, or kind of file. The number and types of additional search criteria you can add is one of the reasons the Finder-based search is so powerful.

You can find out more about adding search criteria in the article:

Restore Smart Searches to OS X Finder's Sidebar

Don't be put off by the name of the article; it covers how to use multiple search criteria in a Finder search window. It also shows how you can turn static search results into a smart search that is always being updated as you work on your Mac.